I don’t know if you’ve heard, but school is back in session. Kids everywhere are crying, while parents everywhere are cheering. Well, at least that’s what’s happening at our house.
I have a love-hate relationship with the start of a new school year. I love that a new school year signals Fall with its cozy sweaters, crunching leaves, crisp mornings, and the smell of pumpkin spice. And I really love that a return to school means a return to routine, structure, and a predictable schedule.
Although, speaking of schedules, I hate the intensity of the school time schedule with busy days, loads of afterschool activities (and carpooling), and long nights filled with tedious homework and whiny kids.
But alas, school is upon us and as I remind my kids, we don’t have to like school but there is no opt-out when it comes to school. If you’re going to school, you might as well do everything you can to make it a great experience.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in school and am heading back to class again this week. As such, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to prepare for going back to school and to reflect on the practices, skills, and approaches that contribute to success and happiness. I’ve got a bazillion thoughts on this topic, but here are a few highlights that might help you and your loved ones as you march forward into another school year.
Do Hard Things
Do things that scare you. Try out for the basketball team, join the chess club. By doing hard things, we grow self-esteem and develop the skills necessary to be successful in life.
Research shows that kids who are involved in extracurricular activities for at least two years are more successful. They develop grit, which psychologists identify as a collection of characteristics that lead to success and happiness. Those with grit are passionate and they persevere even when things are challenging.
Keep trying even when you experience failure. One of the reasons it’s important to stay involved in an extracurricular activity for at least two years is that it affords you the opportunity to learn, fail, grow, learn some more, etc. Most of us are averse to feelings of failure (of course!), and when faced with challenges we may be likely to give up.
But by quitting we rob ourselves of the opportunities to learn from failures and to develop the necessary skills to be successful. Learning to fail well may sound crazy, but it’s a critical skill that lays a foundation for success.
Don’t Eat the Marshmallow!
What on earth do marshmallows have to do with school? There was a delightful study conducted years ago—and replicated many times—in which a researcher met with a preschooler in a room with a marshmallow.
The researcher told the child that he or she could eat the marshmallow immediately if he or she would like, but if the child could wait for a few minutes without eating the marshmallow while the researcher stepped out of the room to take care of some business then when the researcher returned, the child would be able to choose an even bigger, better reward.
Then the researcher left the room and watched via video to see what the child would do. If you want some quality entertainment and are tired of cat videos, check out video footage of some of the many times this research has been conducted to see some squirmy preschoolers doing everything in their power to delay eating the marshmallow. It’s hilarious!
Learn How to Delay Gratification
Okay, but what does a preschooler and a marshmallow have to do with you and the upcoming school year? Everything! The researchers followed these preschoolers for decades to determine if there were any significant differences between those kids who couldn’t delay gratification and ate the marshmallow and those who were able to put off their desire to eat the marshmallow so they could earn a better reward.
They found that the kids who were able to delay their gratification by resisting the instant gratification of eating the marshmallow were much more successful and happy as they progressed in life.
What’s the take home message? Identify big goals that are personally meaningful and then do the work to reach those goals. This focus often requires doing something you’d rather not do because you recognize it’s important to your larger goals.
It can be hard to get up when your alarm goes off in the morning. Sometimes class can be a drag. Homework is definitely a drag. But doing these things consistently is crucial for academic success, for graduating, for getting into college, for someday getting a job so you aren’t living in your parents’ basement when you’re 36. Don’t eat the marshmallow!
Establish a Consistent Study Schedule
The most successful students aren’t necessarily the students with the highest IQs. The most successful students are those who take school seriously, develop consistent and effective study habits, and organize themselves by planning ahead, avoiding cramming, and resisting procrastination.
Ask For Help
If you’ve ever been a teenager, you’ve probably felt misunderstood and as though the whole world is against you. As compelling as those feelings are, the truth is that others have faced similar challenges and can be a valuable resource as you move through the school year.
Talk to your parents, talk to your teachers, talk to your coaches. Chances are, you have plenty of adults in your life who can help you. But more important, chances are you have adults in your life who really want to help you.
In general, however, adults are lousy mind-readers so as challenging as it may be, you will need to speak up about your concerns, challenges, and needs. Especially if you are struggling with depression or anxiety or if you are feeling suicidal, please, please, please tell an adult. It’s not your fault that you have these struggles and there is much that can be done to help address these concerns. There’s no need to struggle in isolation.
Take Care of the Basics
Yes, you’ve got a lot going on. Yes, you’re busy, which is why it’s so important to take care of the basics that help you thrive when life is busy and you’ve got a lot to juggle. So, what are the basics?
First, let’s talk about sleep. Most research shows that none of us—but especially kids and teenagers—are getting near enough sleep. Sleep is a time to recharge, recover, process, and reset so if you’re not getting enough sleep everything will suffer. (Check out my rant on sleeping here).
Second, let’s talk nutrition. Learning requires a lot of brain power, so be mindful of how you are fueling your body and your brain. Make sure you’re eating regularly throughout the day. Avoid big gaps between meals and snacks. Eat a balanced diet that includes carbohydrates (brain food!), protein, and fats. The balance of these macronutrients is essential for health and energy.
Make sure your diet includes a lot of color: orange carrots, green snap peas, purple lettuce, red strawberries. Eating a colorful rainbow of foods (I’m not talking skittles here) ensures you’re getting your micronutrients, which are just as essential as the macronutrients to health and well-being.
Avoid mindless eating (especially after school) and balance your intake so that most of your food is coming from gardens and fields rather than boxes and bags. Drink plenty of water and limit caffeine and soda intake (I am no fun at all!).
Third, be active. I live near an elementary school and I love driving by during recess. Sometimes I stop and just watch the kids. They are running, jumping, diving, swinging, sliding, tackling, laughing, and in every way living fully in their bodies. While you might not have recess anymore, create recess moments for yourself by moving your body, having fun, and doing things you enjoy.
Fourth, stay away from anything that could lead to dependence and addiction. No one ever believes they could develop an addiction and no one sets out to have an addiction, and yet millions of people struggle with addictions that seriously impair health, functioning, and happiness. Stay away from drugs, alcohol, and pornography. Stay away from anything that leads to imbalance, compulsive behaviors, or choices that compromise your well-being.
Parents, it’s your job to help your kiddos develop these good habits so they are well equipped for the challenges and opportunities of life. Set a bedtime (yes, even for your teenagers), enforce rules, make balanced nutrition easy by having plenty of good choices on hand, eat dinner as a family, set unplug hours (times when kids are unplugged from all devices, and don’t send your kids—teenagers included—to bed with their devices), get involved in their activities, monitor their schoolwork. Good supervision and structure can make all the difference in helping kids develop good habits for success.
The school year will unfold whether you want it to or not. Do what you can to thrive so that as you look back at this school year you will know the satisfaction that comes from a job well done.
Baruch-Feldman, C. (2017). The grit guide for teenagers. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Duckworth, A. (2016). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance. New York, NY: Scribner.
Brown, P., Roediger, H., McDaniel, M. (2014). Make it stick: The science of successful learning. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.