If you are hoping for growth in more than vocabulary and math this new school year for your children and teens, here are five areas to consider where little shifts will create big differences.

Car rides.  

Conversations may normally happen face-to-face, but if you really want to get the words flowing, drive your kids/teens somewhere and you’ll be amazed at what you learn. Either by talking directly to your children or listening to the conversations going on in the back seat between their friends or siblings, you will find out more than you can imagine.

Having these conversations are critical, even with heavy topics like teens and alcohol. If you are saying to yourself this isn’t true in my car, I am confident in who is to blame—it’s technology. From smartphones to dvd players, these “bandits of time and attention” are the equivalent to duct tape on your kids’ mouths (and eventually their hearts).

I’m not suggesting you create a zero tolerance tech policy for your SUV or minivan (though not a bad idea), just pick a time that will be tech-free and stick to it. I recommend having the first time you are in the car together for the day as tech free as possible. Be it the morning drive to school, pick up after school, or even driving to dinner—let your first time together be filled with words rather than screens. Ready to give it a try?  Click here for some great conversation starters.

Meal times.

One simple strategy to reduce the risk of obesity, substance abuse, and eating  disorders in your children is to eat dinner together as a family at least four times a week. Finding time to make this happen can be difficult for busy families, but the positive effects of being together and the conversations that result are well worth the effort. If eating at “your” table is not realistic with your weekly schedule, then commit to eating at “a” table together. The power of this is not in the location, but rather in the adventure of engaging your family members in conversation, laughter, and life experiences together.

Bed times.

Getting everyone back into the bedtime routines for school can involve a bit of griping and complaining (the kids might have a hard time with it, too). But before you lay down the ultimatums, know this is a great time to rethink your plan from the year before. As our children/teens are growing up, it might be time to make their bedtimes a little later. If you found that last year your teen wasn’t getting enough sleep, maybe you need to provide extra structure for them to get the rest needed. There are studies correlating sleep and learning performance, physical health, and mental health outcomes. If your children are younger, make the decision for them and move forward. If you have a teen in the home, work with them to develop a schedule where everything gets completed in time and they also get the amount of sleep they need. The key is to make bedtime choices intentional, not accidental.

Friends.  

The only thing worse than having your own flashbacks of middle school or high school friendship navigation is watching your own children trying to do the same. From good influences to bad ones, nothing upsets the social order like everyone coming back to a new school year in different classrooms—along with new classmates and friendships.

For some, this is a welcome relief from the four walls they were trapped in last year, and others might be without their best friend for the first time in years. This isn’t something for us to ignore because friendships have an impact on almost every area of our lives. Choose this year to equip and not rescue. Rescuing is when we fix the situation for them. Equipping is when we give them the tools to navigate these waters with wisdom. Remember, they will be doing this on their own much sooner than we are prepared for, so start now helping them develop their decision-making skills so they will be able to choose right when they are on their own.

Time on Tech.

Being aware of how long your children/teens are on tech devices is difficult. With the number of devices in each home, it is convenient to jump from one to the other and screen time adds up quickly each day. This is problematic because as screen time increases, so does the likelihood of poor grades, depression, bullying, and obesity. American Academy of Pediatrics screen time guidelines are: zero screen time for kids two years of age and under, and 1-2 hours of high quality content for those older. Here are a few ways to make that happen: a) no tech in bedrooms; b) no tech at meal times; and c) parental use of tech management tools such as Circle to track usage.

Be encouraged! You do not have to implement all of these at once. Start with what you can do now and add more as you are successful. Your small steps over time will bring great results!