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This is a back-to-school year unlike any other. There are the worries about sending kids in to classrooms and the practical matter of families trying to get back on track. The pandemic has upended sleep schedules, eased (or eliminated) limits on social media use and, for many of us, blown most of the usual structures of family life to smithereens. Here’s how to help get your children ready for school.

Sleep

Ten days to go

If your kids have been staying up late and sleeping in, don’t expect them to pop out of bed fresh as a daisy on the first day of school. With 10 days to go, start putting them to bed and waking them up by approximately 15 minutes earlier every day. “The gradual nature of it is key,” says Dr. Atul Khullar, medical director of Medsleep Edmonton.

And plan activities for the morning. Kids are more likely to get up and going that way, he says.

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Our eating habits also subtly affect our sleep schedules, so serving dinner a bit earlier than usual should make kids more tired than usual, too. Making sure little ones get lots of physical activity during the day and avoid screens before bed will also help them sleep better.

But the most important part of adjusting a sleep schedule is using natural light to influence our circadian rhythm, the body’s internal clock that regulates a person’s sleep cycles. “Get as much natural light early in the day as possible,” Khullar says. “The more light you get earlier in the day, the earlier you will get up. The more light you get later in the day, the more you will stay up.”

Finally, if you’ve allowed your kids screens in their bedrooms this summer, now is the time to take them away.

One weekend to go

The key is to not derail all the progress you’ve been making by allowing kids to sleep in too late, Khullar says. “You don’t want to lapse on a weekend, and that’s the biggest problem.”

Sure, they can stay up a little late and sleep in for an extra hour or two, but no more. Go beyond that, and you’ll more or less be back to square one. “You’re really undoing a ton of your work if you let them sleep in until noon on Saturday.”

Diet

Ten days to go

After a long summer of ice cream, ice pops and other indulgences, the best way to get on track for the school year, nutritionally, is to do an assessment of your fridge and pantry, says Melissa Conniff, a registered dietician and founder of Calgary Family Nutrition. “It’s about knowing what’s there.”

Throw out whatever has gone off. Take stock of what you have and what you need, whatever it may be. It’s the first step to informed menu planning, which is the second thing you should do. The key to success here: Don’t overcomplicate it.

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Menu planning will save you the headache of deciding what to eat each day, and it makes you more likely to eat a wider variety of food, she says. “A menu plan could look like you take the colours of the rainbow. You get the kids involved and pick a fruit and vegetable for each day in the colour of the rainbow.”

The next step is to get back in the habit of family mealtimes together. “It creates structure and it creates a supportive time as a family to connect. And with so much unknown this year, it will really provide a connection point,” Conniff says.

Some parents can feel tremendous pressure to have meals together every day, but there is no need. More is better, but families can aim for meals together as little as two times a week, whether it’s breakfast or dinner.

Finally, get your children involved in helping to prepare food. Younger ones can wash salad greens. Older kids can chop vegetables. “Kids take pride in it. That’s something they’ve done to contribute to the family.”

One weekend to go

Sit down as a family and discuss expectations. Talk about menu planning, when you’ll all be sitting down at the table together and what everyone’s responsibilities are for preparing meals.

“Keep it simple and ditch the guilt,” Conniff says. “And if it does go off the rails for a day that’s totally fine.” In other words, if you want to order a pizza on Saturday night to celebrate the end of summer, go for it.

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Academics

Ten days to go

Let’s face it, this is going to be a weird school year. And it is likely to be difficult, academically speaking, given that kids haven’t been in a classroom since early March. Add to that the hardships of trying to stay focused in school and it is more important than ever to help your kids develop the best strategies and work ethic to succeed.

Developing a solid routine is the foundation of it all, according to Kelsey Komorowski, founder of Komo Consulting, a Toronto-based educational consulting company.

“Having a really strong routine gets you clear on what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and how you’re actually going to do it,” she says.

Plan that routine with your children – don’t dictate it to them. That way, kids are much more likely to get on board and show more initiative. The conversation should begin with goals – whether it’s getting an “A” in a particular class or improving handwriting – and ensuring kids understand the reasons that these goals matter.

“Create your ideal week. What does it feel like? What does it look like when we feel our best? What time do we get up? What time do we do our schoolwork?”

Having that structure in place, and knowing why it is important for their goals, will help children stay focused on academic success in a year that is bound to be full of countless distractions.

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One weekend to go

Have a family meeting, but don’t call it a family meeting, because that’s too formal. Gather your kids around and get ready to play cheerleader.

“Review what you’ve talked about, and bring a really good energy to it,” Komorowski says.

Address any concerns they might have, and remind them that this is going to be a strange year and not to put too much pressure on themselves.

Then, chill. “Enjoy some family time. Enjoy some quality time. You’re getting ready for an adventure. This is the calm before the storm.”

Socializing

Ten days to go

Before kids return to school, parents need to make clear how socializing – both in real life and online – will have to change from how it was during the summer, Toronto-based parenting expert Alyson Schafer says.

For children of all ages, that will mean reminding them who they can be in close contact with and who they need to physically distance from.

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As kids return to school and see friends and peers for the first time in months, there will be a temptation to hang out together. Particularly for teenagers, there will likely be an understandable urge to get together in groups. That’s why parents must explain that it is just as important to be strict about bubbles and physical distancing as we were early in the pandemic, Schafer says.

Remind kids who is in their bubble and who isn’t: “There’s the friends that you can stand beside with at your locker and there’s the friends who still need to stand six feet away.” For caution’s sake, younger kids should err on the side of staying six feet apart from all their peers at school as much as possible, she says.

Ten days before school starts, parents should also begin putting reasonable limits on the use of social media. Expect some push back from kids who have been gorging on it all summer.

“Most parents have given their kids a free-for-all on the social media on their phones because they know that’s been a primary way of connecting” Schafer says.

Of course, you might want to give kids some extra leeway here, considering there will still be limits on who they can see in person.

One weekend to go

Seeing friends but not being able to do many of the things they once took for granted together is bound to be frustrating for children.

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Use the final weekend before the first day of school for a family meeting where everyone can share their hopes and annoyances.

Do your best to accommodate your kids’ wishes, provided doing so doesn’t risk compromising their health or academic performance.

“We want to win their co-operation,” Schafer says. “We don’t want to force their compliance.”

Globe health columnist André Picard and senior editor Nicole MacIntyre discuss the many issues surrounding sending kids back to school. André says moving forward isn't about there being no COVID-19 cases, but limiting their number and severity through distancing, smaller classes, masks and good hygiene. The Globe and Mail

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