Parents: It’s Time for A “Back In School” Reality Check

School is now in full swing, the “honeymoon period” is over and studies say kid stress is mounting. This is the time to check in on how your child is doing and nip any problems in the bud.

checking inAccording to a poll from the University of Michigan, childhood stress is a top-5 concern for parents, ahead of bullying and just behind Internet safety. And 56% of parents believe the stress levels are getting worse, especially during the school year.  One thing is true: stressed-out children have a tougher time focusing on the teacher’s lessons and enjoying as well as succeeding in school Here are a few tips to help your kids manage those busy schedules and keep stress levels in check.

Set up a “30-day check in” Just like when you start a new job, parents should sit down with their kids each month to take stock and see if there are any problem areas. This way you can discover problems like overscheduling or bullies and nip them in the bud before they get out of hand. Here are the top kid stressors to check in on:

  • Overscheduled: This is the time to check your child’s calendar to see if it is overscheduled. Does he really need to do everything that is listed? Is one of those activities boosting instead of reducing stress? Can you cut one thing? Ask him!
  • Homework: Get to that open house and be sure to ask about the teacher’s homework policy. How much does she expect kids to do each night? Is your child keeping up?
  • Grades: Review those first test scores and grades on perhaps the first essay or book report. If there is a problem, check in with the teacher. Is your child in the right ability groups? Do you need to hire the high school student next door as a tutor? If the struggle is lasting and your child just doesn’t get it, your son or daughter might need a referral for a Individual Education Plan.
  • Social jungle: Bullies, mean girls and aggressive kids are unfortunately part of the school scene. How is your kid faring? For a quick gauge ask him to draw a map of the cafeteria: “Where do you sit? Who sits near you?” (The cafeteria is often a place where kids are most likely to be rejected. Does your child have social support?) Ask your younger child to draw the playground: “Where do you usually play? Who plays with you?” Every child needs at least one loyal buddy. If your child lacks one, then it’s time to boost friendship making skills and extend those pal invites to your home.

Tune into stress signs. Each kid responds differently, but the key is to identify your child’s physical behavioral or emotions signs before he is on overload. A clue is to look for behaviors that are not typical for your child.

Physical Kid Stress Signs

  • Headache, neck aches and backaches
  • Nausea, diarrhea, constipation, stomachache, vomiting
  • Shaky hands, sweaty palms, feeling shaky, lightheadedness
  • Bedwetting
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares
  • Change in appetite
  • Stuttering
  • Frequent colds, fatigue

Emotional or Behavior Kid Stress Signs

  • New or reoccurring fears; anxiety and worries
  • Trouble concentrating; frequent daydreaming
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Social withdrawal, unwilling to participate in school or family activities
  • Moodiness; sulking; or inability to control emotions
  • Nail biting; hair twirling; thumb-sucking; fist clenching; feet tapping
  • Acting out, anger, aggressive behaviors such as tantrums, disorderly conduct
  • Regression or baby-like behaviors
  • Excessive whining or crying
  • Clinging, more dependent, won’t let you out of sight, withdrawal

Try to handwrite notes and reminders – Parents and kids are communicating more and more via text message and email, so slow down and take a minute to write a quick note like “Good luck on your test” or “Dentist appointment at 4:00” and put it in their bag. Kids don’t admit it, but they love this special attention and it helps them feel more relaxed during a busy day.

Reduce after-school stress. After-school stress is a big issue for kids and they need some downtime to help them relax. At the same time, you don’t want them to just zone out completely. The trick is finding alone-time activities that help them relax a few minutes and release some of that stress, but are also fun AND keep their minds engaged. Most kids don’t need more than a few minutes of a stress reducer, but the key is finding what works for your child and then turn that stress reducer into a routine so the child does the same brief relaxer everyday. Research shows your child will then be able to focus more on that homework and acquire a lifelong habit.

  • For the tween and teen kids – the newspaper is a great multi-purpose tool. Most newspapers are written around a 9th grade level (USA Today is at a 5th grade level), and just reading the paper every day can help spark that love of reading and learning. (YES!) There’s something for everyone – a crossword to build vocabulary skills, the kids section has games and brain teasers, and calculating stats in the sports section can even help with math skills. The trick here is to find the one section that you think might spark your kid’s interest (even the comics) and then put it right by a healthy snack. Circle an article that you think your teen might enjoy (from Lindsay Lohan or a movie review) and you can use that as conversation bridger to how things are going in your kid’s real world.
  • While the younger kids don’t have quite as much stress, they still can find fun ways to relax and brush up on the new skills they are learning. My favorite game that kids will also love is VTech’s MobiGo, a new educational gaming system for kids ages 3-8. It combines touch screen technology with important early learning skills like math and vocabulary. Kids can swipe, drag and tap, just like Mom and Dad do on their electronic devices. The great part is that it is hand-held so you the child can use it anywhere–in the carpool while waiting for brother or on the couch. Parents can plug it into the computer and visit www.vtechkids.com/download to download progress reports for their kids, along with all kinds of games, themes and other content.

Get them to talk up about their day. Of course, you want to stay connected with your kid, but there is an art to getting kids to open up so they will be more likely to tell you about their day. Doing so will help you weigh how your kid is handling stress.Here are a few secrets to the never-ending battle of “How was your day?” and getting beyond, “FINE!”

  • Wait! The time kids are most stressed is the moment they walk in the door. So don’t push the “how was your day?” inquiry. In fact, teens say they hate that question. “It’s predictable. She’s going to ask, ‘How was your day?’ Instead, a simple, “Looks like you could use a snack and a minute to unwind. Glad your home” works best.
  • Use your kid’s time zone. Identify the time your kid is most receptive to chatting. With one of my sons I discovered it was around five o’clock in the afternoon by the refrigerator, and that’s where I’d plant myself.
  • Don’t ask questions that kids can answer with “yes,” “no,” or “fine.” If you ask “what did you do after lunch?” is more likely to get a response other than yes or no. To help you find a conversation topic about what’s going on at school, check the school website or the school/teacher newsletter. Your kids may be more likely to engage in the conversation: “Wow, the next football game is going to be tough! Do you think your school has a chance?”
  • Talk while doing. Boys in particular are more likely to open up when they are doing something. So trying talking while he’s stirring up a smoothie, shooting hoops or playing lego’s.
  • Start a family ritual to connect. It used to be family dinners, but busy schedules are making that a rarity. It doesn’t have to be elaborate – get the kids magazine subscriptions that math their interests. You can read the articles and engage them on topics they are excited about over a snack. Or set up a time from 8:00 pm where everyone in the family stops and meets in the kitchen for a backrub, a healthy snack or a check-in. The key is find a time that works for you and then turn it into a routine.

If you notice a concerning change in your child that is not typical and lasts, then don’t wait. Call for an appointment with the teacher. Check with other caregivers in your child’s life. Stress builds and is damaging to our children’s academic success, as well as emotional and physical health.

Now is the best time to take a reality check on your child.

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Dr Borba’s book The Big Book of Parenting Solutions: 101 Answers to Your Everyday Challenges and Wildest Worries, is one of the most comprehensive parenting book for kids 3 to 13. This down-to-earth guide offers advice for dealing with children’s difficult behavior and hot button issues including biting, tantrums, cheating, bad friends, inappropriate clothing, sex, drugs, peer pressure and much more. Each of the 101 challenging parenting issues includes specific step-by-step solutions and practical advice that is age appropriate based on the latest research. The Big Book of Parenting Solutions has been released and is now available at amazon.com

About the Author

Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an internationally renowned consultant, educational psychologist and recipient of the National Educator Award who has presented workshops to over a million participants worldwide. She is a recognized expert in parenting, bullying, youth violence, and character development and author of 22 books including her upcoming release, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About Me World. She has appeared over 130 times on the TODAY show and is a frequent expert on national media including Dateline, The View, Dr. Oz, Anderson Cooper, CNN, Dr. Drew, and Dr. Phil. Visit her daily blog on www.micheleborba.com, or follow her on twitter @micheleborba.Dr. Borba is a member of the PedSafe Expert team

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