Ideas to Complete with Children to Support Their Mental Health on a School Break

School breaks can be exciting for kids, but it can also be a very stressful time for parents. Academic centers are a blessing because it allows parents to get things done throughout the day without “parent guilt.” Parents are able to drop off the child in an environment where they will learn, play, and be challenged throughout the day. However, when it's time for school breaks, this responsibility becomes entirely the parents. In order to make sure you are prepared for this school break, we have created a list of 8 simple mental health tips and activities that are great to implement in your child's routine. The addition of these activities will help maintain and improve your child's mental health when being away from the classroom. 


1. Gratitude Practice

As humans, we are biologically predisposed to assess the risks of a situation before considering the benefit. In primitive times, this was an understandable survival instinct. However, in the modern world, this instinct can make us overly negative and hypercritical when making decisions. Gratitude is a great way to foster an optimistic outlook and can improve your child’s mental well-being by pointing out the positives in their lives. A gratitude practice can come in various forms. You can talk about what you are thankful for with your child or you can make a gratitude jar. Creating a gratitude jar is very simple and all you will need is a mason jar, paper, scissors, and a pen. Using your scissors, cut your paper into long rectangles. The rectangles will need to be large enough to fit one or two sentences. Next, you will sit with your child and write down a couple of things you both are grateful for. Things you can ask your child are questions like “what is something that made you smile today?” or “what is something you are thankful for?” You can plan to write down a couple of things at the start of the week with your child and eventually you will have a jar full of happy thoughts. 

Experts recommend keeping positive gratitude handy when you need to adjust your perspective. This simple activity will teach your child to think of the positives in times of stress and will improve their outlook on life (CentreSpringMD, 2022). 


2. Establishing a Structured Routine 

School is all about structure. Classes, nap time, lunchtime, and playtime are all scheduled for our children throughout their school day. Establishing a routine for your child during their school breaks can be daunting. But as parents, creating a structured day will make them less anxious and keep them adapted for when it is time to go back to school. In the mornings, it can be helpful to give your child choices, which will provide them with a sense of control. For example, ask your child if they want to wear a t-shirt or a long sleeve shirt with shorts or ask if they want oatmeal or cereal for breakfast. After they respond, make sure to follow up with positive reinforcement, like “I think that is a great choice.” Offering positive reinforcement will keep your child on task and motivated to continue following directions. With this being said, parents should not hesitate to celebrate everything. This is important for children who are adapting to a new schedule and will accelerate their independence. It is normal for your child to reject parts of the routine in the beginning. If your child is rebelling against a part of the routine, try breaking down the task into smaller tasks and enforce with positive comments. It is very common for children to have school assignments to complete during the summer. In order to accomplish these assignments, creating a work area can help your child get into school mode and stay in it. If possible, doing school assignments and having play time should be done somewhere other than the child's room, i.e. table, office, outside, etc. This will strengthen the child's association with bed and bedtime (Caron, 2020).


3. Staying Active

Moving our bodies is not only great for our physical health, but it is also amazing for our minds. When we move our body, we ramp up the production of our brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, scientifically known as endorphins. The increased production of endorphins has stress-relieving benefits and can boost our moods. Without P.E. class and recess embedded in your child's schedule, it is important for parents to set aside time every day to allow their child to get outdoors and move their bodies. Children who are physically active and go outside are found to sleep better and be less stressed. Studies have also found that children with ADHD, experienced reduced attention and impulsivity symptoms after spending time in “green spaces” (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). 


4. Fostering Open Communication

According to SheKnows journal, postdoctoral psychologist, Brad Stevens, Ph.D., reports that talking openly about mental health is key for the psychological wellness of your child. Not only does open communication about a child's mental health make parents more approachable, but it also destigmatizes the topic. Children who are spoken to about mental health are found to become more self-aware adults. In addition to speaking about mental health with your child, you also must be setting an example of healthy behaviors. For example, parents should talk to their children, in an age-appropriate way, about their feelings and how they are planning on addressing them. By doing this, you will normalize having “big” feelings and prevent your child from ignoring theirs (Ishak, 2020). 


5. Limit Screen Time

Without school in session, it might be impossible for your child to go the whole day without screens. However, limiting screen time for your child can have exceptional mental health benefits for your child. Studies show that 70% of youth have decreased emotional intelligence because they are spending a significant time speaking through devices instead of engaging in meaningful conversations with those around them (Digital Futures Initiative, 2022). Children who are addicted to technology suffer from social isolation, poor social skills, unstable moods, impulse problems, sleep disorders, and low self-esteem. People who are emotionally intelligent have healthier relationships, higher adaptability, and prioritize achieving their personal goals. Children develop emotional intelligence by observing and interacting with the world and people around them, not their iPad screens. By promoting less screen time and placing limits around tech use, you will be increasing your child's self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation. Remember, technology should be a tool for children, not a way of life (Psychology Today, 2022). 


6. Develop a Nighttime Routine

Getting enough sleep is a necessity for everyone, especially a growing child. Kids are known to thrive in a structured environment, which is why getting your child to bed at the same time every day is important. Dr. Howard from the New York Times, suggests using a simple visual aide to help visualize the routine for your child, for example drawing out the routine. By doing this, the child will be primed to follow it the next day and begin gaining independence. Every child’s bedtime routine is different, however, some things that can help are reading books before bed, singing a lullaby together, and stopping screen-time two hours before bed. Most technology screens emit blue light, which can negatively impact our natural circadian rhythm function and interfere with quality sleep. Once the routine is created, do your best to stick to it so that your child knows when and where he/she should be sleeping (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019). 


7. Chores

School breaks are meant to be fun, but giving your child tasks will help promote responsibility. Every child can do something around the house, whether picking up after themselves or loading the dishwasher after dinner. Chores are not meant to be stress-inducing tasks, they should be simple. Not only does assigning chores take tasks off your to-do list, but a Harvard study found that children who complete chores are more likely to become happy, healthy, and independent adults in comparison to children that do not have chores. A 20-year-long study done at the University of Minnesota found that the best predictor of success in young adulthood was whether the person began doing chores at an early age. Helping around the house can make the child feel competent and encourages them to help others. For younger children, chores can be rewarded with a sticker chart. For teenagers, completed chores can be rewarded with a monthly allowance (Albernaz, 2015). 


8. Care for Yourself

As parents, having a full to-do list is nothing out of the norm. However, caring for yourself, regardless of your responsibilities, should also be a priority. Making time in your day to do things that help you manage your stress and help recharge is essential in maintaining your well-being. This could be exercising, talking with friends, reading a book, dancing, or keeping a journal, etc. By practicing self-care, your child will also mirror this practice in their life. In addition to taking care of ourselves, it is also important to not wait until the last minute to ask for help when you are overwhelmed. By doing this, you are modeling that it is okay to feel this way and that there are options and support to help you through a difficult time. This will prevent your child from developing habits of overloading themselves or putting themselves last in life (UNICEF, 2022). 


About the Writer

Nicole Wang received her Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from the University of Florida. She has worked in the Emergency Department as a Medical Scribe, volunteered in various medical specialties, and has assisted in Melanoma research at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute. In addition to working at The Costello Center as a Mental Health Course Developer and Researcher, she also leads Postpartum Support International’s Pregnancy Mood Support Groups. Ms. Wang is applying to Doctoral programs in Clinical Psychology and hopes to begin in the Fall of 2023.