It’s late on a sunny August morning and my two eldest kids have just rolled out of bed into the pile of Lego they call a bedroom floor and immediately set to work building their latest contraption. They’ll eventually make their way downstairs to say how hungry they are and proceed to have three breakfasts, followed by a day of playing in the backyard, hanging out at the park, and haranguing me for snacks (and new Lego sets).
But these relaxed summer days are about to give way to crisp fall mornings, early wake-ups, and packing lunchboxes on autopilot. To be honest, I’m here for both vibes, and as much as I love summer, I am usually ready for more structure and routine come fall.
My kids don’t agree. Waking them early and getting them to do things they don’t want to do (like brushing their teeth and putting on clothes) are surprisingly difficult tasks that require both stamina and patience.
But I have found a few tools and tricks leading up to that first week of school that have helped make the transition a little more smooth for our family.
In the week leading up to school:
Gently introduce the idea of early rising
I like to keep this simple. I might pop into their room a bit earlier than they usually wake up and just open the blinds, then leave their bedroom door open so the sunlight and hustle and bustle of the house wakes them up. I go in a little earlier each day until we’ve reached the inevitable day where they actually have to get up on time.
Go for a morning walk right after breakfast
This idea works two ways. One: It introduces sunlight earlier in the day (letting their bodies know it’s morning!) so they can adjust to that start time for their day. Two: It helps them get into the habit of getting out the door early for the upcoming morning walk/bike/commute to school.
Move dinner up (and eat it at the same time every day)
Summer dinners are often a casual affair, eaten at wildly varying times depending on what adventure they’ve been on that day. Now’s the time to make them a little more predictable. If you typically eat at 6 p.m. during the school year, try to get reacquainted with a regular dinnertime (and therefore earlier bedtime).
Have a chat about the upcoming schedule change
Nothing is quite as simple and effective as communication. I let my kids know that there are (for example) five sleeps until school and that I’m going to help them adjust to this change by waking them up a bit earlier each day, eating dinner earlier, and heading to bed a bit earlier.
The night before school:
Lay out tomorrow’s clothes and pack their backpack with them
When a new schedule is starting, I like to do as much as possible in advance so there are minimal surprises on the morning school starts. Laying out an outfit gives my kids a sense of control over their new routine, and packing their bag can help them feel prepared (even if they don’t really need all that stuff on their first day).
Ask what they want in their lunch box
Talk about lunch options for the next day and instead of packing something Pinterest-worthy, stick to foods that are comforting and easy to eat. My kids appreciate some predictability and ease when a new schedule starts, and knowing they’ll have some favourite lunch options helps them with the other big changes (new grade, new class, new routine)!
The morning of school:
Use a visual timer to help make the abstract concept of “time” more concrete
Especially for younger kids who don’t really know what “We have five minutes to get out the door!” actually means, they will appreciate seeing time visually represented. Visual timers use contrasting colours to show time elapsing, and give kids a sense of how much time they actually have. I like to use them all morning. I’ll set it for 10 minutes and say “This is how much time you have to get dressed.” Then I’ll set it for 15 minutes and say “This is how much time you have to eat.” Etc. It really helps keep my kids on track and saves me from repeating much-maligned phrases like “Hurry up! We don’t have time! Did you brush your teeth yet? Get your shoes on!!!”
Stay positive and send them off with a smile
Because I personally find transitions hard and emotional, some of my bigger feelings tend to pop up during changes. I love having my kids home for the summer and I get a wee bit melancholy when it’s time to send them off. I know it’s normal for their emotions to also feel big during transition periods. I use this as an opportunity to acknowledge that things are hard. I often say something like “Starting a new schedule can feel tiring. I remember my first day of work at my new job (for example). It took me a while to feel comfortable with my new routine.” I find that dismissing their feelings isn’t helpful and some acknowledgement (without dwelling on the negative too much) goes a long way to helping them understand that any transition isn’t permanent.