Going back to school means the relaxed, lazy days of summer are about to give way to packed schedules, homework, after-school activities, and -- toughest of all -- waking the kids up early. The change of pace can be a jolt to the whole family.
So, how, after months of sleeping late, do you get the kids used to earlier wake-up times without creating household chaos first thing in the morning? Here are five tips to get your kids out of bed and off to school.
1. Start Planning Early.
Family psychologist David Swanson, author of HELP-- My Kid is Driving Me Crazy, says it’s important to recognize that transitioning from the relaxed schedule of summer to the structure of the school year is a process. “Parents make the mistake of waiting until the last minute,” Swanson says. And if you wait until the night before school starts to get the kids to bed early, you can't expect a smooth morning.
Start preparing your kids at least a week before school starts. Jill Spivack, LCSW, co-author of The Sleepeasy Solution, The Exhausted Parent’s Guide to Getting Your Child to Sleep, advises calling a family meeting to establish a new sleep schedule and get everyone on board.
“You have to sit with kids and explain the value of sleep,” Spivack says. “We want them to understand sleep nutrition is as important as food nutrition and that a lack of sleep can have major consequences.”
Many studies have shown that a lack of sleep can hamper physical and mental health. Tweens and teens aged 11-17 operating on too little sleep have shown an increase in anxiety, depression, and physical pain. School performance often declines too. A study of fourth- and sixth-grade students showed that after losing about one hour of sleep over several nights, students performed worse on a test that predicts their ability to pay attention in class.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, kids aged 5-12 need 10 to 11 hours of sleep each night. Children aged 10-18 need a little less -- 8.5 to 9.5 hours per night. But most kids don't get enough sleep.
You can show your kids that you know – and care -- that getting back into a routine may not be fun. But also let them know that the schedule change is meant to help them feel good when they are at school. “It comes from a place of love and education about the importance of sleep, and not control,” Spivack says.
2. Look Beyond Bedtime.
“If we approach sleep appropriately," Swanson says, "we look at a kid’s whole day. If you want your kids back to sleep on time, have dinner at a set time and limit the computer, TV, and video game time,” he says. “You’re not just trying to get them back to bed, but into a routine.”
Many parents expect teens will give them a hard time about a cell phone or computer curfew. Swanson suggests talking with them about privileges and consequences. He suggests a script along the lines of, “We’ve given you the privilege of having a cell phone, handheld games, etc., and we’ve entrusted you with them. If you can show us that you can stick to this transition, great. But if you are using them after bedtime, you’re showing us you can’t manage it and we need to help you.” Swanson says you can help by being prepared to take the items away if your child can’t stick to the plan.
Spivack also urges parents to avoid days that are too full. ”Kids can’t be scheduled every minute of their lives and be relaxed. Watch out for overscheduling and buying into competitive parenting. Make time for them to have a good bedtime. Chill time is more valuable than another class,” Spivack says.
3. Get Back to the Routine.
After months of staying up late, you can’t go to bed earlier before you begin waking up earlier, Spivack says. So, at least a week before summer vacation ends, start setting the alarm clocks.
Begin with a wake up time that is about an hour earlier than usual. For example, if your 6-year-old goes to bed at 9 p.m. during the summer and needs to get back to an 8 p.m. bedtime for school, begin by waking her up at 7 a.m. instead of letting her sleep until 8. Then try inching her bedtime back the next night to 8:30 p.m. On day two, wake her up at 6:30 a.m. and aim for an 8 p.m. bedtime.
Spivack says, “If you do it day after day and start your wind-down routine after dinner and everything is calming, technology is turned off, and you head into their rooms to give them a little more mom and dad time, that helps them wind down and get to sleep earlier.”
And take a little help from the sun. “Light regulates your body clock," Spivack says. "If you leave the blinds open, the morning light that comes in will [naturally] start to shift the kids’ wake-up time.”
4. A Little Bribery Never Hurts.
Who doesn’t love a shopping spree? Kids of all ages, and even teens, look forward to buying new clothes, backpacks, and school supplies. You can use this to motivate kids to get on a sleep schedule.
Swanson says to let them know that as soon as they get back on routine, you and they will go get the school supplies. And when you do, you may even splurge, but only if they get on track.
Beyond that, Swanson advises tuning into the things that are really important to your child and using them as leverage. “What is your child’s currency?" Swanson asks. "Video games, his cell phone, shopping? Find a way to give him what he’s after as long as he goes along with the plan.”
What if your child won’t get with the program and won't shut down the technology?
"If your kid refuses to go to bed, you might say something like, ‘I’m really wanting us to get back on track. I’m not looking forward to getting up early either. But I think video games are getting in the way and are amping you up. Do this or lose the game.’”
5. Make Morning Time Work.
Spivack and Swanson both say that clearly establishing expectations for your child is critical.
Lisa Joyner is a television producer and host, as well as a mom of 10-year-old and 11-month-old sons. As the self-described task master in her home, she’s had to search for ways of turning the morning rush into a well-oiled routine. “He really needs structure and to know what is expected of him,” she says of her 10-year-old. “When he’s given the guidelines, he’s good.”
Joyner has made it clear that on school mornings, her stepson has a set of specific tasks to complete. “Once he’s up and makes his bed, has breakfast, and is dressed, he can play video games,” Joyner says.
One thing Joyner does to make it easier on her child is to do some of the morning's work the night before. “We set out his clothes at night so when he wakes up it’s easier for him and he can avoid having to figure out what to wear in the morning,” Joyner says. And don’t forget that positive feedback goes a long way with kids. “He wants to please,” Joyner says. "He knows it brings me such joy when I don’t have to rouse him out of bed for 45 minutes or remind him to do what has to be done.” When he does well, she gives him a high five.
Once your kids successfully make it out the door to school, give yourself a high five, too.