Back to School, Back to Routine

As a magical summer winds to a close, I cannot help but get excited for the new school year. After two decades in the classroom as a student and another two decades as a teacher, my calendar begins at the end of August. In our house, a return to the routine of the school year revolves around the one immutable piece of the schedule: bed time. Summer sunlight, travel, spontaneous family movie nights, and more all wreak minor havoc on sleep. With the added complication of juggling different sleep needs for our four, ten, and thirteen year-olds, our evenings can be, in a word, interesting.

Like Madeline Levine described in her recent blog, sleep is one of the most critical factors in maintaining health and happiness. In addition to the studies she cited linking good sleep habits as a protective factor against depression and extreme crabbiness, sleep helps the brain consolidate memories and learning, allows the body to process carbohydrates correctly (preventing excessive weight gain), benefits the immune and cardiovascular systems, and increases response time.

Our ten and four year-olds still embrace bedtime as one of the best parts of the day. At our last family dinner party, our little one marched over to my chair and announced, indignantly, “It is way past my bedtime.” Our middle child craves the final reading time at the end of the day and eagerly gets in bed with a book. At any rate, we have not had any occasion to relay any of the fascinating findings from sleep studies to our younger children. However, we have begun discussing sleep habits with our oldest.

For some reason, our thirteen year-old does not find these studies as riveting as we do (although I saw a flicker of interest in his eyes when I mentioned the important role sleep plays in athletic performance). Until he does, we have tried to give him increasing autonomy over the rest of his schedule. Our not-so-hidden agenda is for our children to develop their own abilities to plan ahead and eventually create their own healthy schedules. Additionally, we hope to minimize conflict by allowing reasonable independence wherever we can.

Over the past two years we have allowed our middle school student to choose when to do his homework and when to take breaks. We give multiple advance notices before family events or carpool changes. We eat dinner together and have a habit of asking, “What’s on deck for tomorrow?” The family calendar is on the kitchen wall and everyone (including the four year-old) contributes items to the schedule. My husband and I share when we have had a scheduling misstep and we talk about how it affected our day.

Now approaching eighth grade, our oldest has a fair amount of freedom. He knows his school schedule, his extra-curricular schedule, and his bedtime. He is now in charge of managing his homework, reading, whiffle ball, music, and sibling play time. As you might imagine, there have been some failures – at Challenge Success, we would call these successful failures – in his planning over the past two years. He has had a few 9 pm realizations that he forgot an assignment or underestimated the time a task might take. He has had to go to bed with an unfinished assignment and then manage the consequences the following day (more on this in next month’s blog). Far more often though, he has greeted me at breakfast by saying something like, “I really want to go see the basketball game this afternoon, so I am going to do my Spanish homework right when school ends.”

Given our experience observing cursive practice last year, we do not expect this process to be quite as smooth in the future with our rising fifth grader. In the interest of eventual self-sufficiency, he will get to make more choices about his schedule. While I am not at all certain how many successful failures lay in our near future, I do know one thing: bed time is non-negotiable.

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

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