Prioritizing Wellbeing for a Successful School Year

Prioritizing Wellbeing for a Successful School Year

Author: Natalie Fikac, Ed.D. (she/her)

A woman holds the hands of two students on their way to school


The Importance of Self-care for the Mental Health of Children 

It is no surprise that there has been an increase in levels of overwhelm, burnout and stress experienced by families in recent years.  

In fact, the 2023 MHA survey found that 11.5% of youth reported severe major depression. Another study by the NCBI found that more than 2.7 million children and adolescents are living with severe major depression, and another study by the CDC showed that from 2019-2022, about 15% of US children recently received mental health treatment.  

One variable that makes the topic of mental health more difficult is that as our children’s brains are developing, they are also observing the adults around them who are living in a state of stress. Fortunately, the neuroplasticity of our brains allows us the opportunity to learn new skills, put practices into place and change the trajectory of how we show up in life. “What fires together wires together”(Donald Hebb, 1949). 


Tips for incorporating self-care into daily school routines 

The consistency of a school year provides a unique opportunity to try new things. Our childhood years are compartmentalized by the beginning and end of the school year. The beginning of the school year can create excitement, fear, and anxiety. When we look at the beginning of the school year as an opportunity to try new things, this allows space for creativity and new practices. 

Below are some easy strategies and tools to try out this school year. 


Routine. Routine. Routine. 

Doing the same thing each day creates a sense of calm and flow that can decrease worry and lessen anxiety.  Creating these routines for the time when our children are at home can begin each morning and end each day. Setting morning routines that include waking up at the same time each morning, setting out clothing, backpacks, lunches, etc. At the end of the school day, taking a short break before beginning responsibilities from the school day such as homework, eating a snack, readying for bed and going to bed at the same time each day is also helpful.  


Schedule Down Time. 

The school day is filled with socialization, learning opportunities and stimulation. It is important to schedule time each day, week and over the weekend for children and youth to disconnect from the structures of learning. 


Ensure Time for Adequate Rest. 

The brains of children and youth are continually growing, changing and evolving based on the world around them and their experiences. Ensuring that there is ample time for the brain and body to rest is essential. Research would suggest that we need 7-9 hours of sleep each night. 


Suggestions for Age-appropriate Self-care Activities. 

There is a level of emotional intelligence required to recognize the need to pause and take care of oneself. As the adults in the family, sometimes it is helpful for us to recognize this in ourselves, name it and model it for our children and families. Noticing, naming and recognizing our children’s need to pause is equally important. Below are a few easy-to-use strategies for the home. 


Breath Work. 

Breathing is an involuntary bodily function that we also have the ability to control. Breath work includes breathing in and out in a controlled way to release toxins and stress on the outbreath and to nourish our mind and bodies on the in breath. This Breath Work Video that illustrates box breathing is one great example. Blowing bubbles is another fun way to practice breath work. 


Unstructured Play. 

It is important for children and youth to experience unstructured time to play. Unstructured can mean a time with no rules, schedule, agenda, or time outside in nature. This article cites the importance of this time as crucial to the development of social, emotional, and cognitive development and the development of imagination and stress relief practices. 


Create Opportunities for Flow. 

Find ways in the home to allow time for things that are easy and take little thought. The unique gifts of our children and youth show up in different ways. Finding these unique gifts and ensuring that there is time within the day for them to experience flow is important. Examples might include, folding laundry, putting away the dishes, counting marbles, coloring, walking the dog, etc. 


Make Time for Laughter. 

Dr. Amid Sood (2022), says that a deep belly laugh can provide 6 hours of oxytocin to our brains thus reducing stress and overwhelm. Families that laugh together can process adversities in healthy ways. In this article, there are many short- and long-term effects of incorporating laughter into the day including stimulating our organs and enhancing our immune systems. 


Limit Screen Time. 

According to this article, the average American spends six hours and 58 minutes in front of a screen each day. This is a great deal of time that we could spend doing other things. Screentime can include time in front of a television, computer, laptop, cellular device, or gaming system. While screens may be readily accessible for our families to spend time in front of, screens are also tools that we have the freedom to turn off and step away from. Families may start small and intentionally set timers to spend time together away from screens. Children and youth can earn time in front of screens as a mechanism of monitoring this time.  


Encourage Movement.  

The human body is made to move. Sometimes days at school are filled with long periods of time of lengthy sitting, especially as our children attend secondary schools where recess is not a part of the daily schedule. The CDC states that  “regular physical activity is one of the most important things you can do for your health. Being physically active can improve your brain health, help manage weight, reduce the risk of disease, strengthen bones and muscles, and improve our ability to do everyday activities.”  This article by The Sport’s Institute suggests that getting kids more active can be achieved in many ways, including:  

  • Helping your child find a team sport or activity that fits with their interests  

  • Scheduling active time with your child: walk the dog, go to the park  

  • Setting up spaces in your home or yard that encourage physical activity  

  • Providing time for kids to move during the day  

  • Perhaps most importantly, creating a safe space for children and teens to talk about mental health struggles, and working with them to find ways to feel better 


Encourage Parents and Caregivers to Model Self-care Behaviors  

Parents and caregivers are the first teachers of their children. Though our children spend many hours in classrooms, they also spend a great deal of time at home with us. Our children are silently observing and learning from our actions and behaviors.  

One such way to model self-care behaviors is to actively voice your feelings. Many of us grew up in a time when we did not share our feelings and this may be difficult for some of us. But, if we are open and honest about what we are feeling, this models emotional intelligence within our families.  

An example might be: “I am having a great day today and I feel happy. When I feel happy, it is easier for me to get my chores done. I am feeling rushed and angry today. When I feel rushed and angry it is more difficult for me to get my chores done. One thing that I can do to support myself when I am angry is to talk about my feelings, take some deep breaths, pet our dog and go outside to get some fresh air for a few minutes.”  

What we say and do matters. If our children notice that we prioritize our own mental health and wellbeing, they will be far more likely to prioritize their own when the time comes. 


About the Author


Dr. Natalie Fikac is a mental health professional, educator with over 27 years of educational experience. Her educational experience began as an elementary school teacher, reading interventionist, Professional School Counselor at both the elementary and secondary level, campus administrator and district level administrator. She has served at the Texas Education Agency on the mental and behavioral health team and now supports school mental health at the regional level at the South Southwest MHTTC at the University of Texas Austin and the Texas System of Care. She lives by the motto “You can’t pour from an empty cup” and aspires to promote self-preservation and self-compassion in all areas of her life. She is passionate about growing leaders as a Certified Dare to Lead ™ Trainer trained by Dr. Brené Brown. Her hope is to be able to educate and advocate on behalf of students and families in the areas of mental health, behavioral health, social-emotional needs and overall wellness and resiliency.  

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