How to help students create a routine at the start of a new school year

Welcome to the School Zone, WTOP’s weekly feature about the latest topics and trends in education across the D.C. region.

Tips for creating a back-to-school routine

What it is: With the first few days of a new school year now complete, parents and students across the D.C. region are transitioning from summer schedules to school night routines.

But what can parents and students do to ease back into a new school year?

For one, creating a sleep schedule is essential, Tamar Mendelson, director of the Center for Adolescent Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told me.

Even with the school year underway, it’s not too late to create a plan and structure for things like what needs to happen the night before school, what needs to get done in the morning and what the plan for homework or after-school activities is.

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When a child feels engaged in the process of making the routine, Mendelson said, they’ll feel more ownership of the process, which could help development of time management and planning skills.

It could be helpful to have a routine or schedule that is written out and posted somewhere as well.

Healthy eating habits are key for students to get reacclimated too. Parents may have a list of foods that their child likes and can be aware of what meals and snacks their kids bring to school.

Parents should be aware of the things “that your child will actually eat,” Mendelson advises.

Because there may be new aspects of the beginning of the school year, Mendelson recommends paying close attention to students’ mental health, too. Instead of making it just about rules or chores, she said, there should be time built in to routines for fun activities, like a family game night, watching TV or something else kids can look forward to.

And top of mind, Mendelson said, should also be “knowing your child and what their mood is like, what their level of anxiety is, about returning to school.”

What it means: A good night’s sleep is an essential part of getting kids back into school mode, said Dr. Emerson Wickwire, professor and section head of sleep medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Planning around a sleep schedule is necessary because children who “obtain adequate quantity and quality of sleep” perform better academically and have fewer behavioral difficulties, Wickwire told me.

For kids between ages 6 and 13, nine to 11 hours of sleep are recommended. For high schoolers, the range is eight to 10 hours. For kids under 6, 10 to 13 hours of sleep are recommended.

Quality and quantity of sleep are factors parents and students should consider, Wickwire said.

Students should also avoid light, sugar and caffeine before going to sleep, he said.

Bedrooms most conducive to quality sleep are cool, dark and uncluttered, Wickwire told me, and creating a consistent wind down period before going to sleep is also helpful.

“If your children are having difficulty sleeping, if your children snore, if your children’s teachers describe that your son or daughter is having a difficult time paying attention, or often falls asleep during class, there are experts in the Washington, D.C. area who can help,” Wickwire said.

Talking points: Padreus Pratter, a Prince William County, Virginia, parent, said his daughter just started kindergarten, which means getting used to a new school start time.

“We’ve been doing a lot of reading as parents — OK, what does it look like for the first week of school for a child? What’s normal? What’s not? Are they coming home agitated? Are they coming home regressing? Are they eating well at school? All of those type of worries,” he said.

Mendelson, with Johns Hopkins, said, “Parents are going to have the best insights into what their kids need.”

By the numbers
Some data that caught my eye this week.

Declining scores: Reading and math scores for 9-year-olds across the U.S. sharply declined during the first two years of the pandemic, according to data released Thursday by the National Center for Education Statistics.

The average math score fell 7% between 2020 and 2022, and reading scores fell five points on average.

Additional data is expected to be released later this year.

[Read more about the test score trends on]

What Scott’s Reading

  • Youngkin executive order aims to address Virginia teacher shortage [WTOP]
  • Judge tosses suit that tried to deem books obscene for kids [WTOP]
  • National Association of State Boards of Education has plan to amplify student voices [WTOP]
  • MCPS clamps down on students’ cellphone use during school [Bethesda Beat]
  • All eyes on affordable housing: Chamber forum hits on education, regional accessibility [InsideNova]
  • 15-year-old charged in shooting of 2 classmates outside D.C. school [Washington Post]

Field Trip 

Here’s a fun thought ahead of the weekend.

Football fiesta: College football is back, which means the return of watch parties. I’ll be rooting on my Maryland Terrapins and Miami Hurricanes on Saturday afternoon. For some reason, I have an itch to cook baked ziti, too.

Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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