Parents quickly learn this equation every school year: New ideas + new skills + new routines = a tired and cranky child.
My oldest son was so exhausted every day after his first week of preschool last month that I thought he had a virus. Then I saw a storm of tweets and Facebook posts from other parents in similar situations. There were stories about kindergarteners suddenly becoming holy terrors every day at school pick-up, teenagers eating the contents of the refrigerator and then passing out, and elementary students reverting to their toddler bedtime. I realized my son wasn't sick; he was learning.
His brain was working so hard on his new skills and routines that there was no extra room for anything else. It's the same reason babies experience sleep regressions when they're learning a new developmental skill, or why my 2-year-old is extra stubborn as he wraps his head around potty-training. Adults experience this, too. Have you ever managed to control your temper during a truly awful day at work, only to snap at your family once you got home? Now, imagine you're a 4-year-old learning how to follow classroom rules, or a 12-year-old encountering algebra for the first time. Or, worst of all, a 16-year-old facing the looming pressure of college requirements, as well as the daily gauntlet of high-school halls.
It's no wonder our kids come home exhausted and cranky.
So, how can we help them? Each child is different. Some might need a quick after-school snack to re-energize them for the evening. Others might need a nap or quiet time on their own. Here are five things to try to get your little learner on a more even keel.
Get them to bed
For little ones, nudge their bedtimes back 15 to 30 minutes earlier than normal. The evening onslaught of dinner, homework, bath, and family time can be brutal, but pare it down to the essentials and make getting to bed a priority. If an early bedtime is impossible for older kids, set a lights-out time after which they have to be screen-free and focusing on quiet activities. Kids need downtime to recharge their brains and bodies.
I can always tell when my sons are growing or about to bust out a new skill, because they eat like pigs! Children are growing, and growing bodies need fuel. With their perpetually-moving bodies, my boys certainly seem to burn up calories far faster than I do in my more static adult routine. Keep food options plentiful, but healthy. Be prepared with an after-school snack, like nuts, cheese and crackers, fruit, or popcorn, and make sure your kids eat some sort of protein with breakfast before heading to school.
Make them move
After eight hours in a classroom, many kids need to run and wriggle and shake the sillies out, as the song goes. Take a walk. Send them out to play in the yard. Draw a hopscotch board on the sidewalk. Play ''Red Light, Green Light'' across the kitchen with you shouting directions as you make dinner. Make them rake the leaves. Send them on a nature hunt. Have them throw the Frisbee for the dog. Just get them off their bottoms and out of their heads for a bit.
Keep them on track
Every year is a new routine. For older kids, every class might be a new routine. Then, there's a constant barrage of new facts and skills. Make sure your home routine is a constant. Create after-school rituals--a quick game of toss with the dog, then homework while Mom fixes dinner, maybe--to ease them out of their funk. Set rules and follow them. Give your kids jobs and expect them to do them. You want your children to know exactly where they stand and what to expect in their home, so it's a safe place for them to test limits. Be kind, but firm when they inevitably try to stretch the limits. I might offer my cranky, tired preschooler a snack, but I certainly am not going to allow him to hit his brother.
Leave them alone
Finally, know their limits. Everyone has experienced the kind of day that leaves you feeling mentally and physically empty. If you feel like your child has hit that point, be patient and give him time to recoup on his own. Some kids might need a quick snuggle with you, but others--especially older kids--might want some time to just be. Let them have some mindless TV or a half-hour to listen to music alone in their room. Trust that you've given them the tools to handle this and then let them.
How do you help your kids get adjusted to the new school year? What's worked for your family?
Hillary Copsey is a newspaper features editor in Florida with experience writing about everything from population trends to health-care issues. As the mother of two boys, she also is versed in searching for daycares, cooking healthy dinners on the fly and playing with trucks. She co-writes the blog Not raising brats. She writes about parenting for dailySpark and BabyFit.com.
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