Q: I don't look forward to this holiday break. Our four preteens from a newly blended family like the structure of school, but fall apart on weekends: bickering and competing for attention. In January, they have state testing, so I plan to do some homeschooling during vacation. Are there any good online test prep sites?
A: You want to turn the holidays into a study hall? You'll get the Grinch of the Year award!
"I understand the desire to replicate successful routines during stressful times, but practicing math facts over Christmas is likely to backfire," says Marissa Gehley, founder of KNOW (Kids Need Our Wisdom). "Kids need a breather, so forget the test prep. Focus on family-building activities. Everyone will be emotionally stronger and go back to class in a fresher frame of mind."
Develop new family traditions: Rituals add joy and structure to holidays. Since you're a newly blended family, create new traditions to observe. For example, the family might decide to create a holiday recipe book and add to it each year. Or have a family movie night, enjoying classics such as "Elf," "The Polar Express," "The Muppet Christmas Carol," "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," "Miracle on 34th Street," "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer." Discuss the themes and lessons in these movies.
Create a New Year letter: When two families come together, there's news to share. Let kids create the family's holiday greeting. It could be an email, an annotated slide show posted online for friends, or a printed card. Ask everyone to contribute an original piece of writing, art or a photo.
Give back: There are plenty of opportunities for families to volunteer this time of year, from collecting for Toys For Tots to stocking food pantries. Check doinggoodtogether.org to find a good fit. Or use the search tool at networkforgood.org to find projects for families.
Make a 2015 family resolution: What can the family do together to foster enjoyment and take the stress out of everyday life? It might be planning a family pizza and movie night each month; check commonsensemedia.org for reviews. Alternatively, "you might decide as a family to train for and participate in a 5K run or a bicycling event for a charity you all can support," says Gehley.
That resolution might also include scheduling regular family dinners. What kids really want, says Gehley, is more time with their parents. Meals are a good place to find it. Studies show that when families regularly eat dinner together, kids eat better, have fewer eating disorders, get better grades and are less likely to abuse alcohol and drugs.
"Dinner-table conversations give parents opportunities to check in on academic, behavioral or physical changes. You gain more insight than simply asking, 'what happened in school today?'" says Gehley. "Whatever activities you choose to enjoy together over the holidays, your newly expanded family is likely to be grateful for the opportunity to learn, grow and play together. Nothing allows the brain to work at full capacity like a loving, healthy and engaged home environment."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)