October 11, 2009

Starting the School Year – Life in Transition

Starting the School Year – Life in Transition

We’ve all experienced it – the abrupt transition from the leisurely pace of late August, with few demands on students to the hectic life of early September mornings, homework load and after-school sports and activities.

Suddenly, students are getting less sleep, have less time to unwind and are being told by teachers all the negative consequences of slacking off. Parents feel the need to impress upon their children the importance of beginning the year on a good note and the value of creating a positive impression with teachers. We feel responsible for making sure that our children establish good work habits at home from the start.

Surprise! Children begin to exhibit behaviors characteristic of their younger selves. Parents’ frustration erupts. A 7 year-old wants to sleep in her parents’ bed. A 15 year-old has meltdowns when returning from school.

As parents, we may feel compelled to jump onto the hamster wheel and become another force for the abrupt change in rhythm. Whether it is during this transition or the next, there are a few things that are worth remembering:

No matter how old our kids are, home serves as a refuge. Let your child know that you understand how hard it is to shift into school mode. Be willing to listen to challenges and complaints without trying to fix or correct your child’s perceptions. Instead, if need be, offer them possibilities for alternatives or solutions. Ask them to keep an open mind and listen to your input. If they are older, make it clear that the decisions are theirs.

Ask them about their goals for the school year and talk about how you can support their reaching those goals. Otherwise, the unfinished homework becomes more the parents’ concern than the child’s. As they mature, help them advocate for themselves when appropriate.

Remember that, in the big picture, your relationship is more important than the particular issue at hand. Only in the context of a positive relationship can we continue to have an impact and influence our children’s views and behavior. If most of our input feels critical to them, they will tune it out no matter how much wisdom it contains. They can’t hear us if they aren’t listening.

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Consequences … something you’re supposed to give as a good parent. From time-out in preschool to taking away computer time, cell phones or car keys later on, consequences are a staple of parenting. Sometimes, they can be quite effective. Yet, often they don’t seem to do a thing. Here’s why: Kids with learning differences or attention deficits have difficulty applying prior learning to current situations. The lesson you tried to teach your child yesterday by giving a consequence may not be in his/her mind today when you want him/her to apply it. This is especially true if the child is emotional stirred up. (And what potential conflict situation doesn’t leave both parent and child in a state less than serene?)

As Ross Greene discusses in The Explosive Child, kids who may be prone to reacting impulsively may literally feel as if they never made a decision to act in the way they did. It’s as if the behavior happens before they ever register an intention to act. They really may not have meant to do it or may not even realize that they did despite the evidence. So, when a parent gets angry in response, the child feels unjustly criticized. Sometimes, the child may act without thinking through all the implications of their statement or action: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” They didn’t intend it to be a problem, so why should they be given a consequence? Instead of absorbing the lesson of the consequence, they feel misunderstood, blamed and angry. In these situations, the consequence does not lead the child to reflect on the misdeed at all.

The alternative is to avoid the cycle of blame, anger and self-defense. If feedback is given in a non-critical way, the child may still be open to taking it in. Sometimes, all that requires is the parent saying: “Did you mean to say …?” Or: “Did you just mean to…?” “Let’s try that again.” Or: “Do you realize how that just came across?” When given a chance to save face and be given the benefit of the doubt, a child may be motivated to pause, reflect and attempt to correct their own behavior. And, you may save the wear and tear on your relationship at the same time.

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