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Helping Teens Return to Structure and School

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

For most families across the U.S., this past year has been like no other.

We all know why: the pandemic.

We hope that it’s ending and that most of us are on the verge of returning to life-as-usual. Or perhaps a better way to say it is we’re returning to a new normal.

But there’s a twist. We’ve all grown accustomed to this abnormal, which means the new normal may feel, well, abnormal.

That’s true for adults and young kids. It’s true for teenagers, too.

If your teen stayed in school and your city or town was relatively unaffected by the pandemic – in terms of mask ordinances, stay-home rules, and the like – then this article is not really geared toward you. This is for families with teens who will return to school for the fall semester and be in the classroom for the first time since last March.

This will be a big transition for those kids.

For instance, some teens spent their entire first year of high school in their home school space on virtual learning platforms. These rising tenth graders may never have seen the inside of their school building. They may not have had to get up early to catch the bus, make it to first bell on time, or answer questions IRL in a high school class – ever.

While many teens had regular schedules to follow, there’s a big difference between logging on at 8:05 and showing up in person in the classroom by 8:05. We’re writing this article to help those families prepare their teens for a return to a daily and weekly structure that’s different from the one they’ve followed for the past year or so.

Most teens are ready to go back – and you can help them make the transition as smooth as possible.

Back to The Routine

If we reverse engineer the life of a hypothetical tenth grader from that 8:05 a.m. first bell, we realize there’s a lot that goes into getting to in-person school on time.

First, depending on how that teen gets to school, wake-up will be much earlier. While a 7:30 wake-up may have worked for logging on at 8:05, it will never work for showing up in-person at 8:05. Okay, sure: we’ve all had that mad scramble when we wake up late and basically run out of the house in our pajamas and somehow make it on time.

But nobody wants that.

Therefore, the first big change is the wake-up time: check.

That means bedtime needs to be earlier: check.

That means everything before bedtime needs to happen earlier, too. Working backwards, here’s what needs to change: evening chill time, dinner time, homework time, social time, and extracurricular activity time – and that’s just a small sample. We didn’t include things many teens do, like household chores, volunteering, or holding down a part-time job.

During the pandemic, a lot of that wasn’t an option. Now all those options are back on the menu, and our teens, rather than having an entire afternoon to do it all, with no pesky transition time – meaning no travel time to/from school and everything else – need to fit it all in between 3:05 p.m. and a reasonable bedtime. Which, for the sake of argument, we’ll call 10:30 or 11:00 p.m., for your average 14–15-year-old.

All that after a full day of school, which will not happen while lounging at home in their room in pajamas, with devices by their side and a fridge full of snacks a couple of rooms away.

Start Preparing Now

We know kids are resilient and energetic. At the same time, though, we think it’s a good idea to prepare them for this transition by getting them used to a regular daily routine in a gradual, stepwise manner, starting this summer.

For most families, that means starting right now – because the earlier you prepare them, the better off they’ll be when August/September rolls around.

As for how to prepare them, we have ideas.

Starting with this list:

1. Day Camps

Day camps aren’t just for little kids. Parents can find day camps for teens in almost any area of interest, including:

  • Sports
  • Computers
  • Music
  • Drama
  • Circus Arts

The good thing about a day camp is that it prepares teens for a routine while doing something fun that they’re enthusiastic about. Some teens are enthusiastic about school, but we think you know what we mean. Day camps typically don’t have homework or tests, and most include lots of fun and games during the downtime. This is a great way to get teens used to being away from home for several hours a day, practicing social skills, and remembering what it takes to function in a group of peers. The best part is that it all happens with little to no stress or pressure at all.

2. Overnight Camps

Like day camps, overnight camps aren’t only for little kids. And like day camps, parents can find overnight camps in all the special interest areas we mention above. There are also overnight camps with no specialty, where the entire purpose is to spend time outside in nature, or indoors doing artsy things like ceramics, stained glass, tie-dye, or whatever the camp offers.

The options are virtually endless. Click here to read our article about the benefits of summer camp.

A great thing about overnight camps is that they allow teens to practice social skills and being a responsible, proactive member of a community in a context that’s neither their home nor their school. This allows them a range of options on both a personal and social level: they can reinvent themselves, rediscover themselves, and do everything in between. And they have to do it all according to a set schedule, which will prepare them for the school year.

3. Summer Jobs

This tried-and-true tradition can be a life-changing experience for a teenager. Summer jobs come in all shapes and sizes. In most states, teens can do landscaping, assistant work for building contractors, and any manner of manual labor. Restrictions on the types of jobs teens can do vary by state, and for the most part limit the type of machinery teens can operate. Other types of jobs include lifeguarding, babysitting, working as a camp counselor, and more – like basic office work for relatives, odd neighborhood jobs, and whatever a creative teen can find. There’s also restaurant work: jobs in just about any dish room are readily available this summer, as restaurants reopen and work to fill out their staffs and schedules.

If a summer job sounds like a good fit for your teen, please read our article Summer Jobs for Teens: All the Legal Details You Need to Know

4. Volunteering

For a teen motivated to do community service, there are many volunteer options, including:

  • Helping those in need. Church food drives, homeless shelters, and senior centers are a good place to start. After those, check out Habitat for Humanity and American Red Cross Youth.
  • Reading and education. The best place to start looking for volunteer opportunities in these areas is your local public library. Next, try School on Wheels and 826 National.
  • Animals. Animal shelters often require volunteers to be at least 16 years old, and zoos often require volunteers to be at least 14 years old. Paws and The Humane Society of the United States are great resources for finding opportunities to work with animals.
  • The Environment. Almost every neighborhood in the country has local park clean-up days. That’s a great place to start. And advantage here is that there’s almost never any training or commitment: your teen can sign up, show up, and work.
  • Museums. Museum volunteers have fun: they may lead tours for visitors, lead workshops, or teach younger kids. Visit The American Association for Museum Volunteers to find out more.
5. Summer School

There is no better way to prepare for a thing than by doing the thing itself. Summer school might not sound fun to a teenager, but this summer, it may be exactly what they need. If a teen fell behind in virtual school during the pandemic, this is the perfect way to recover credit and get them back in the swing of things. A teen who did fine during virtual learning might benefit from something like a week-long orientation program, which many schools offer. That may be a good option for a rising 10th grader who has not set foot in a school building for over a year.

In any case, summer school will most certainly prepare a teen for a return to the structure of school, because it is actually structured school. Again, it might not be what a teen wants, but it might be exactly what they need.

One Step at a Time

Experts on project management say the easiest way to complete a big assignment is by breaking it down into manageable pieces. You plan so that each piece, on its own, is not intimidating or overwhelming. You’ll make progress, check things off the list, and before long, you’re halfway there and the rest doesn’t look as big, because it’s not: you’ve done half the work already.

You can apply the same approach to preparing your teen for a return to school and a daily structure.

Start by filling their mornings or afternoons with things to do. The key here is that they occur outside the home. That’s an important piece you should not ignore. Your teenager needs to remember what it’s like to get out the door on time, with everything they need, without it being a mad, frantic, and stressful scramble for everyone at home.

After you find a way to add structure to a morning or afternoon separately, look for ways to fill the entire day with structured activities outside the home.

In an ideal world, you’ll find a way to give them at last two fully structured weeks during the summer. That should be enough to remind them what structure is like. When they return to school, they’ll be ready, and it won’t be a shock to the system. We suggest making this happen with at least a week to spare, so they can spend the last week before school chilling at home, spending time with friends, and finding peace of mind before school starts. During that final week before school, they can get used to going to bed earlier and remind themselves what it’s like to get up near the time they’ll need to get up for school.

Looking Forward to Getting Back

They can also use that final week to prepare themselves emotionally and psychologically for the big return – and giving them time and space to do this will help them feel more comfortable on the first day of school.

It should make you feel more comfortable too, because, after all, you need to prepare for parenting through the new school year. The new normal is coming, and the best time to start preparing is today. Summer always flies by, and before you know it – fingers crossed – you’ll be back in the routine. By the time school starts, this novel pandemic year, with all its disruption and challenge, should be in the rearview mirror where it belongs – and your family will be ready for what’s next.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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