How to Build an After School Routine That Works For Everyone: 6 Tips For Parents

The start of school means a regular schedule returns, with kids out of the house until the afternoon. Then comes a conflict, because they come home from their “work”, where they have to behave and fit in with their peers, and they’re spent. But your day isn’t over. You still need to get stuff done and you have a simple wish. “You want them to hold on a little longer,” says Yael Schonbrun, psychologist in Newton, Massachusetts. 

One thing: They can’t hold out. You could put them in front of a screen but you know that’s not the most productive or healthiest approach. What they need is structure, an after school routine that is recurring and comfortable but flexible enough to not feel rigid.  “It gives children a sense of comfort and a context to regulate their own behaviors,” says Jill Trumbell, assistant professor of human development and family studies at University of New Hampshire. 

The good news is that you don’t need an every-minute structure and there’s no requirement for what makes for a great after school schedule for kids. You know your kids and what they like and need, which can change regularly. Overall, however, they do well with a chance to be creative, make choices and play, and some of that has to be with you. They also might need a sandwich.

Here are some things to consider when creating an after school routine for kids.

1. Make Time for Small Talk and Snacks

It’s good to ask about your child’s day, but kids might not want to answer as soon as they get home. They need to decompress by flopping on the couch or going into their rooms or doing something else. The goal of the after school routine is to help them reset, so before you do anything, “Start with a pause,” Schonbrun says. 

After that, feed them. They’re hungry from the physical and mental energy they’ve exerted and/or because they haven’t eaten, says Emily Edlynn, licensed psychologist in Oak Park, Illinois. Lunch and snack times aren’t always long enough. They might not feel comfortable eating in front of others, and what you pack might not be too sticky or too chewy. A check of their lunch boxes can provide good feedback.

2. Provide a Few Activity Choices…

As for the actual after school plans, get your child’s input and then winnow down the options. “Too many choices and they get indecisive,” Edlynn notes. But whenever possible, let them pick. This gives them a freedom and control that they don’t have at school. Make activities and supplies accessible, and for kids who can’t read, make the lists visual and explain that, “When you’re not sure what to do, look at the yellow paper on the refrigerator.” With siblings, you can put choices into a hat and let them alternate so everyone gets a say and no one dominates, Trumbell suggests. 

3. …But Remain Flexible

Structure is good, but the Cardboard Box Rule always looms, where something simple and unexpected becomes the activity. No, it wasn’t the plan, but it is the plan. Get out of the way and enjoy it for however long it lasts. If your kids are working and creating together, even better. As Edlynn says, “fifteen minutes of harmonious sibling play is a success.”

The flip side is that the spontaneity can never be scheduled or repeated. It just happens and the hard part is to give up control and play a game of How’s This Gonna Play Out? What usually takes place is that your kids will work out their rules and consequences. It won’t be tussle-free, but there’s a long-term payoff. “If we trust them, they feel confident in themselves that they can figure out what they need,” she says. 

4. You Need to Be Involved a Little

Yes, you have meals to prep and assignments of your own to handle. But your kids need time with you at some point during the after school routine. Trumbell notes that it’s more about quality time than a specific quantity. Kids can see when you’re distracted and they can feel complete attention as well. When you do the latter, even if it’s 10 minutes, the effect is two-fold. You get out of your worries and appreciate them more, and they de-stress. “They can recognize we’ll be here to hear them,” she says. 

Whatever you do doesn’t have to be physical stuff, but that also doesn’t hurt. Recess time is getting less and less so getting them outside helps burn energy, and when it comes to kids slightly tired often means more calm. It’s weather-dependent, but you can also jump on beds, wrestle, or play indoor basketball. It builds a level of connection that will permeate the rest of the day.

5. Yeah, (Some) Screens Are Okay.

Ah screen time. Its siren song will call to you. Let’s face it, even the best activities are only so captivating and sometimes you need guaranteed, non-interrupted time for longer than 15 minutes. Select the shows on the approved list and give them a limit of X number for the afternoon. They get the choice of when to watch, yet another way to offer control. But it’s important to be clear on the limits and expectations, not just for the shows but for whatever is okay to do during the afternoon. “Gray areas can cause power struggles and conflicts,” Edlynn says.

6. Be Upfront About Your Time

When it comes to after school routine, it’s easy to focus on the kids. But the missing piece is your needs. That’s why you need to be upfront about your schedule and routine. If it’s work, explain to the that it’s necessary in order to pay the bills but that you also enjoy it (Chances are, if you work from home, you’ve already had this talk during the pandemic; but it’s good to reiterate) No, this won’t immediately stop every interruption — habits take time — but you’ve laid out the fuller picture, Trumbell says. 

It’s also important to convey that you getting alone time and breaks helps you be all-around better. It’s another aspect of predictability that “if you get this, they get a happier you.” 

“They want a parent that’s warm and open and long-fused,” Schonbrun says. “It creates an environment that everyone wants to be part of and that everyone can be their most successful selves.” 

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