Your web browser is out of date. Update your browser for more security, speed and the best experience on this site.

Update your browser
by Dr. Nathaniel R. Strenger
| Parenting, Homework, Children, Adolescents, Teens, School

Smooth Transitions: Training Kids for Back-to-School Rhythms

I think I had my first flash of real critical thinking right before beginning second grade. Summer vacation, filled with the whimsies of open days and late nights, limped to its August conclusion sweaty and with scraped knees. I must have gotten my first paper planner, because I was thumbing through counting the months of the year when suddenly to my eyes was revealed an injustice of Gregorian proportions. You mean to tell me that out of those twelve precious months of the year, a measly two-and-a-half are devoted to summer vacation?! Prior to that realization, I had just assumed that we were in school for the full calendar year, and then off for another. The imbalance of the real schedule seemed laughable at the time—though I was probably crying instead. Fortunate to my maturing into a (mostly) functioning adulthood, I gradually learned to adjust to that particular rhythm of childhood.

Rhythm. It shows up nearly everywhere in life, revealing itself in places expected and unexpected. Things ebb and flow, rock to and fro, and we gradually learn to find whatever discernible patterns we can to keep our wits in the face of each transition. Adults, in ways conscious and unconscious, learn to detect those subtlest of hints that a change in pace might be coming. And our complex adult nervous system works away in the background in preparation.

The olfactory system, for instance, works wondrously here. Those smell receptors in your nose essentially have a direct line to the amygdala and hippocampus, bypassing some of the neurological hoops through which the other senses must jump. The amygdala and hippocampus, respectively, play outsized roles in emotion and memory. So, when smells in one’s environment change, the nervous system can quickly start working in the background to ready for transitions. It might sound silly but think about the different smells we associate with the different seasons. And not just smells!

Familiar sounds or pieces of music perform a similar neurological function. This is why music has played a steadily increasing role in the treatment of dementia in older adults. So many of the senses—temperatures and sights too—can be wrangled as well. All of these function to signal upcoming changes in rhythm. And they can help us make the transitions as smooth and predictable as possible.

But not all nervous systems are so developed. The kids among us still have some growing to do before they are ready to ride the rhythmic waves of life so steadily. So, when that big change in rhythm comes around mid-August, those little nervous systems require some additional training to optimize the transition.

But I use the word training intentionally here. I do not speak just of perpetual accommodation or tailored adjustment. We are each working towards that precious end: Raising a kid into the kind of adult that can weather the predictable (and wildly unpredictable) rhythms of life effectively. And the dreaded rhythmic changes that come with the start of the school year give us adults an excellent opportunity—how’s that for a reframe—to teach and train. Here’s a few practical ideas for your consideration:

  • Forecasting Works Wonders: Sudden shifts in rhythm are tougher on a kid’s nervous system than gradual ones. If you’ve ever thought to compare the experience of listening to, say, a Steven Reich composition rather than one by John Adams (you are forgiven if you haven’t) you know the feeling. One shifts its rhythms so gradually you barely notice. The other might give you a heart attack. When preparing for the school year, think more gradual. You might slowly start introducing small adjustments to the schedule a couple of weeks before the first day of school. Perhaps bedtime gets slightly earlier by small increments. Maybe you introduce small reading assignments to get the wheels turning. Or maybe you simply start talking about school more around your child. All of this serves to forecast the upcoming change, readying your child’s nervous system to make the rhythmic adjustment. And remember, like some weird piece of Reichian music, make your adjustments small and gradual.
  • Speaking of Music: Use it! Life is better with a soundtrack. And carefully chosen background music can facilitate smoother transitions from activity to activity. You might choose a certain genre of music for homework time and another for play time.
  • Smells Too! Even smells effectively signal transitions. Say you burn a certain candle or set a certain diffuser in the house fifteen minutes before homework time. With that kind of a routine, a kid’s olfactory bulb starts to associate the smell with a more focused and regulated state of mind.
  • Leverage State-Dependent Memory: Routines, even learned facts, can be better encoded, and retrieved when there is consistency across internal and external cues. That is, a kid will better retrieve information if he’s in a sensory context similar to that in which he first learned and practiced. The well-documented phenomenon is called state-dependent learning. But before you go adding a scaled replica of your child’s classroom to your home, think about little ways you can mimic the school environment during homework time. You might maintain consistency in supplies, lighting, or even tabletops when your child is completing homework or studying for that big test. And while you do so, they are not only improving their recall of facts, but they are also improving the consistent rhythm of their practicing and performing body states.
  • Schedule ‘Up’ and ‘Down’ Times: Some households make an hour-by-hour after-school schedule that includes visual cues marking “Up” times and “Down” times. Those up times are meant for play and roughhousing. But then those scheduled down times prompt your child to transition to focused quiet time. Make it a rhythm!

Counseling and Assessments at The Center

Our therapists and psychologists provide counseling, assessments, and educational testing for kids, teens and adults. Whether you are needing help as a parent, help for your child or teen, or testing, such as an ADHD evaluation, we are here to help.

Call The Center at 214-526-4525 to schedule an appointment with any of our 35+ therapists or psychologists at any of our offices across North and Central Texas. Learn more about our team HERE.

Other articles that may help
Parenting, Homework, Children, Adolescents, Teens, School

Screen Time Solutions: Navigating Limits for Children and Teens

Tyler Woodall
Parenting, Homework, Children, Adolescents, Teens, School

Miracles Happen: Balancing Time with Your Children

Rachel James
Children, Adolescents, Teens, School, Parenting, Homework

Easing Back to School Anxiety

Dr. Brad Schwall