Back-to-School Behavior Tips: How to Set Up a Structure That Works

By Janet Lehman, MSW

Boy in school at a desk with a paper airplane

If the thought of your child starting school fills you with dread, you’re not alone. Right now, thousands of parents across the country are asking themselves, “How am I going to get my child up on time, get him to do his homework and make sure he stays out of trouble this year?”

If your child struggled with school last year then you may be justifiably anxious that the start of school marks the beginning of a new round of homework struggles, angry outburst, and overall family stress.

To improve this year, it is important to have a plan so that you don’t find yourself simply reacting to your child’s struggles. Here’s what you can do now to plan for the school year.

The Family Meeting

Hope without a plan is pointless. You can hope the school year will be different, but without a plan, it won’t be. That’s why I think it’s really helpful to sit down as a family and have a meeting to talk about the new school year and its rules and structure.

The #1 Parenting Tip of All Time

Plan the details of the meeting ahead of time. Ask yourself what you expect from your kids at the meeting and what you expect from your spouse or co-parent. Be realistic — pick a few things to tackle and talk about those things. Topics might include bedtime, homework, or getting to school on time. Get input from the kids and give them a chance to talk and express any concerns they may have.

You may need to remind your child that this is not a negotiating session. The more you give in to negotiating with your child, the more you’re training your child not to accept your limits. You can take their input, and consider it later, but do not permit this meeting to become a negotiation.

If your child does not like the new rules and tries to start a fight or argument then you want to stay calm, stick with the agenda, and avoid getting into a power struggle with your child. Remember, you do not have to attend every argument that you’re invited to. Think of yourself as the CEO of your family and address your child in the same calm tone with which a professionally-mannered boss would address an employee when setting goals and expectations.

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Focus on the Most Important Problems

Be realistic and don’t try to tackle everything. If the last school year seemed horrible in every way, you may be tempted to lay out a long list of new rules — a list so long and ambitious that you are just setting yourself up for failure. Instead, pick out the things that are both important and likely to succeed.

You may want to focus on fundamentals such as getting to school on time or getting to bed on time. You could also simply pick the time of day that proved to be the most difficult last year and discuss how to improve things. For example, you can say:

“Okay, we’re going to focus on mornings. We had a hard time last year and it didn’t work well for anyone. How are we going to make the mornings better?”

Or, if homework was the issue for your child in the previous school year, focus on what homework time is going to look like from now on.

Related article: How to Get Children to Do Homework

Be Specific About What Needs To Change

If your child struggled in school last year, I think it’s important to have a conversation with him about what he specifically needs to change. If you are not specific, nothing will change. I like to make clear to the kid that it is his responsibility to make the necessary changes but that I will be there to offer guidance and coaching. Be a cheerleader and don’t be afraid to offer suggestions:

“Last year, you had a hard time with homework. What are some things we can do this year to change that?”

“How about getting you some help from school with math?”

“You liked Mr. Jones, your Algebra teacher. I can see if he has any good ideas to help you.”

Remind him of what worked last year and try to build on those successes. For example, you can say:

“Remember how Mrs. Lawrence had you write down your reading assignments in your notebook each night and then check off when you’d completed something. That seemed to really help. Perhaps you do that with all of your classes this year.”

In other words, use the lessons from the previous year to plan to do things differently this year.

Find a Partner at the School

I advise parents to find someone at the school to partner with, someone who’s going to help you help your child do better academically, socially or behaviorally. It might be a teacher who understands and likes your child, or a guidance counselor, or school social worker who can connect you with resources. The important thing is to try to make some positive relationships with people in the school. Your child is going to be there for the year and you need to build your school network.

It’s Never Too Late

Remember that it’s never too late to establish structure, to become a more effective parent. To anyone who asks the question, “Is it too late to change my parenting style?” I would say that it’s never too late. It may not always be easy, but there are effective things you can start doing right away that can make this year better than last year.

Related: It’s Never Too Late: 7 Ways to Start Parenting More Effectively

Look for the Lesson

Think about the previous school year as a lesson. Go back to last year and ask yourself, “What was my area of greatest pain?” As hard as that is, just tackle it head on. You might also ask, “What was my area of greatest learning?” The answer may be a combination of both. Ideally, you’ve learned something from last year. You might have to think hard about what that learning was, but I think you will find it. In fact, it’s been my experience that the struggles we go through are often the things that teach us the most. So try to combine what you learned with what really was the most difficult thing you and your child dealt with. Use that knowledge to prepare for and inform your decisions in the coming year.

Kids with Learning Disabilities

It’s particularly hard for kids with learning disabilities to go back to school because they often struggle the most and they know it. I think that as a parent, you really need to set clear limits and have a positive discussion with your child about school. At the same time, be certain to talk with the school to make sure that your child with special learning needs gets what he requires during the year. Don’t enter into these conversations with a negative frame of mind about the school; that won’t help your child. Instead, come in with realistic goals about how the school can match your child’s learning needs and how you can partner with the school to support those needs.

Kids with Anxiety

For kids with anxiety, it may be really hard to do too much talking about school before it begins, because it’s just going to raise their fears. Keep the conversation short and sweet. With younger kids, instead of talking about things, make some posters or create some visual reminders. And be open to hearing what your child has to say about school so that if he does get anxious—if things are going wrong once school starts, for example—he can come to you to talk about it.

I recommend that you start opening that channel before the school year begins. Try not to dwell on it yourself because your anxious child is likely doing that in his own head, and will pick up on your anxiety. But be open to hearing your child’s worries about school; be a safe place for him to take those worries—and then move on from them. Don’t focus on them and don’t take them on as your own. After all, they’re just worries—and worrying has never gotten anyone anywhere.

If your child has a certain anxiety about gym class or algebra you can also look at it as a problem, and ask, “How are we going to solve it?” I think kids who are anxious are going to see one giant bundle of problems—and it’s probably a tangled bundle of problems at that. Your job as the parent is to pull that apart and help them tackle  one thing at a time. Pick the thing your child is most likely to succeed at, and go from there.

Try Not to Do It Alone

Don’t forget, you’re making this transition into the school year along with your child. Try not to do it alone. Talk with your spouse and come at it as a team. If you’re a single parent, speak with other parents, family and friends. Be kind to yourself and reduce your own expectations that you have to “solve everything.” Try to say, “If it was a terrible year last year, this will be a better year. It may not be perfect, but it can be better.”

About Janet Lehman, MSW

Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. In addition, Janet gained a personal understanding of child learning and behavior challenges from her son, who struggled with learning disabilities in school. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.

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