Kids' schedules important, especially when heading back to school

August 30, 2010

University Park, Pa. -- The return to school marks an abrupt transition in a family's routine. It forces children into a schedule that in turn affects playtime, sleep and other free time.

That's why creating an effective schedule, both before and after returning to school, is important for improving performance for kids and parents alike, according to an expert in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Kids and parents alike perform more effectively when on a schedule that provides adequate time for rest, physical activity and work," said Frasier Zahniser, extension educator in Mercer County. "For children, school and play is their work."

She stressed that interacting with the world provides background knowledge required for academic learning and provides the social and emotional skills that are essential for learning in a school setting. "Children need activities that will help them develop physically, mentally, socially, emotionally and spiritually," she said.

Negotiation and compromise across the family creates a well-balanced schedule, which provides for play and learning time, in addition to time for physical activity and rest. "Variety, balance and moderation are the keys to scheduling effectively," Zahniser said.

Schedules help establish routines, which help reduce stress and provide a sense of security. The comfort of routines curbs misbehavior and is especially helpful for children with special needs.

To get students ready to return to the classroom, parents should establish a routine before school starts. "It is a good idea for children to do some reading, writing and math during the summer break to keep their skills honed and ready for fall," said Zahniser. "These don't need to be drill and practice like formal school but can be fun activities that utilize their academic skills."

One good option is a 4-H project, she suggested. Activities can involve a 4-H club, a summer child care or recreation program, or independent involvement with an adult helper. Materials are available at the Penn State Extension website at For more help, contact your county Penn State Extension office.

"Remember that it is parents' responsibility to provide for the welfare of their children when deciding where family members will spend their time," said Zahniser. If children must be left in child care -- whether at a child care center or the home of a relative or a family friend -- it is critically important that it be in a quality environment.

"School-age children often are left to care for themselves and possibly siblings before they have the skills to do so," she said. "Penn State also offers a publication for that, titled 'On My Own & OK,' found with other materials on the Extension website under 4-H Publication List."

When developing a schedule, leave time for snacks. "Children need three meals a day plus two to three snacks, which should be mini-meals or part of the full day's food plan," said Zahniser.

She recommends scheduling naps and sleep, too. "Children will require more sleep during periods of rapid physical growth," she said. "This is one reason teens require more sleep than children in elementary school."

Zahniser cautions against overbooking. While some children can articulate when they have too much or too little scheduled, misbehavior is the most frequent sign. Sometimes, overloaded children show signs of illness. "Young school-age children tend to want to do it all," she noted. "They are in the exploration stage when they try many activities."

But when children become more selective about their preferred activities in early adolescence (ages 10-14), tension can arise when kids' choices don't line up with parents' wishes. Sometimes parents enroll their children in activities to make up for their own lost childhood opportunities. Conversely, some parents sign kids up for everything they request. Talking about why the parent or child values these activities can help resolve such conflicts.

While every family and every child is different, some words ring true universally. "Less is more," said Zahniser. "Someone wiser than I said, 'You can do it all -- just not right now!'"

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Last Updated November 18, 2010