When I was a kid, summer meant no school, no stress, and no structure. Growing up in the rural Midwest, my neighborhood group of friends and I had created a routine of our own. It included morning chores, kickball, or some random outdoors poking around. Later, we’d play board games over lunch and then spend the afternoon in the lake. We’d head home for dinner with our parents at our respective houses and then get together for a game of freeze tag or firefly chasing until it was dark. It was a quintessential summer. This is not the type of summer many neurodivergent children experience; this lack of structure may not be as well-suited for them.
Coping with Summer Schedule Shifts
If you are a parent of a child with learning differences, you know the importance of routines—neurodivergent kids need predictability and do much better when they have it.
Summertime can pose new challenges for parents and caregivers—especially for kids with learning differences, like ADHD, who crave structure. All the well-established routines from the school year go out the window during summer, when parents are faced with seven (or more) loosely structured weeks that have a minimal resemblance to their children’s school days. By the second week of school being out, it usually dawns on me how deeply I relied on that structure as summer camp begins—with its new pick-up and drop-off times, new friends, and new activities. I’m blindsided every time by the need to go over these new routines.
Some students are eligible for Extended School Year (ESY) services. ESY happens at the end of the current school year, and allows students to get used to their new classroom, peers, teachers, and support staff for the following school year. This is vital: we want the transition back into school in the fall to happen as smoothly as possible (note that I said “as smoothly as possible;” the start of the year typically isn’t perfectly smooth, but it’s a good target). ESY helps lessen students’ anxiety about returning to school seven weeks later. It also gives some parents four extra weeks of routines and less time to find camps and activities, summer caregivers, or part-time jobs for their children. It’s a win-win.
Although the camp, campers, coaches, and gurus change each week like a revolving door, consistency and structure is achieved by going to a “home base.” As with school, there is a drop-off point with a pep talk, and pick-up one with an after-class debrief, providing bookends to their day.
Communication with the counselors and instructors is essential for kids’ success, even in summer. It’s helpful to meet the people monitoring your children during the camp; it gives you the opportunity to speak to them about anything that might come up (like if your child needs to take breaks or gets overstimulated). When it comes to your kids, hearing how their day went is another great way to help support them. It provides the intel you need to talk through things that may need an adjustment for the following days, or praise them for their triumphs.
Changing Routines can be a Good Thing
Summer is a great time to work on maintaining the predictability families rely on and helping build resilience in our children by adjusting them to modified schedules. Be aware that disruptions can happen in the middle of a stable, structured routine (like school). Over the last school year, my son’s classroom faced numerous staff changes with little notice. This is not ideal, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. And sometimes, routines stop working and need adjustment, and we must help navigate the transition period until things settle back into something recognizable and familiar.
If you don’t partake in summer camps ( maybe you have a summer nanny or other caretaker), you’ll need to create a new routine for the summer weeks. If a caretaker reports to your home for the day, you may need to establish a new ritual that mimics the structure that going to school provides. Perhaps you make a point to sit, have breakfast, and go over activity choices for the day. Some parents may have a short morning meeting to review the plans and expectations for the day. Doing something like this provides a strong anchoring point of predictability for kids as they start their day.
Whether chatting with the caregiver in the evening (perhaps over dinner), your kids may be excited to share their day. You can leverage this approach when you get home to help bookend your kid’s day and transition them into bedtime. Parents.com gives a few tips to help keep things simple when discussing the day’s successes and challenges.
The bedtime routine is one of the most talked-about routines—for a good reason, sleep is of the utmost importance for young developing minds. Regardless of where we go or what camp we participate in for the week, I try to keep the same bedtime routine to end the day, which can be very comforting.
You can find structure and routine during the summer—even when it may seem challenging to do so. Implementing a few tweaks and updates to your family’s standard school year regime can promote both fun and growth in your children. Consistently starting the day with a summer morning routine and maintaining a usual bedtime routine helps provide consistency that all children need, especially as surroundings change for a few months.
About the Author
Kendra Demler is a single mom and parent writer living in the Bay Area. Her personal experiences have given her a talent for candidly retelling the good, the bad, and sometimes cringe-worthy adventures in neurodivergent and high-needs parenting. Raising her son as a solo parent has driven her passion for using her voice to spread awareness, increase acceptance, and provide support and resources for families of neurodivergent children.