It's happens to all of us: one month into the school year, a new exercise plan, a morning routine and—whoops—there's a snag, a motivational meltdown, or a major roadblock. Here's how to get your best intentions (I'm so taking that stroller run this morning) and high hopes (Tommy will love his new school!) back on track.
Morning routines, in particular, can go off the tracks in a big way. The trick is to remind children exactly what they need to do in a way they understand, then teach them the process, says organizing expert Molly Gold, founder of Go Mom! (gomominc.com) and mother of three in Apex, North Carolina. She found that a pictorial timeline for her school-age sons, then 6 and 8, helped them stay the course in the mornings when she was breastfeeding her daughter. "I wrote down the times that they're supposed to brush teeth, eat, get up. They matched up the numbers with the clock to know what they should be doing at those times," she says. "It's not that you turn them loose, but if they have a sense of how things flow, you can be doing something for a sibling while saying, 'what's the next step on your chart?'"
New home, new school -- it was a lot for a preschooler to handle, but Jennifer Friedrich, an event planner in Evanston, Illinois, thought it was going fine. That is, until Vivian, 3, began acting out and skipping lunch. To soothe Vivian, who also has a younger sibling, Friedrich and her husband gave the child "special time" after they got home from work. "Vivian chooses what she wants to do/play with Mama or Papa. Basically she needed a little more intentional attention. What's funny is that we haven't increased our time with her by that much—it just has a new name and we are more mindful!" Friedrich also started packing Vivian's lunch in a special bag and gave her choices of what she wanted to bring. "I tuck a little note or picture that I've drawn in her bag. Now she's eating again," she says.
Amanda Halek of Madison, Wisconsin launched right back into her stroller-jogging routine after her second child was born, 18 months after her first. But when her toddler rejected rides, and Halek—exhausted from sleepless nights with a fussy baby—caught the flu, then pneumonia, all bets were off. "I didn't put exercise on the back burner. I had to take it off the stove all together," she says.
Even in normal conditions, keeping a workout routine going in those challenging post-pregnancy days can be tough. Halek slowly got back in gear by adapting her workout to her family: She took the action indoors, making use of the childcare room at her gym, and trying workout videos. And, most importantly, she says, she cut herself some slack. "I'd promised myself I'd fit into my old jeans by wintertime. But once I took the pressure off—I said 'It's OK, I'll get there but will need some extra time,' and I got some 'transition jeans'—I felt much better about everything."
If your exercise-buster is your bigger kids, try to make family time double as exercise time, says personal trainer Monique Hollowell, CEO of LaFemme Mobile Gym. Try child-friendly activities such as dancing, jump roping, hula hooping, bike riding, or swimming.
A common scenario: At first, the kids are as excited as you are about new, healthy lunch offerings—then they start pushing away the veggie wraps and pining for the school's greasy pizza. Jennifer Slaton, a mom of two boys in Birmingham, Alabama discovered a super—er, superhero—strategy to fight this slump: "When John Max started his new classroom, he embraced their suggestion that he just take one bite of things that he normally wouldn't eat, like broccoli or greens. And then the newness wore off and he went back to no broccoli, no chicken, not even corn," Slaton says. Not long after, John Max fell in love with superhero action figures and his mom saw them as a way to encourage healthier eating. "There were a lot of discussions about the superheroes -- what kind of cars they drive, where they live, and what they eat. So I said, 'You know what Batman eats? Broccoli. That's his very favorite food.' I remember his eyes widening, then narrowing, and he said, 'Well I'm going to eat broccoli too!' And he did!" Not to let an opportunity pass, Slaton soon spread the word that Superman's fave food is carrots (to help him see through stuff), Ironman loves eggs, and Spiderman can't live without chicken. "Total breakthrough," she says. "He started eating all of those things, and it has lasted."
Those pretty file folders sit empty in your office while paperwork crowds your kitchen counter. And there are dust bunnies under the dining room table in spite of your new Swiffer. So much for your fresh-start organizing/cleaning plan for autumn! Maybe what you need to get back on the organized track isn't new stuff so much as a new plan that works with your own way of doing things, says organizing expert Molly Gold. If your current system is failing, examine how you naturally use the rooms in your home. If the mail still ends up in a pile on the kitchen table instead of in the files on your desk, maybe the files belong in the kitchen, too, she points out. "You can put a file box with a lid on it in the kitchen, or carve out some space for an accordion file in a cabinet. Portable files make it easy for you to set up a processing center anywhere: Take it in the car if you have a lot of time to kill in carpool. You have to think: What happens, good or bad, and how can I outsmart myself?"
You may also want to give up on that full afternoon of cleaning that was your pre-season idea (who has time for that?), and take baby steps instead. It works for Maggie Conran, a mother of three in Nashville, who blogs at nomommybrain.blogspot.com. She simply cleans when she can squeeze it in, like finding time while the kids are napping for "a cleaning dance party. I bust out a cute apron, hot pink gloves, and fun cleaning products (like Mrs. Meyers or a cute scrub brush), turn up some hip hop on my iPod, and get myself back in the groove."
During the busy school year, life— sports practice, ballet lessons, work deadlines —has a way of preempting your regularly (and lovingly) scheduled family dinners until, before you know it, everyone's hitting the microwave at different times and noshing in front of the TV most nights. The solution? Think quality, not quantity: Accept that family dinners seven nights a week just might not be a reality—and that's OK. Then figure out a couple of nights that will work and make those nonnegotiable, says parenting expert Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions, Inc. (positiveparentingsolutions.com). To make those nights feel really special, "get everyone involved in the event prep," she says. "A 2-year-old can put forks at everyone's place, a 4r-year-old can tear up lettuce or put grapes in a bowl."
Nicola Mildren's daughter Annie had been a great sleeper, even when she moved into a toddler bed. But a month later the shine was off the new bed and the 2-1/2 year old began waking in the night, wanting to come to her parents' bed. And at first, they let her, says this mom from Parkersburg, West Virginia, who was also nursing her 9-month-old, Margaret, at the time. But soon nobody was getting the rest they needed.
Mildren and her husband came up with a plan: "He would get up with Annie and I would get up with Margaret. He slept on the floor next to her bed for a few nights, then the phase was over." Mildren says the strategy worked because they were loving and never made Annie feel bad about her behavior, and they were firm—refusing to give in once the plan was in place. "Parents hate to use the word no, but this is an instance where they were right to," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., social psychologist, blogger for Psychology Today, and author of The Book of No: 250 Ways to Say It and Mean It. The same goes for faltering bedtime routines -- a common occurrence in the first few weeks after school starts. Be sure both you and your partner stick to how many stories will be read or quiet games played, Newman says. Consistency is key. If the kids still don't seem ready for bed, she suggests backing up your bedtime routine by 30 minutes, incorporating plenty of wind-down time.
It's not uncommon for kids to start talking about problems with friends (or the lack of buddies) after a few weeks of school. Likely the novelty of the new school year has worn off and children have settled into groups of friends at school—and your child may not know where he fits in. "Talk it through and be sympathetic—at times like these a child needs to know his parents are behind him and that they understand," says social psychologist Susan Newman. A quick talk with his teacher may uncover the source of conflict, and she or he may be able to offer a simple solution: moving his seat or putting him in different groups so that he feels included. And if the problem is making friends, chat up some of your child's classmates' parents and organize a weekend playdate. Getting the kids together in a neutral location—the park playground, for example—might help break the ice. But be aware that sometimes your child just needs to blow off steam, Newman says, "Often it is one small thing that your child has blown out of proportion in his/her head. Don't be surprised if he comes home a few days later, happy as can be."
Potty training is almost guaranteed to come with some setbacks—so don't feel like you or your kid is a failure if you have to back up for a while. That's the situation for Elizabeth Burnworth, mom of two in Columbia, South Carolina, who's potty-training her son Beau. "After a few weeks of 'boy pants' and free range bottoms, smelly piles of undies and urine-soaked grout, our potty train is back at the station," she says. The family is trying a slower expert-endorsed rewards approach: a sticker chart, M&Ms, and the offer of a T-Rex action figure for "putting all the poopies and tinkles in the potty for a week." The key to potty training success: know your child, be patient, and don't rush the process: it's perfectly normal for some children not to be ready until 30 months or even older, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
If your heretofore happy toddler has decided to throw a whopper of a meltdown as soon as the two of you arrive at daycare in the morning (something this writer knows all too well!)—it's hard to take solace in the old saw that this too shall pass. Instead of lingering and soothing, which only extends and reinforces the drama, beat a calm and speedy retreat, says parenting expert McCready. The new meltdowns are probably not a sign of anything serious. In fact, "95 percent of the time the child is perfectly fine after you walk out the door," she says. The best response is very little response with a follow-up with the child's teacher later to see how your child behaves the rest of the day. The daycare staff should let you know if something seems really wrong.