Encourage positive mental health through back-to-school routines

Implementing a consistent and simple routine can help ensure a smooth transition into a new school year and relieve stress and anxiety in children and teens.

Implementing a consistent and simple routine can help ensure a smooth transition into a new school year and relieve stress and anxiety in children and teens.Returning to school brings excitement for many, but it can also cause stress and anxiety for children and their families. With the increase in mental health diagnoses among adolescents since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important that families feel empowered to support their children’s mental health as they transition into a new school year.

Implementing a simple and consistent routine provides a foundation that promotes positive mental health, according to Channing Brown, MD, an assistant professor in the division of pediatrics in the Department of Academic General Pediatrics and the Department of General Internal Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine.

“Children thrive in structured environments and benefit from routine,” Brown said. “Creating a predictable schedule for your kids helps them feel safe and teaches them how to regulate their bodies.”

Establish a sleep schedule

The daily routine of children and young people is often disturbed in the summer months. Brown suggests establishing a consistent sleep schedule a few weeks before the school year to help ensure a smooth transition.

By moving bedtimes earlier, you can ensure kids get enough sleep and wake up energized for the school day. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children ages 6 to 12 should get nine to 12 hours of sleep and teens ages 13 to 18 should get eight to 10 hours. Gradually shifting bedtime to 15 to 30 minutes before the school year makes it easier for children to get used to the new time.

Brown says an example of a good bedtime includes taking a bath or shower, brushing your teeth, putting on your pajamas, and reading as a family or individually 15 to 20 minutes before turning off the lights. She also advises against spending time in front of the screen in the hour before bed and drinking fluids to calm the brain and reduce nighttime accidents.

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The transition from summer activities to the classroom often means a decrease in physical activity during the day. To bridge this gap, extracurricular routines should include exercise and limit screen time.

“Exercise and exercise not only improve physical health, but have been shown to improve academic performance, sleep quality and behavior,” Brown said. “Studies have also shown that they can help treat depression and ADHD in children.”

Parents should encourage children to get at least an hour of physical activity each day through activities such as dancing, exercising, walking, and biking. Brown also encourages parents to provide children with a creative space to play to stimulate the mind and body.

Set up family time

Back-to-school also means a return to extracurricular activities and busy schedules. Blocking out family time each day, whether by eating together or attending a family activity, allows parents to hear from children and provides a time for connection.

“Eating one meal a day as a family is associated with a reduced risk of certain mental illnesses, such as depression, poor academic performance and substance abuse, and is particularly protective against eating disorders in children and adolescents,” Brown said.

When to seek help

Even with a well-established routine, children may need additional mental health support. According to Brown, parents may need to speak to a pediatrician or mental health specialist if they observe the following in their children:

  • Insomnia or increased need for sleep
  • Several new physical symptoms: frequent headaches, stomach pains, nausea, stool changes such as constipation or diarrhea
  • Irritability or increased crying
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Deterioration in school performance or grades
  • Decreased or increased appetite
  • Behavioral outbursts such as kicking, hitting, or throwing
  • Fidgety behavior
  • Talking about suicide or death

“Parents should be open and honest with their children’s teachers if there are any mental health concerns because teachers can offer additional support,” Brown said. “Most importantly, knowing that there is a loving adult who is there to listen and help can have a positive impact on a child’s mental health.”

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