Back to School Time and Multiple Sclerosis

It's the time of year again when we send our kids off to school after a long summer break.  For most people, there is an element of relief to having at least part of the days be kid-free. For people with multiple sclerosis, many of whom experience heat intolerance and all of the heightened symptoms that come with it, summer can feel like a marathon. Add a couple of young children to the mix and the days can seem torturous, all while you are trying to make things "fun" and "normal" for your family. The beginning of school, for me at least, feels like the finish line of the summer marathon.
However, as nice as it may be to turn the little darlings over to trained professionals for the bulk of the day, back-to-school time comes with its own stressors. Suddenly, schedules get tighter, mornings can be more frantic, there are more things to remember, lunches to pack, homework to check – the list goes on.
Continued heat intolerance (it's not cool yet in most parts of the country), fatigue, cognitive dysfunction and all those other symptoms that impede getting things done combine to make some of the school demands seem overwhelming at times.
We all find a way to cope, but I have compiled a list of some of my tips to making the transition back to school as smooth as possible:
Have a strict schedule – then stick to it. I'm not kidding. Take a piece of paper out right now and write out what a typical weekday will look like. On days where there are afterschool activities, modify the schedule and write out this version. You will not believe how much this helps – if you do this religiously, it will help you and the rest of the family stay calm. Try it out for a couple of days, adapt it as necessary, then print it out and put it in a visible spot. All anyone has to do is look at it and know where they are supposed to be and what they are supposed to be doing. For tiny kids, you can even make one with pictures (even though they can't tell the time, you can show them that bath comes after dinner and before reading a bedtime story).
Make things you do every day easy. I have been guilty of repeatedly doing things "the long way," even when there are simple solutions that will make things much easier. I am trying hard to change that this year. I had hooks for backpacks put in the hall closet. I made a designated spot for kids' eyeglasses, where they must be put if they are not being worn. I have come up with a couple of lunch combinations that I fall back on, rather than opening the refrigerator at dawn and wondering what I was going to pack. All of these are simple things, but think about every minute that you may have spent looking for library books or trying to find matching socks while the morning clock is ticking and everyone is getting frustrated and upset. Now multiply those minutes times 180 (average number of school days in a year) and you'll see why simplifying and organizing is key.
Have your kids help you find solutions. My girls are in first grade. They just started school and I am trying to figure out what works best for them in terms of getting homework done or getting ready in the morning. They have given me some excellent suggestions. I think they are more likely to follow through on their own ideas.
Don't have too many afterschool activities. This is pretty simple to say and harder to do. Still, in order to be good parents, we all have to have something of ourselves to give. This is difficult when afterschool hours are all spent frantically driving kids around, sitting in the heat, trying to keep track of uniforms, and condensing family time into smaller slots. I suggest allowing one or two activities per semester, timed so that multiple children don't have conflicts in their activities.
Plan your energy expenditure.As much as possible, plan your schedule to work with theirs. By this, I mean take a rest or at least have some quiet time before you see your kids. Many days, I have rushed around to get things done before school gets out, then it's time to go pick the girls up and I have nothing left to give, energy-wise. Now I try to do anything hectic in the morning and leave the afternoon for more mundane and less exhausting tasks, so that I am ready for switching gears after school.
Bottom line: Part of our job as parents is to make school a positive experience for our children. By providing a stable and calm home environment and showing kids how to organize their time, we can support them in their school endeavors and significantly cut down on our own stress.

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Julie Stachowiak, PhD

Julie is the author of the Multiple Sclerosis Manifesto, the winner of the 2009 ForeWord Book of the Year Award in the Health Category. She is an epidemiologist who is also a person living with MS, Julie has an in-depth understanding about current research and scientific developments around MS. She also has first-hand knowledge of the frustrations and anxiety surrounding the disease, as she had MS for at least 15 years before receiving a diagnosis in 2003 and has had several relapses since her diagnosis.