Q. This summer, all my kids want to do is have fun. They ask to swim and play all day. They ask to eat junk food while skipping vegetables and fruit. I enjoy the summer break too, but when do I need to get them ready for the next school year?
A. I’m all in for summer fun, too. A couple of cautions: don’t overwhelm your kids and don’t spend more than you can afford on activities. Summertime presents opportunities to work on improving academic skills, behavior and health habits, a few minutes at a time.
Students benefit from reading every day, both for fun and for academic success. Children who don’t read in the summer will likely lose progress, a phenomenon called “summer slide” or “brain drain.” Twenty minutes of reading a day can help a child continue to make progress over the summer and into the fall. It’s helpful to read the same books as your children and create discussion questions. These discussions can help with their verbal skills.
It’s also good to keep your kids engaged in math, history and geography. Use everyday situations like figuring out the tip on a meal. Hire a math tutor if you need to. Post maps on the walls and discuss various destinations. Use games and puzzles to build concentration, memory and coordination. Keep a puzzle going on a card table and celebrate when it’s completed.
Work on manners. This doesn’t take much time. Ask your kids to identify good manners and have them look for people exhibiting good manners. Give positive feedback when your kids show good manners. At family meals, insist everyone sit in their chair, use napkins and utensils properly, not talk with their mouth full, participate in the conversation, learn to ask for things and pass food. Ask everyone to put away cell phones and other devices. Stress the importance of focusing on people who are physically present.
Feelings are another area to work on a few minutes at a time over the summer. At meals or in the car, start a discussion by saying: “I feel _____. I think this feeling is because_____. I might feel better if I _____.” Let the kids know that everyone has emotions and feelings and can regulate those feelings or get help if the feelings are too overwhelming.
Establishing healthy eating habits is an ongoing labor of love. I’ve recently spent time with kids who won’t eat veggies or fruit. If it isn’t a carbohydrate, it sits on their plates. Sneak fruits and veggies into other foods. For example, I can get veggies into spaghetti sauce without anyone noticing. While kids can survive on cereal, milk and peanut butter, a better-balanced diet will facilitate mental and physical health.
And while children like to stay up late — and some researchers see this as a norm for teens — it sets a pattern that’s hard to break when school starts. At the very least, get your kids to agree to a school night sleep schedule once the middle of summer break comes around. Otherwise come fall, your kids’ brains may be in sleep mode for all their morning classes.
It’s good to get ready for the start of school now. Just a few minutes here and there can work miracles. It seems like school barely gets out before its time to go back again.
Betty Richardson, PhD, RNC, LPC, LMFT, is an Austin-based psychotherapist.
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