Last year was anything but smooth for Lynette Bates and her five children. The family moved to California from their home in University Heights for a new job, then returned to Ohio a few months later.
In California, Bates got the kids, ages 6 to 15, involved on summer sports teams. Her oldest son, an avid swimmer, joined a water polo team, an opportunity to learn about a new sport and make new friends before school began in the fall.
In addition, the family moved to a neighborhood near the elementary school and joined the community pool, both being ways to get acquainted with other parents and kids. "One family we met at the pool invited us to their home for a barbecue on the day we met them," Lynette says.
Those strategies made the transition from summer to school easier. In fact, on the first day of high school, Charlie's water polo teammates all met beforehand to go to freshman seminar together.
"Everyone did really well starting school in California," Lynette says.
But there was a lot they missed about Ohio, moving back to Shaker Heights in March to be closer to family and friends.
Back home, Lynette met with the elementary school principal and a high school guidance counselor. The principal even arranged for Lynette and her youngest, Jane, to meet a mom and her daughter at the library before school so the 6-year-old would know one person in her class.
"But Jane, who was in kindergarten, had trouble making the transition when we moved in the middle of the year to Shaker Heights," she recalls.
Lynette attributes the struggle to Jane always being taught by women in preschool and kindergarten, but having a male teacher in her new school. It created anxiety in Jane that her mother didn't expect.
"The first day is the hardest," Lynette says. "But you have to listen to your kids because sometimes they develop anxiety for reasons that you wouldn't think about."
That's why experts suggest you start preparing now for transitions with sleep patterns, a harder curriculum and evolving social circles by getting your children on a schedule that makes things easier when the first day of school rolls around.
Rise and shine
"The thing that gets totally turned around in the summer is the sleep cycle, because they've been up all night and sleeping all day," says Howard Hall, a psychologist with Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital.
Begin several weeks before school starts by waking children up consistently when they'll need to get up for school. Bed times will follow, as children get tired from waking up early.
"It is so critical," he says. "Otherwise, they won't be able to function, they won't concentrate, they'll tend to be hyper."
Sally Phillips, a clinical dietician at Akron Children's Hospital, cites another reason children need consistent, quality sleep: Studies suggest that kids who don't get enough sleep have a tendency to be overweight.
Several studies point to different reasons. One, from the Mayo Clinic, showed participants who slept less, ate more. Another, from the University of Washington Sleep Center, showed that the less one sleeps, the greater role genes play in weight, causing some with a genetic predisposition for weight gain to be heavier.
"The ones who get the least sleep tend to gain weight faster and are more likely to be obese," she says.
Ideally, learning doesn't end when summer begins. Studies have repeatedly shown that kids can lose a month or more of grade-level equivalency during the long vacation. But that doesn't mean you have to sit inside doing math problems on a nice day.
Puzzles are one way to sharpen children's thinking skills and engage their minds, says Hall. This can include word searches or crossword puzzles that can be taken to the pool or jigsaw puzzles that can be done on a rainy day. In fact, consider working on a jigsaw puzzle as a family to spend quality time together and learn collaborative skills.
Another option, which works well with older kids, is to keep up with world events. With the Summer Olympics in London running through Aug. 12, there are daily opportunities for all ages to learn about sports, foreign countries and cultures or use math to figure out scores or event times.
Several websites offer learning suggestions for Olympic educational activities, including projectbritain.com. It suggests everything from having your child design a new Olympic logo to writing her own gold medal acceptance speech to tracking and comparing the weather in London to the local weather.
With just a little extra planning, the beginning of school should just flow, says Dennis Kowalski, director of the Greater Cleveland Educational Development Center at Cleveland State University.
Though students may feel like they're always in school, formal classroom learning actually occurs only 9 percent of a student's time during a typical year, he points out. That's why parents are the key to getting their children to learn, problem solve and use critical thinking skills outside of school.
"There's so many teachable moments that we don't take advantage of," says Kowalski. "You can go into the grocery store with a 4-year-old and think of how many opportunities there are in the produce department: color, shape, texture."
Still, Kowalski says, some formal learning over the summer is a good idea. He encourages parents to get a curriculum guide for the next grade level so they can make connections over the summer to areas that will be covered in the next school year.
Above all, children should read during the summer, even if their school doesn't have a formal summer reading requirement. Younger children — before they're reading chapter books — should read at least a book a week, Kowalski advises.
Giving kids choice in their reading material, with trips to the library or splurging on a book to own at a bookstore, can make reading more fun.
Older students might want to choose a book that will help them navigate through difficult choices in life.
Terrence Robinson, an associate strategy and implementation officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, says that at-risk boys in the Closing the Achievement Gap Summer Bridge program read The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore. The book looks at the lives of two people with the same name who lived near each other but wind up in vastly different places in life because of the choices each made along the way.
Robinson's program targets boys entering high school who are most at risk for dropping out of school, but the book is well suited for boys or girls, urban or suburban, because it deals with choices that may confront many teenagers.
Robinson says the boys in the program also spend time working on self-confidence and navigating the social scene, from friendships to bullying — all issues that cross grades, gender and geographic location.
"They're going from an eighth-grade system where you're treated as a child to the teenager level of responsibility," Robinson says. "You're given more freedom, because now you're in high school."
Social pressures can arouse more fear in some children at the start of school than worrying about a harder curriculum, so keep communication open with your child.
Vanessa Diffenbacher, head of Lawrence School's lower school, suggests a summer play date with a school friend to ease the transition back to school.
Teachers and administrators can be helpful as well. "A parent might want to call the school in mid-August and see if it is possible for the child to visit the classroom and set a time to meet their new teacher," Diffenbacher says. "This is always a very good stress reliever for our children at Lawrence."
Once school starts, it's a good idea to ask your child every day for one high and one low of the school day. "You're balancing out the day," Diffenbacher says. "If you're constantly only talking about the negative things that your child wants to bring up, then psychologically they're not seeing the positive aspects of their day."
On the flip side, focusing exclusively on positives could hide issues that might be happening at school with other students.
Diffenbacher says this high-low strategy works especially well for a child who is struggling or anxious at the beginning of the school year, although it is a strategy that parents can use all year to try to understand what's going on in their child's classroom.
For that reason, it's important to maintain strong lines of communication with the teachers too. Diffenbacher also insists her teachers call parents with positives as well as issues the child may be having.
Strengthening the connection with the school is one of the reasons Lynette Bates volunteered every Thursday in Jane's kindergarten classroom and went on school field trips with the class after Jane's rough start.
The kindergarten teacher used parents to break the students into small work groups, and Lynette says it was a great way to get to know the other children in the class to help foster friendships for Jane.
Although her children now have friends from last school year and from before the move, Lynette is using a lot of the same strategies she did in California to ease the transition to school.
The family goes to the pool where they can play with school friends. And Lynette's arranged get-togethers with classmates, especially for Jane, to keep friendships going over the summer.
And with children in all levels of school — from first grade to high school — anything that makes life easier is a bonus.