Beat the Back to School Power Struggle in 30 Days (The Secret? Start Now!)

by James Lehman, MSW
Beat the Back to School Power Struggle in 30 Days (The Secret? Start Now!)

I’ve worked with many parents and children caught up in power struggles in the home—they argued over bedtime, homework, curfew, video game time—you name it, they fought over it. And the more these parents fought with their children, the better at arguing and manipulating situations their children seemed to get. Mothers and fathers came to me exhausted, frustrated and desperate to stop the constant tug-of-war going on in their homes. Toward the end of every summer, I could be sure to hear from parents who were worried about getting their children back into the school routine, and many were anxious that any ground they’d gained the year before had been lost over summer break—which I believe is a very valid concern.

It's a big waste of time and energy to spend September working out the problems you’ve already solved last year.

Often, the time off that kids have from school in the  summer time is a period where they get out of the routine of going to school full time, as well as the habit of taking care of all their other family and social responsibilities. When school starts again—with many parents trying to get kids back into their schedules the week classes begin—it often results in a power struggle. It really is a big waste of time and energy to spend September working out the problems you’ve already solved last year. Here are some suggestions on how to avoid those power struggles—or at least, how to work through them effectively.

Back-to-School Routine: Start the Daily Schedule Now: Start the school schedule a month ahead of time. Write out the schedule on a piece of paper. Using that as a guideline, list the time your child will get up, have breakfast, leave for school, and what time they’ll get home, have dinner, do homework, have free time, and go to bed. Then begin by slowly implementing that schedule 30 days before they start school. For children with ODD, Attention Deficit Disorder, and other behavioral issues, implementing a plan is a must, although they may be resistant. It’s important to stress that if your child has these kind of behavioral issues, getting into this routine may very well reduce their stress and anxiety, even if their initial reaction to it is negative.

Get Them in the Habit of Waking up on Time: 30 days before school starts, at least once a week, have your child set their alarm clock and get up at the regular school wake-up time. If you can, make it a special morning. Maybe take an early outing, or have a pancake breakfast, or arrange a board game tournament. While using the outing or breakfast as the reward for getting up, make sure they understand that getting up as practice for school is what is being rewarded. 

It’s important for kids to know that when something’s important to you as a parent, you want it to be practiced and rehearsed. There’s a difference between something being important to you as a parent and kids knowing that something’s important to you as parent. Raising their level of awareness is often crucial for them to learn your values and what you consider good or wrong.

Each week as school gets closer, increase the morning routine to two days a week, three days a week, and then four days a week during the week before school begins. Needless to say, you won’t be able to make all of these mornings special, but perhaps you can take one day a week to recognize your child’s progress in a special way.

Get in the Bedtime Routine, too: Several weeks before school begins, start implementing the evening schedule in its entirety each evening, except on weekends for school-aged children. Replace homework time with reading, game playing, videos, or computer time. And by computer, I don’t mean computer games or instant messaging. The goal is for your child to adjust to a certain time period every night which is not characterized by over-stimulation and excitement. Be certain that you implement bedtime in particular, as this becomes a big sticking point at the beginning of the school year. During the summer, your kids have gotten out of the habit of going to bed at a regular time. Be forewarned that this transition may be very difficult for adolescents.

•    Use Bedtime Tools: I always recommend that parents get kids technical wake-up tools such as alarm clocks. I think you can start using one when your child goes to pre-school or even daycare, if he or she goes for a half or whole day. Be sure to pick one that has an alarm which is not startling (which will actually raise the child’s level of anxiety) but will still manage to get your child’s attention. In the evening, show them how to set the clock. And in the morning when the clock goes off, if you still have to wake them up, have them get out of bed and shut it off themselves. So what I’m suggesting for parents of younger children is that you show your child how to set the alarm clock at night. Then, the next morning after the alarm rings, you go in to wake your child up. Once your child is awake, have them get up and turn off the alarm. (Do not teach kids how to set the snooze control!) This way, children are working with an alarm long before they have the capability of using it exclusively as a wake-up tool. Of course, if your child is anywhere from a third grader up to a high schooler, the learning process where you wake your child up after the alarm goes off should be shortened. For younger kids, you should go in and wake them yourself for two weeks after the alarm goes off, and for high schoolers, do it for just three days. After that, your child should be held responsible for getting up with the alarm and held accountable if they don’t. That being said, kids of any age need to be checked in on during their morning routine to make sure they’re staying on task and not distracted by something else.

Although a lot of resistance can be expected from children, it’s better to deal with it before the pressure of the school schedule routine actually occurs. As parents, we can’t always choose what kids are going to be resistant or reactive about. But It’s more convenient for us if we can choose the time when that reactivity occurs. For instance, if we know a child is going to react negatively to something we have to say, we shouldn’t tell them at the mall, we should tell them when we get home. If you can, try to choose the time they’re going to be resistant or reactive.

I hope these suggestions are helpful to you as your child starts the school year. I have found that easing your child into the back-to-school schedule helps to make it a less stressful, smoother transition for everyone—and a good way to start the school year off on the right foot.

Note to Empowering Parents readers from the editor: Are you going to start your child’s back to school schedule early? Let us know what how it works for you. And, if you have ideas for future articles on the power struggles you’ve experienced with your children, please email them to


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


We began the back to school schedule tonight! The boy who usually gets up every night to go to the bathroom and hour after we put him to bed, has just done it for the first time in weeks. It's definitely psychological with him. They've been going to bed between 9pm and 10pm for most of the holidays anyway, and usually they read a half hour or an hour before lights out. Tonight, just because we said, right back to school routine, he responds by getting up for the bathroom exactly 1 1/2 hours after getting into bed! Amazing! I also find that even if you begin waking them earlier first they become so tired after a few days that they go to bed earlier quite happily anyway!

Comment By : khar59

This is great information. You have answered many of my questions with your informative articles. Thank you!!!

Comment By : Marcy F.

Great, basic information. Thank you.

Comment By : ociana

I believe the article is very informative but how on earth do you get an 11 year old to go to bed early enough to wake up at 6:30 when it doesn't get dark until after 9 each night???

Comment By : Stephanie

It just makes me want to cry... try getting a sixteen year old that sneaks out of the house at night for the entire night to 'go to bed at a reasonable hour and get up before 2 pm the next day'. I can't physically make her do anything and believe me she knows that.

Comment By : loveit

Stephanie, are you telling me that when school starts in 2 weeks that it will be dark outside? I know what you mean, but if you've always done it, then it's not extraordinary. My kids are going to turn 13yrs old in September and they are in bed on school nights by 8.30pm and reading. They honestly never mention how light it is, they haven't thought of it yet I suppose!

Comment By : khar59

Stephanie, I put my 12 year old twins to bed and let them read for awhile with the lights on. This puts them in a relaxed frame of mind, and then they're ready for sleep when it's time for lights out. It works really well because I use reading time as a consequence--they can read from 8:00-9:00, but if they don't get in bed until 8:30, then their reading time is cut short that night. It's worked really well for us! Good luck.

Comment By : HannahJ

I find that starting about 2 weeks before school starts more realistic. There are so many interesting things to do during the summer. We talk about what time they'll need to go to bed and then each night go to bed 10 - 15 minutes earlier than the night before. It's a gradual adjustment and it works! Using a calendar to mark the times helps.

Comment By : pm61

My children are 39, 38 and 35, and we always started school days bed time 2 weeks before school started. I'd break it into 1/2 hour intervals for 2 days at a time the first week, then the actual bed time and the getting up in the morning, the second week. I'm raising a 16 year old grandson, who is doing the same thing. And yes, my kids are doing the same with their children. It works well, because all the grumbling over the schedule change is about out of the way, when they go back to school and have to focus on learning. They aren't "out of sorts" physically and mentally. Two of mine and my grandson are ADD, and it helps tremendously.

Comment By : Patricia

One thing that works in my household when school starts, I have my daughter put her school clothes on the night before since it takes her awhile to wake up and gets dressed. It saves us about 20 minutes in the morning.

Comment By : Christine

My kids have problems getting to bed and taking the time to study. I have found a site that allows them to both play on the computer and study! (the bed thing is still an issue) The site is and allows me to assign them games to play in the areas they are having problems with. It is for the age group of 5-10 and they can't wait to have their time to play! I recommend it to anyone who has grade school kids who might need a 'game' to help them learn

Comment By : Eileen

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Related keywords:

Back to School, Power Struggle, Child, Teen, Defiance

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