In the few weeks before school starts, experts offer tips on getting ready mentally and physically

RON BORRESEN   |   Times
Published July 19, 2018

By the second week of August, public schools will be back in session across the Tampa Bay area. That may seem far off, but sleep experts say now is when parents need to start easing the kids (and themselves) into those early wakeup routines.

The following are some of the best tips we've gotten from experts on the topic of getting physically and mentally prepared for school.


In general, children between 5 and 12 years old need about 10 hours, while teenagers can get by on eight or nine hours. If your teenagers need to wake up by 6 a.m., that means they need to be asleep by 9 or 10 p.m. to get a full night's rest. If they need naps, keep them to 20 minutes or less — any longer and it may make them feel groggy throughout the day or make falling asleep at night difficult.

About two weeks before school starts, begin waking your child at the time required for the school day, said Bobbi Hopkins, medical director of the Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital sleep center. It's easier to focus on waking them up early than trying to force them to go to bed.

To help settle down the house for sound sleep:

• Establish a relaxing bedtime routine. This could include a bath, books, soft music.

• Turn off electronics an hour before bed.

• Dim the house lights four hours before bedtime, even making a point of wearing sunglasses if you're outside after 6 p.m.

• Keep electronic distractions (TV, computer, video games) out of your child's room and in a different location in your home.

• Be a role model. Establish your own regular sleep cycle to promote healthy sleep.

• Don't make the mistake of setting the alarm too early and hitting the snooze button several times, because it's that last hour of sleep that is usually the best of the night, Hopkins said, adding "I want them to get that last best rest."


If you've let your good habits wane over the summer, recommit now to healthy meals and snacks.

Have washed cut-up fruit and vegetables on hand to put out for a snack and to use to make your own Lunchables — "one that has a lot of color to it," said Melanie Newkirk, clinical nutrition manager at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. Divided lunch containers can include a cheese stick, turkey chunks, grapes, cherry tomatoes and whole-grain crackers.

To make after-school snacking healthier, consider carrots, cucumber slices, low-sugar yogurt, nuts and some natural peanut butter on apple slices.

"Get portioned-out containers to prep on the weekend so it's not such a scramble in the morning," Newkirk said. "Setting aside an hour on a Sunday can set the tone for a great week ahead."

Some fast breakfast ideas are egg cups that are all over Pinterest these days. The mini quiches can be made in advance and you just have to pop them in the microwave. Newkirk also suggested a whole-grain English muffin, some peanut butter and banana slices.

The hospital's website,, has information on healthy foods, cooking classes and even a free cookbook.

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When it comes to the typical school breakfast and lunch menus, Newkirk said lunches tend to be healthier options, since breakfast foods can be sugary. She recommends going over the lunch menu with your child and offering guidance and praise when he or she tries something new.

It's also a good idea to send a water bottle to school and encourage your child to forgo juice and chocolate milk.

"People often start the school year with great intentions," Newkirk said. "Unfortunately, it comes down to planning, what is needed to be successful and identifying who is responsible for what."


While this is a broad topic, parents, now is the time to start preparing for things like separation anxiety and bullying, and to model self-care to help your child learn how to manage stress.

Regular routines and exposure in advance to what may worry a child are the easiest ways to calm an anxious child, said Dr. Jennifer Katzenstein, director of psychology at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital.

Create the sleep, bedtime and the morning routines you hope to see all year.

Also consider using a dry erase marker on the bathroom mirror to write the order of the morning routine, which a child can check off.

Schools often have kindergarten roundups and days for new middle or high school students. But if the child is a new student at any grade, try to take a school tour before that first day.

For a child who is nervous about switching classes, go on a tour, set a timer on your phone and walk the campus, "so they get an idea of what three or four minutes looks like," Katzenstein said.

If you have a young child who has never been away from you for any amount of time, Katzenstein suggests you schedule some time in the next few weeks where your child is with someone else and get them used to being away from parents. Think of it as practice.

It's hard to know if your child will be exposed to bullying or have trouble making friends in the coming year, so building up the family support side is important, Katzenstein said. Sitting down to dinner, especially heading into the school year, lets kids know they have time set aside every day for the family to reconnect, she said.

If a child has been bullied in the past and is worried about going back to school, teaching resilience and having a support structure in place are important.

"It's nice for kids to have an identified teacher or school counselor or assistant principal who knows what the past has held and is their go-to person as soon as it happens at school," Katzenstein said. "Remind kids about how much you love them and how many positive qualities they have, and remind them bullies are often there because something else is going on in the bully's life. So if you can, teach resilience but also set up a support structure at school."

By modeling proper coping skills and self-care in our everyday life, Katzenstein said, kids learn resilience.


To lessen back-to-school stress, make sure any summer reading or project your child has is getting done and will be finished by the start of school.

Help them go through school supplies and make a list so you know what you have and what you need to buy.

Schedule a daily reading or writing time for the child. It's a good way to get away from electronics, but also an exercise in school readiness.

Parents should start compiling a notebook of their own for school papers, fliers, website passwords and carpool information. You could have a single notebook or a separate one for each child.

One of the first ways to ease parental stress is to start with a list, said Neda Gould, a clinical psychologist with the faculty on Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

The list of all that needs to get done may look daunting, so make a calendar and choose one thing to do every day to make tasks more manageable.

"When you break down those big tasks into something a little more manageable you can still enjoy your summer days without getting so overwhelmed."

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at Follow @SharonKWn.