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 them to do their homework, and make sure they stay 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 outbursts, and overall family stress.
To improve this year, it is important to have a plan so that you don’t simply react to your child’s struggles. Here are seven specific things you can do to get your child ready for the coming school year.
A week before school starts, have all your kids use their alarms and wake up when they’ll be getting up during the school year. They should wash their face, brush their teeth, and come out and have breakfast. Afterward, they can go back to sleep, start their day—whatever they normally do.
The point is that you want to get them used to doing their hygiene at a certain time, getting dressed at a certain time, and showing up in the kitchen in time to get to school.
Establish a quiet time at night if you don’t already have it. During the school year, this will become part of their homework time. But for now, let them read a book, comic, or magazine. What they do in quiet time is not important as long as no electronics are used.
For older kids, about a week before school, they should not go out at night. When school starts, your child should already be used to spending the evening at home. They have to get back into their school schedule, which means telling them:
“No going out to socialize after dinner, you have to stay home.”
Over the summer, teenagers tend to get more and more freedom. That’s just a natural process, especially for older teens. As the next school year approaches, you want to get them to gravitate toward the home, which is one of the centers of their educational life. You go to school from home, go to sports activities from home, and do your homework at home. In the summer, the focus is outside the home, which is good. But now kids need to be brought back in.
Don’t be surprised if your child or teen resists this. Let’s face it. Getting back on track is difficult. Picture yourself coming back from vacation, and think of how hard it can be to get back in the groove at work. Your child will probably make excuses like, “It’s not school yet, I’m still on vacation.” That may be true, but I think you want to say to them very clearly:
“You need to get back on track. And once you do these things, if you stay home after dinner, you can do what you want except for that hour of quiet time. And after you get up in the morning, you can do what you want after we meet in the kitchen. You can have breakfast, go back to bed, or go hang with your friends.”
Remember, rehearsal and repetition prepare children for their responsibilities. You won’t transition from the summer sleep schedule to the school sleep schedule in one night—that just doesn’t happen. What works is the concrete tasks of rehearsal and repetition. That’s true for all kids—and even more so for teenagers.
Consider setting up a reward system for grades now, and explain the system to your child. If my son got all A’s and B’s, I would reward him with some cash. If he didn’t, he didn’t get punished, but he didn’t get the money. We didn’t threaten him or anything—it was just a standing thing in our home. When my son didn’t do well on a test, I asked him:
“So what are you going to do differently next time?”
This is particularly important with underachievers. Your child might say, “I don’t know. I didn’t learn anything.” And then you can say:
“Well, I’d like you to learn that maybe you should’ve studied more. Or maybe you should’ve studied with a friend.”
As an aside, sometimes studying with another child helps your child get motivated. Nothing motivates kids like studying with other kids. In my opinion, well-managed study groups are beneficial.
You can also motivate your child to succeed by having them earn rights around the house. You can tell them:
“When you get all B’s and above, you can go to your room and do your homework. But as long as you have C’s and B’s, you will not study in your room. More than one C, and you’re down here.”
To function more independently, your child has to achieve. If they can’t get their work done, they don’t get to go to their room and do their homework by themselves—they have to be near a parent so that they can be monitored.
Let me be clear: failure is a part of life. By the time kids hit their teenage years, they’re sick of failure. But failure is just one of the things that they encounter all along the way, from the time they’re two years old to when they’re 17. Believe me, kids know when they’ve failed, and they understand what that means.
I believe that you have to let your child experience natural consequences. This means you should let them fail that year in school or let them fail that subject. If that still doesn’t motivate them, or if it adds to their lack of motivation, that’s when you have to seek professional help.
When kids have a hard time in school the previous year, parents should be talking to them about what they learned from that hard time. After all, we’re supposed to learn from difficulty. This talk should ideally happen at the end of the school year because the experience is fresh in your child’s mind. If you wait, your child may even deny that last year was bad. Nevertheless, now is still a good time to have this conversation if you have not had it already.
Before school starts and when things are calm, sit down with your child and say to them:
“Look, there’s something that I think would be helpful to talk about. What did you learn from what you went through last year? I’m not criticizing, but what did you learn?”
And then the follow-up question should be:
“And what will you do differently to stay on top of your grades this year?”
Or, if the problem was their behavior, ask them:
“What will you do differently to get along better with your classmates or with the teachers? Let’s pick one thing you can do right now from day one that will help you move in that direction.”
When kids stumble and fall, I think our goal is to always ask what they’re going to do differently and what they’ve learned. When my son would fail a test, I would say:
“What did you learn from this? And what are you going to do differently?”
These questions talk about the future and get the child to think about what they’ll do to change the outcome.
Look at it this way: the test was over, and he failed it. That was the natural consequence. I didn’t need to make speeches at him or blame him because that’s not an effective way to get change. I was interested in what he was going to do so he would pass the next test.
The whole coaching and teaching role is about, “What did you learn from this? What are you going to do differently? How can I help you with those skills?” Sometimes your child will choose to do their homework at the kitchen table, so somebody is there to make sure that they do it. Sometimes, they’ll choose to study with a friend. But you always want concrete answers to what your child will do differently whenever they have a hard time and slip up.
If they don’t come through with any ideas or say, “I don’t know,” you should make some suggestions and have them pick one. Certainly, you can try to reason with them. But there’s nothing wrong with saying to them:
“I want to see your homework every day until you pass the next test.”
Or you can say:
“I want your door open when you do the homework until you pass the next test.”
It’s OK to lay down these strict rules so that the accountability becomes more personal. But you should give your child a chance to give their own suggestions first. I recommend giving your child some time to think it over. That way, the next time you have this talk with them, your child will know what’s going on. They’ll have the script, and they’ll know what they’re supposed to say and do.
When you’re working with teenagers, particularly those who are underachievers, it’s hard to sit down and have these conversations. Believe me, I know it is hard work to talk with teenagers. But you have to do things that are hard if you’re a parent—there are no shortcuts. We need to be coaches, teachers, and limit setters for our children if we want them to succeed. Coaching your child to do better is one of the key ways to become a more effective parent.
Remember, the goal is not to become a perfect parent—and it’s not even to avoid being a bad parent. Rather, the goal is to become a more effective parent—and that’s achievable with the right techniques.
James Lehman, who dedicated his life to behaviorally troubled youth, created The Total Transformation®, The Complete Guide to Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™, from a place of professional and personal experience. Having had severe behavioral problems himself as a child, he was inspired to focus on behavioral management professionally. Together with his wife, Janet Lehman, he developed an approach to managing children and teens that challenges them to solve their own problems without hiding behind disrespectful, obnoxious or abusive behavior. Empowering Parents now brings this insightful and impactful program directly to homes around the globe.