It’s not uncommon for families to relax their routines during the summer. But as the school year approaches, it’s time to get back on track with schedules and structure.
“We know that kids and teenagers thrive on routine, so when they have those set limits and expectations, they perform better. And in the long run, they will tell you they enjoy that better,” said Dr. Sara Bode, a primary care pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital and the medical director of Nationwide Children's Hospital's Care Connection School-Based Health and Mobile Clinics.
The onset of summer often invites disruption in children’s routine, especially their sleep schedules.
“A lot of times during the summer we’ll see kids that are going to bed at pretty late hours, like between midnight and 3 a.m., and then sleeping in late during the day,” Bode said. “They get into a habit of that, so when it comes time to go back to school, they’re really struggling that first month to reset their body in order to get back on schedule.”
Straying from healthy sleep schedules can be detrimental to children’s bodies, Bode said.
“Your internal melatonin spikes at a certain time every evening,” she said. "We know in teenagers there’s been a lot of research that their level of melatonin can sometimes spike later in the evening, which is why teenagers already sometimes have some problems with getting to bed at a reasonable hour… and so if you’re getting off your routine and doing that consistently every night, you’re telling your body to have that internal chemical, that melatonin to spike later in the evening, so trying to change that and get back on your routine can be hard."
That’s why it’s best, Bode said, to maintain a regular sleep schedule over the summer, with an exception here and there for special occasions.
“If you have gotten off of that schedule, then we really recommend for at least two weeks before school starts that you start your routine of going to bed and waking up just as you would during school time to really kickstart your body back into that schedule,” she said.
The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) has guidelines outlining recommended sleep duration for children from infants to teens.
“The group found that adequate sleep duration for age on a regular basis leads to improved attention, behavior, learning, memory, emotional regulation, quality of life, and mental and physical health,” according to an American Academy of Pediatrics news release.
When there’s already the “summer slide” to contend with, binge-watching television shows or playing countless hours of video games can put children at a disadvantage when school is back in session.
“If you haven’t done any executive functioning, higher-order thinking, you’re probably reducing your ability to then focus for those eight hours when school starts,” Bode said.
That’s why Bode recommends limiting screen time, including during the summer.
“Once you hit school age, which would be kindergarten and up, we recommend less than two hours a day of screen time,” Bode said.
“We see a lot of kids that are doing 8-10 hours a day over the summer,” she said.
“We don’t count screen time for homework because a lot of school-aged kids do their schoolwork online… We’re talking about entertainment like video games, shows, etc.”
Bode cautions parents about allowing their children recreational screen time before school starts in the morning or before doing homework.
“We know through many studies if you are getting ready to do some executive functioning, higher-order thinking or calculations for school or reading comprehension that that is limited by your exposure to electronics,” Bode said.
Take, for example, children who play video games or watch shows with a high rate of scene changes every few seconds (e.g. “SpongeBob SquarePants”).
“We know that when kids try to do academic work right after that, it actually reduces their ability to focus and it reduces their executive functioning, so it’s really important for kids as they’re starting back to school to get out of the habit of using any electronics, for example, in the morning right before school... They’re really just putting themselves at a disadvantage.”
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Maintaining regular levels of physical activity is also critical to healthy child development.
“We see some kids that tend to gain weight over the summer because they’re home so maybe their eating habits are not as regimented… And then they’re doing 8-10 hours of screen time so they’re not getting out and being active, which that also can disrupt their sleep cycle and result in poor focus,” Bode said.
An hour of moderate- to vigorous-intensity physical activity each day is the recommended amount of exercise for children and adolescents ages 5 to 17.
Better off in the long run
Children may fight structure and routine, “but really in the long run, for their own mental health and wellbeing, they actually prefer and thrive on routine,” Bode said.
“What happens with kids is they need that external force, that guardian or parental figure to put that routine in place for them. They just don’t have the ability to do it themselves like an adult would.”
Despite their potential grumblings or complaints about needing to turn off a video game and stick to their routine, they’re much better off, Bode said.
“There are ways you (the parent or guardian) can give them independence to make good choices within the parameters of their routine, but you are still the one that’s setting the tone for when it’s appropriate for each type of activity.”
If a child struggles with organization or focus, making sure activities are done in the same order each day (e.g. eat breakfast, brush teeth, put on school clothes, etc.) could help, Bode said. Prepping the night before (e.g. packing lunch, putting school bag by the door, etc.) can also help prevent last-minute frustrations and frenzies.
“As the child gets older, if you (the parent or guardian) create that list for them, then they can start to take ownership of that and do a lot of that themselves,” Bode said.
This story is brought to you in part by the Little Buckeye Children's Museum, a local children's museum that is proud to provide children and families opportunities to learn and discover through the power of play every day in Richland County. As a nonprofit, Little Buckeye Children's Museum appreciates the support of the community it serves. If you would like to support Little Buckeye Children's Museum and its mission for healthy child development, click here.