This school year, it’s time to color outside of the lines. Not only did the last year mean huge restrictions for kids, but even before that the increasing use of social media, extra curriculars, competitive schooling, and more, means kids have felt the mounting pressure to do well and fit in. And we think this year, back to school should be less about getting back to normal—and more about embracing the joy of doing things your own unique and colorful way.
After a year of abrupt change, challenges, and uncertainty, it’s understandable we want things to go back to normal. But instead of going back to exactly how things were, let’s take a moment and reevaluate what needs to change for the better. Certainly, many of us have learned that certain behaviors we used to consider standard aren’t serving us any longer, if they ever were.
And the same goes for children and school. As back-to-school season is upon us, let’s leave dated ideas and practices behind us, and allow for new mindsets and priorities to blossom—including these four lessons from our favorite experts.
1. Listening to your body & mind.
Rather than pushing through the school year—never missing class, practice, or test prep—help your kid get in touch with their inner and outer well-being, so they are better able to know when they need time off, be it for mental or physical reasons.
Recently, we’ve seen several examples of this—from Simone Biles taking a step back at the Olympics to Naomi Osaka dropping out of the French Open. While they were met with some backlash, they were also met with an outpouring of support and understanding. Clearly, their decisions to put their own needs first, rather than risking mental duress or physical injury, resonated with people. And we think it’s important for kids to learn to be aware of their mental, physical, and emotional health so they can ask for help, resources, or a break when they need it.
“The danger is that these people often get so good at pushing aside their feelings that they actually forget those feelings exist,” writes Chloe Carmichael, Ph.D licensed clinical psychologist. “This leads to feelings of burnout and leaves them prone to mental or physical injuries. The key is to take time before and/or after stressful events to consider the emotional toll they take on you.”
Regularly check in with them and listen to what they say: This will send the signal that their needs matter and are valid. This way they are more likely to voice their concerns before it becomes a problem.
2. Prioritizing free time.
One concern that experts raise to us time and again is that children nowadays have much less free, unstructured time than those of generations before. Of course, last year was filled with needed restrictions that made sure kids and families were kept safe; but we’re talking about the put-upon restrictions that have come to mark modern living and child rearing. Between the creeping call of screen time and the pressure to do more, schedule more, and achieve more—there’s a risk of losing the much needed young freedom.
“Kids need nature, they need unstructured time, and they need play. It may seem like this is just ‘fun,’ but we know from research that this is how they grow,” says licensed physiologist Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., CNS.
Yes, down time is productive time. Here’s the issue: Kids learn this from the adults they see in their life. And you, as a mindful parent, might try to stress to your kids that work-life balance is important to your overall health, but unless you show them early on how to have regular unstructured time, you might be sending them mixed signals. “You can tell your kids all you want that it’s really important to take time for themselves,” says Aliza Pressman, Ph.D., the co-founding director and director of clinical programming for the Mount Sinai Parenting Center. “But if you don’t give yourself and your child the opportunity to be calm and have unstructured time, you are just showing them that it actually shouldn’t be a priority and you should put it after everything else.”
And as Beurkens notes, she sees this issue bubbling up with the kids she regularly works with. “I have teens saying things like ‘I don’t want to grow up because from what I can tell, it’s just work, work, work, and no balance,'” she says. “We’re teaching them this by always loading on more activities, more pressure, more things to do.”
If there is one theme I hear from friends and family about this past year is the need to find joy in wins, no matter the size. “Studies show that, whether big or small, celebrations matter because they offer opportunities to reflect and show gratitude. Enjoying big and small celebrations adds a little ceremony to life,” says sociologist Janice Johnson Dias, Ph.D. tenured associate professor of sociology at John Jay College in New York City and author of Parent Like It Matters.
Throughout the school year, make sure you encourage kids by recognizing their good work. But more importantly, ask them that they do the same for themselves. “Celebrating and honoring themselves will put kids in an ideal position to feel good about themselves, conceptualize ideas, and feel capable of leading initiatives,” she says.
4. Incorporate emotional intelligence into our lesson plans.
“Of course we’re all concerned about the emotional lives of our children. We know what’s at stake—virtually everything. Their physical and mental well-being, their ability to learn in school, their future success at work and in families of their own, all depend on it. There’s no greater measure of how we did as parents than the success of our kids in this regard,” writes psychologist Marc Brackett, Ph.D., founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, professor at the Child Study Center at Yale University, and author of Permission to Feel.
Academic and physical education have always been part of the broader curriculum. Emotional intelligence and resilience? Not so much. The problem of course is that emotional residency isn’t something best learned through a textbook. And—once again—kids learn this by your example.
“You teach your children to express their emotions by skillfully expressing yours. Conversely, if you are reluctant to express your feelings, or do so only sparingly, in as few words as possible, then that’s what your children will learn to do when they grow up.” You can learn more about developing emotionally intelligent bonds with kids here.