Re-Establishing Your Child’s Routine After Vacation

Many families take advantage of school and child-care center breaks and closures as opportunities to spend time bonding, relaxing, vacationing, and taking trips to visit extended family. During these times, family routines may change, house rules could ease, and unstructured activities may become the norm. After days or weeks of excitement (or complaints of boredom) and altered day-to-day habits, your children may find it difficult  to transition to their post-break routine. Transitioning may also be more problematic for children who experience developmental, behavioral, or emotional challenges. While many children are generally flexible and can adapt to different situations, everyone needs time to adjust. Here are some strategies to consider that may help make your child’s transition easier.

Talk to your child about expectations for getting back to school or child care

Focus on positive aspects of going back to school or the early childhood education center (e.g. playing with friends, spending time with their favorite teacher, wearing a new outfit). Explain their drop-off and pick-up arrangements to them. Remind your child about any after-school plans that are in place (e.g., after-school programs, at-home routine, parent availability).

Discuss your child’s worries and concerns

Ask your child about what, if any, aspects of their return are causing fear and stress for them. Remind them that many people experience nervousness about their return to school or child care and their routine will begin to feel normal again soon. Offer your child support and problem solve strategies together to overcome their concerns.

Reassure your child that they will be safe and protected

Let your child know that their teacher(s) understand that transitioning back to school or child care can be challenging or may cause anxiety for them. Assure your child that they can trust their teacher and their teacher will work to ensure they are as comfortable as possible. Also, consider communicating your child’s specific needs with their teachers or other school personnel.

Create a back-to-school checklist

Prior to your child’s return, identify and create a list of all tasks that you and your child will need to complete to prepare for their return to school or child care (e.g., clothing, books, hairstyling, nutritional needs). You may also want to create a separate list that details specific items that need to be added to your child’s backpack for school or child care.

Start a predictable routine with sleep times

A few days or weeks in advance, help your child adjust to their appropriate sleep and wake times. If your bedtime routine has been altered and children are going to bed later and/or waking later, encourage your child to go to bed at an earlier time each night, and progressively wake your child earlier each morning until you have reached the desired sleep/wake-up intervals. You may access the American Academy of Pediatrics sleep recommendations for children at https://publications.aap.org/aapnews/news/6630/AAP-endorses-new-recommendations-on-sleep-times?autologincheck=redirected.

Schedule regular meals and snacks for your child

When your child is awake, you may want to ensure they eat healthy meals and snacks at regular times throughout the day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children eat three meals and two healthy snacks per day. The 5210 Healthy Children website (https://5210.psu.edu/) offers suggestions for meal and snack options to support increasing families’ fruit and vegetable intake to five or more servings per day.

Manage activities and media use on days prior to the return

Engage in physical activity for at least 1 hour throughout the day. Physical activities can include walking, running, biking, engaging in sports, playing at the playground, practicing yoga, or doing sit-ups. Also, practice reading, writing, math, and other activities with your child for mental stimulation. Lastly, reduce your child’s screen time, and ensure they are screen-free at least 1 hour before bed. Recommendations and tips for incorporating these behaviors in your daily routine can be found at https://5210.psu.edu/.

Use a visual aid or routine chart

Have a visual aid to help countdown the days before the return to school or child care. For example, by using a calendar, you can document additional breaks that are upcoming and extracurricular activities or performances that have been scheduled. You can also display your family’s daily routine and expectations, including specific household tasks your child may need to complete and when.

Practice the route with your child

Whether your child rides with you, carpools with a friend, bikes, or walks to school or their child care facility, rehearse the route with them at their regular times. Doing this could help to ensure your child is comfortable when school or child care reopens, to note any safety precautions they should consider, and to remind them of the common rules of the road.

Write down need-to-know information

To help remind your child about important details regarding their school or child care routine (or to communicate important information to school personnel), consider making a list of pertinent information for your child and placing it in their backpack. The information could be emergency contact details, medication administration times, their bus driver’s name and bus number, lunch times, or school start and end times.

Organize supplies and clothes the night before

To keep your family on track and create a more focused morning routine, arrange your child’s supplies in their backpacks the night before, and set their backpacks by the door. Encourage your child to choose an outfit to wear for their first day back and place their clothes in their bedrooms to foster a sense of autonomy and self-expression for your child. You may also consider prepping their snacks and school lunch at this time.

Initiate a buddy system, if necessary and appropriate

Consider connecting with another family or neighbor so your child can develop a connection on the walk or ride to school. This can help make the transition smoother for your child after they arrive at school.

Find opportunities for relaxation

The structured learning and activity at schools and child care centers can lead to mental and physical fatigue for many children. As your family prepares to transition into your post-vacation learning and activity routine, ensure your child has space to unwind when necessary, and support them in exploring and learning ways to practice self-care.

Note: As with many endeavors, children may find the return to school or child care to be unsettling. However, if you are concerned that your child’s symptoms go beyond common back-to-school jitters (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, nervousness, separation anxiety), consider speaking with your child’s healthcare provider, counselor, or teacher for resources and support.

Additional Resources

Visit the 5210 Healthy Children site at https://5210.psu.edu/ for ideas on how you can support your child’s physical health, nutrition, and development.

Breathe to Thrive can help you identify strategies to decrease stress and anxiety related to the return to school and child care. https://thrive.psu.edu/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Breathe-to-THRIVE.pdf

To get started with identifying back-to-school necessities, consider looking at Healthychildren.org’s Checklist for the First Day of School at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/school/Pages/Checklist-for-the-First-Day-of-School.aspx

Healthychildren.org also has some resources to help manage your child’s anxiety at https://www.healthychildren.org/English/family-life/family-dynamics/Pages/help-your-child-manage-fears-and-anxieties.aspx

The American Academy of Pediatrics has 12 Tips to Prepare for the Return to School at https://www.aap.org/en/news-room/news-releases/health–safety-tips/american-academy-of-pediatrics-12-tips-to-prepare-for-the-return-to-school/

The Thrive Professional Resource has a sample morning and bedtime routine chart to help identify daily tasks your family can complete as your child transitions to school or child care. Request access to the resource at https://thrive.psu.edu/resources/professional-resource/

View the Thrive Mini-Booster Modules to learn strategies for establishing routines with your pre-school aged child at https://thrive.psu.edu/modules/mini-boosters/

Books:

Brightly offers an expansive reading list of books that can help your child get ready for school and child care – See 20 Books to Help Kids Get Ready for the New School Year at https://www.readbrightly.com/books-get-kids-ready-school/

Videos:

The Mayo Clinic provides expert tips for getting into a back-to-school or child-care routine from a child psychologist at https://newsnetwork.mayoclinic.org/discussion/mayo-clinic-minute-building-a-back-to-school-routine/

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023, March 8). Helping children transition back to school. https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/features/COVID-19-helping-children-transition-back-to-school.html

God, B. J. (2023, October 11). 6 ways parents can help kids establish healthy back to school habits. MedStar Health. https://www.medstarhealth.org/blog/kids-healthy-habits

Healthychildren.org. (2023, August 11). 5 ways to help your kids have a healthy school year.https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/teen/school/Pages/back-to-school-tips-to-help-kids-have-a-healthy-year.aspx

Healthychildren.org. (2023, August 23). Back-to-school tips for families. https://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/gradeschool/school/Pages/back-to-school-tips.aspx

Hoffses, K. (2022, August). Back to school. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/back-school.html

The Psych Professionals. (n.d.). How to re-establish a school routine after the holidays.https://psychprofessionals.com.au/re-establish-school-routine-holidays/

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