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Summer break. Some families love it. Others dread it. No matter how you feel about summer, we’ve got hacks to help your family thrive. 

In this episode, hosts Gretchen Vierstra and Rachel Bozek talk all things summer with psychologist and Understood expert Dr. Andrew Kahn. Andy shares what can make summer easier than the school year for kids who learn and think differently — and what might make it harder. 

Tune in for tips on screen time, sleep, summer camp, travel, and more. Plus, learn ways to give kids the structure that many of them need over summer vacation without it feeling like a burden.

Related resources 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs…

Rachel: …the ups and downs…

Gretchen: …of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're here to provide a public service by pulling together as many tips and hacks as we can to help you and your kids have the best summer possible.

Gretchen: Joining us for this ambitious mission is our very own Andy Kahn. Andy is a licensed psychologist and the associate director of behavior change and expertise here at Understood. Andy, welcome back to "In It."

Rachel: Welcome back.

Andy: Thanks, guys. Thanks for having me.

Gretchen: We are so happy to have you here today. But before we start with you, Andy, I actually have a question for you, Rachel.

Rachel: Oh, yeah?

Gretchen: Yes. As a mom to two kids who learn and think differently, what comes to mind when you think about the long summer vacation that is fast approaching? Are you like, "Woohoo, summer!" Or is it more like, "Ugh, summer"?

Rachel: Those are my choices?

Gretchen: Yes, those are your choices.

Rachel: So, it's a little bit of both because, of course, it's really nice to have a break from a lot of the things that just make the school year tough for everybody — homework and just kind of like the tight schedules. But also, the summer has its own kind of schedule, especially when there are camps involved. And so, there still is a wake-up time and there's still a get-out-the-door time.

And also, for all of us working parents, there are still like, we need our kids to be doing some stuff while we're working. And also, because I can't have just like screen camp.

Gretchen: Yes, I'm pretty sure a lot of times I had TV camp when I was little. I went to TV camp.

Rachel: Yeah, I went to TV camp.

Gretchen: Andy, did you go to TV camp?

Andy: I did not. I went to get out on the street and play until it gets dark camp.

Gretchen: Yeah, I did that, too. I would say it was a mix, right? It was a mix of roaming the neighborhood and then a little bit of TV camp.

Rachel: All right, so, Andy, stepping back a bit, maybe you can talk to us a little bit about what might make summertime easier than the regular school year and what might make it harder for families with kids who learn and think differently.

Andy: Summertime, you know, summertime is that double-edged sword, right? We all look forward to it. There are things that we don't have to do anymore that seem awfully cool and longer days, relaxing structure, fewer transitions relating to school. But those of us who are parents can all say, I know what August feels like and thinking "I'm ready to bring my children back to school." Right? So, I think so much of it is we think about the break from the academic demands, and the stressors is a really big deal for kids with learning and thinking differences. And it's a good relief to be away from that because it can be such an impact to kids' self-esteem.

And the thing about having the summertime is, is giving them more time to play, to engage in activities that are more their home base. And I think that's one of the best things about summer for kids. At the same time, the things that make it great are also the things that make it hard. We rely on the structures that schools artificially provide us to structure our day, and that's a lot of months of the year where we sort of live our lives around those markings in the day. And I think that the loss of structure is probably one of the toughest parts about this.

You know, it's tremendous amounts of transition stressors from the doing the things I like, to doing the things I don't want to do, in a structure where the parents don't necessarily feel all that powerful because the first thing we want to do as parents when summertime hits is to say," Go, enjoy, step away," and we let it all go. And I think that's where the first trap lies, is that if we don't have good expectations, you know, those who fail to plan, plan to fail, right? That's the sort of idea here.

Gretchen: So, now if we want to provide a little bit of structure to our summer, what are some little tweaks that we could make to add some structure to a day?

Andy: So, the thing to keep in mind is that — and I hear this in your tone a little bit, Gretchen — that when we get to freedom, the word structure feels like a dirty word. It feels like, "Oh, gosh." Like structure is not constraints, OK? It's not, you're not tethering your child to the porch. You're not locking them in a space, OK? Structure is about creating protective walls around your environment, your child, and don't forget, your sanity.

So, having structures like keeping your, like, your mealtimes for breakfast and dinners as close to on some reasonable schedule to keep you feeling sane. Having structures around chores and hygiene. Because the first thing that goes with these kids is we lose our bath times and they're being more active, and you really want to keep sort of those keeping the kids clean and on certain points of schedule really in check.

So, I think that we can create sort of anchors for your day to keep you sane and talking each morning or the night before with your child about "What's tomorrow looking like? Let's set some expectations here so that we can sort of have a sense about what we're going to do." Because if it's unrealistic or doesn't fit the timeframe, you can help them plan something that they can be successful with instead of frustrated in coming to you every 15 minutes.

And for me, as a working parent, I can't do that with my child. They have to be able to sort of hold their own during the times that I need them to. And that requires a little bit of planning and a little bit of structure.

Gretchen: Yeah. What's often happened at our house is I'll ask that question, and the answer I've been given is, "Oh, I'm going to have a chill day." Like, what is a chill day? What does that mean?

Rachel: Right.

Gretchen: And then that lasts for like maybe an hour or two after, you know, the breakfast and the getting dressed and all that stuff, and then it's like, "I'm bored. I'm bored. I'm bored."

Andy: And I think that some of this, you know, some of the activities you can get your kids engaged in can be things that, let's think about it here, OK? Part of the structure of summer is giving your kids the opportunity to learn some life skills. A life skill can be something simple like I'm going to pick the, you know, most nutritious box self-made foods, whether it's a simple cookie mix or it's a simple food mix, that we can get them involved in some cooking, OK? I love the idea of things like food science projects. There are some great books out there on food science, complete cookbook for young scientists and learning about what makes food yummy, what makes food fun, and kids learning sort of that technique for being more independent.

And the other kind of project-based stuff we can do, you know, in some schools that I've worked with over the years, when we had kids who had learning and thinking differences who didn't engage easily in the standard curriculum, we did a lot of project-based learning. So, we would do things like "Let's build a box for, you know, putting our materials in things that we like." Like I have a box now for my Pokémon cards with this kid that I work with and giving them the opportunity through these projects to follow instructions, which includes wait, wait for it: reading. OK?

Gretchen: Right.

Andy: Following directions. What is this? This is about executive function. So, those project-based activities are really, really awesome.

Rachel: So, we talked a little earlier about TV camp, and that raises the question now about screen time and how much we should be leaving the door open for in the summer. What do you think about that?

Andy: Gosh, that's a tough one. So, I could be the good psychologist to say "You know, The American Academy of Pediatrics says we should limit it to..." you know, and they say something in the neighborhood of about 2 hours.

Rachel: No one does that.

Andy: And I think the initial recommendations...Right. Because I think for a lot of this, you have to leave adequate space for screens if you've got a teenager who's highly reliant on social media. And you have to sort of be aware of what the culture is doing for the kids. I've actually gotten to the point with my own child where we've had consequences for behavior. OK, we'll just say there was naughty moments and I actually had to make the decision to do something different than I was raised with, which is your screens are gone when you got in trouble when I was a kid.

But today I have to be super conscious of that because if I cut off all screens for my teenager, I'm actually isolating them from their social world. And if they're having trouble with their behavior because the social world is hard and they're not connecting as well as they'd like, cutting that off in full form isn't always my best option. That being said, I really like to limit the time by creating other activities for them to do that are non-screen based.

So, you might say, OK, there's a window of time this morning, you know, screen use is fine, but then you set an island of time somewhere in the middle of that morning where you're going to disengage them from that. Ultimately, the goal is to give them a variety of things to do that can be fun for them. Make sure that you're aware if you're limiting some of those screens, that there's time available for them to socialize.

Rachel: Mm-hmm.

Andy: And that you try to provide reasonable access to in-person social activities whenever possible because that's going to be really important for them.

Rachel: Yeah.

Andy: Really important.

Gretchen: Yeah. I want to mention one thing related to this before we go on with the non-screen time activity. Good old-fashioned games and by house, and we see summer definitely whether you're traveling or like we go camping, we always bring games along. But there's sometimes tears over games, right? When someone doesn't win or just gets too competitive. Do you have any advice around this for families who might struggle with picking out the type of game that'll work for their kids?

Andy: One of the things that I notice and being a psychologist who works with kids, playing lots of games during the course of my life and realizing at times that the competitiveness of it can lead to a lot of feelings, especially for kids with learning and thinking differences who may struggle with waiting their turn or struggle with following the rules or not knowing the order of certain activities when they have a turn to play.

So, one of my favorite workarounds is spending some time and energy on cooperative gaming. So, cooperative gaming is this a lot of Kumbaya, you know, certificate of, you know, of attendance appreciation thing? No. These are real games with outcomes that you can win, but you win it together. So, there are games like Pandemic. Now, this was, I had this game before the actual pandemic.

Gretchen: Yeah, I had that pre-COVID.

Andy: But you're working in teams to try to solve a larger goal. And, you know, some of these games are really great because you have to communicate, you've got to strategize and you've got to work together. Other games like Hanabi, which is a really cool game — Hanabi I think is Japanese for fireworks — and you as a team create the best fireworks displays, but you have to strategize to make them go correctly or they don't fire off correctly. No, you're not, there's no fire here — sorry, kids, you're not blowing anything off. But it's a really cool game with a lot of visual elements.

Rachel: Yeah, there was a cooperative game that we haven't played in a few years now that my kids are a little older, but it was really great when my daughter was like around six called Outfoxed.

Andy: Yeah.

Rachel: It's kind of like a whodunit, like a mystery solving, but everybody's working together kind of game. And that was a decent cooperative experience in my not-always-very-cooperative house.

Rachel: You know, I want to talk a little bit about summer camp, which does provide some structure, but it sometimes also introduces other challenges.

Gretchen: Right. If your kid has a hard time adapting to new places, new foods, new activities, new people. But we do have some suggestions for you. One suggestion I have that's worked for me and my kids is, especially when my older daughter was younger, she really had trouble adjusting to new situations and so we would preview the activities. Like I remember one time I signed her up for a YMCA camp and they were going to take the kids to an amusement park and she was scared to go to this amusement park.

So, I found, you know, people take videos of the rides, even the littlest rides. And so, we found videos of the rides and said, "OK, this is one ride. Would you do this? Let's watch the video." And it really helped her prepare so that she could actually enjoy her time on this trip.

Rachel: That's a really great idea. And actually, I did a similar thing. There was a summer camp that my son was going to when he was going into first grade, and he was going to like session two or whatever. So, it was already going on, but he wasn't there yet. And I'm like, "You know what? Let's just go check it out." I called and asked if we could do this, but he didn't know that. And we just went. And, you know, as far as he could tell, we were just like, "Hey, can we see the camp?".

Gretchen: Right.

Rachel: And they just gave us I mean, I already knew what it was before I signed up and paid for it, but for him, it was like he saw other kids doing the stuff that he would be doing. And it really it helped so much to give them that context and like, just set their expectations a little bit.

Gretchen: Hmm.

Andy: What an anxiety reducer that's got to be.

Rachel: Yeah.

Andy: You know, when things are new, they're exciting and also scary at the same time. And to take away just a little bit of that, the scary novelty, makes a huge difference. Yeah, I think that's super smart.

Rachel: So, last year "In It" did a whole episode about summer camp. And Gretchen, you and Amanda Morin got some great advice from Audrey Monke who's been running a summer camp for almost 40 years and wrote a book called Happy Campers. So, let's listen to a clip about that.

Audrey: I have a, you know, a special affinity for the overnight experience because of the immersion piece of it and the independent piece of it. I think it's a pretty magical thing for young kids to have this like time away from parents to really discover themselves. And I think part of that is we're so well-meaning as parents and we love our kids and we want to be there with them for everything they do because it's so fun to watch them learn new things and all this.

But a lot of the growth that our kids will experience in life happens away from us. You know, that look that even little kids will, you know, they're about to do something new and they turn around to look just what the expression is. "Is this safe? Should I try this?" And even when we're not trying, our expression sometimes it's like, "Oh, my gosh, that looks scary." Or "I don't know if I want to do this." So, there's just this part — and it's not just camp, it's also allowing our kids with other mentors and adults and clubs, letting them grow their wings, sometimes without us.

Gretchen: So, speaking of something that can be exciting but also uncomfortable sometimes, a lot of families take advantage of summer break to go someplace, whether that's by car. They can even do a staycation and kind of just go to new places around town. But that also brings new challenges, right? New environments, new sensory experiences, all of that. So, Andy, do you have some tips for how to make travel a little easier for families with kids who might find it difficult?

Andy: For sure. So, one of the most important things about planning travel with your kids is really spending the time in advance to get a sense of the logistics. How long are you going to be in a car if you're going somewhere or if you're flying? What kind of environments are you going to be in for your child and making sure that you have a sense about what you can give your child that's portable, that can help them control some of that sensation that's new or loud or uncomfortable. So, things like having noise-blocking headphones, if possible, lots of sort of self-soothing items, whether it's a squishy animal or sort of like a fidget-like activity.

Then giving them the opportunity really to be able to manage their body and in some cases to practice that in advance and to talk to them about, you know, let's say we're going to be driving through New York City, OK? They're going to be speed around you of people and things moving colors, lights, maybe in a language they've never heard before. I don't know. That may happen. And things that people say and do that can be stressful to them. So, giving them the opportunity to think about what kind of things would help them feel soothed.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Andy: The other piece of this is — within reason again, where we're going to right-size all of our interventions here — let your kids be involved in helping you plan parts of the vacation that they can handle. So, if you know you're going to this very specific town where your hotel is going to be or where your family lives that you're visiting, letting them pick a restaurant that you can likely go to that has a menu that they like or giving them the opportunity to sort of select one of the activities from the choices that you preselect.

Kids are usually accessories to family vacations as opposed to the ones you really put in on paper and make it happen. And I got to tell you, when I was a kid and my father would say, "Which of these things do you want to do?" When he handed me that, I'm going to date myself now, he handed me the triptych from Triple A,

Gretchen: Oh yeah.

Andy: where you have to flip through the pages and look over the maps to see where we were going. Yes. pre-GPS day kids.

Gretchen: Yes.

Andy: I felt that was really like, that was my vacation. It wasn't my parents taking me somewhere. So, I think, you know, we talk about that in school. Kids have agency when they feel like that they have ownership and engagement and choice. And vacations are no different.

Gretchen: Yeah. And I like, you know, what you said about packing things that can help with soothing when you're in a new environment. One of my favorite things, actually on Understood's website is something we have called a sensory travel kit, and it talks about the types of things that you could put in this kit to, you know, like you said, headphones for noise.

Perhaps your kid really likes to be chewing on something so like a crunchy food or soft food, sometimes texture, right? Like when you travel to Grandma's house, her towels are different than yours. Then why can't you bring one of your home towels so that your kid feels comforted by the same feeling of the towel? And I will say the ultimate favorite tip on this list, which I have used personally, is to bring Post-it notes for the sensors on automatic toilets. Because when my kids were little, they did not like the surprise it brought. And so having that Post-it and sticking it over the sensors,

Rachel: This is genius.

Gretchen: was a game changer. So, check out that sensory tool kit on our site. I will definitely put the link in our show notes.

Rachel: So, Andy, the last thing we want to touch on today is sleep. And this is a big one. It's a little less fun. But, you know, we know that having a regular sleep schedule is really helpful for kids and for grown-ups who have a hard time getting enough sleep. And in the summertime, I am again torn.

So, my kids are on a break, and, you know, that seems like a great argument to say, well, they should be allowed to just kind of stay up and hang out until whenever. So, let's say, you know, obviously, if there's a camp schedule or a get-out-the-door time, that's a little bit different. But if it's this sort of like open time in the summer, what do you think about bedtime and sleep schedules?

Andy: So, I'm a little bit of a curmudgeon here with this stuff. You know, the bottom line is that if you have a learning and thinking difference or you have your kid as ADHD, one of the things that is most effective in helping your child navigate their own neurology is to be well rested. And you know, what have I said to you during summer break, I'm just going to let my kids skip as many meals as they want, eat at three in the morning, you know, we would not look at that in the same light.

And yet with sleep, we are very much cavalier about how much we let sleep go. So, I would say that, listen, a lot is going to depend on your own household. In my household, we have working parents. So, if my child's up until 2:30 in the morning, then sleeps in, we're going to have conflict of stimulation, meaning I'm going to be up in the morning making noise. And I'll be honest, I'm not going to be really tiptoeing around because I have to work eight feet from your bedroom door.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: Yeah.

Andy: So, within reason, giving them some flexibility for when they go to sleep. But I really want to keep sleep and wake times within a reasonable window. I never want to go too far, maybe more than an hour max, maybe 90 minutes more on either side, because the reality is they need it. If they have growing bodies and keep in mind that this affects all members of a household. So, if you've got to get up in the morning and your kids are forcing you to stay up later and you're not getting self-care as a parent, that's going to weigh you down.

And by the time you get to late July, early August, you're going to be looking to, you know, "Can my kids start school early?" Because it's really maddening to folks. So, a little bit of flexibility is, OK, if you guys are away and let's say you do a Disney vacation and they have, you know, a 10:30 fireworks show or whatever. These are things you have to flex for, and you just say, "OK," your kids will recover. But again, you can't wear your kids out. They're going to get sick more often if they're not sleeping.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Andy: It makes it a lot harder.

Gretchen: Yeah. And then if you really get them off schedule, the adjustment back to school is so tough.

Rachel: Yeah, it's like jet lag. Yeah, it’s like if they're just shifted where even if they're getting the right, the quote right amount of sleep, but it's starting 2 hours later than it should.

Gretchen: Yeah.

Rachel: And then they're getting up like, you know what feels like lunchtime then what?

Gretchen: Yeah. So, when school is getting closer, it's time to start adjusting, right? To not wait until a couple of days before, but really, like, weeks before. Start just crawling back to those regular times and maybe adding in a few other things that your kid has to do when school starts so that you get some practice in not just two days before.

Andy: Oh, without a doubt. Without a doubt.

Gretchen: OK. So, we've been focusing a lot on the challenges of summer. Andy, quick response. What should we be celebrating about summer for our kids?

Andy: Celebrating the achievement that we successfully made it through another school year. Yeah. And every time your kid gets a year older and you're in a summer vacation, they can do more cool stuff with you as they're sort of getting more to that, you know, closer to the adult level. Your kids are going to be more able to engage with you. And I think celebrating their independence, celebrating their skill building, and celebrating the things that were hard that they got through is always really important.

Rachel: It's like a big exhale.

Andy: Oh, yes.

Gretchen: Well, thank you, Andy, so much for chatting with us today about summer.

Rachel: And thank you for the great tips.

Andy: Thanks for having me, guys. This is always fun. Just talking with friends here.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you, so we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at init@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.

Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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