summer_structure_2.jpegSummer. For most kids and parents, it is a time for laying by the pool, staying up late and sleeping even later, and wandering the neighborhood. Most people love summer time. However, for parents of children with anxiety, ADHD, autism, or other mental illness, summer can be a hectic time. 

Many of these children need structure. They thrive on it. They like knowing what to expect, what comes next, and they need a set schedule. The “lazy days of summer” are great for many kids. But for our kids, these long days can be chaotic and anxious. 

Getting out of routine, getting less sleep, and not knowing what to expect each day can create challenging behaviors for a child with special needs. For this reason, it is important to maintain a sense of structure in the summer and during vacations. It may not be easy, but there are ways that you can make the summer less stressful. 

Here are some tips:

  1. Maintain a routine. Once school ends, kids want to stay up late and sleep in, especially older kids and teens. As a parent, you want to give them some freedom, but if your child struggles when without their routine, it may be best to minimize disruptions. For this reason, try and keep their bedtimes, meal schedules, and other daily tasks the same year-round. This is also true for children who take medications. It is important that they take their medications at the same time each day, so keeping a schedule makes this easier. 
  2. Consider camp or classes. If your child is willing, you can always send them to camp where they will have some structure. There are so many choices and there are camps for everyone and everything. We know that it can be scary, especially for kids with so many challenges, but many camp directors are equipped to handle even the most challenging behaviors. Check out our blog on how to choose the right camp for your child. Some children may even be entitled to school during the summer. If your child has an IEP, they may be eligible for Extended School Year services. Talk with your child’s school or service providers on how to get these services. 
  3. summer_structure_1.jpegPlan “field trips.” Full days of camp are not for everyone. You can plan your own “camp” by having field trips or activities each day, or just a few days out of the week. Having an activity or at least one thing to do each day can really help. It breaks up the down-time and allows for something to look forward to. Encourage your child to help find activities by researching what you will be doing. You can also extend the outing by planning add-on activities that complement the trips such as crafts or discussions after your trip.  Check community calendars, the local library, or online parenting magazines in your area for ideas. Most communities have activities for kids and teens during the summer that you can find online.
  4. Make visual guides. Children that thrive on routine like to see what is coming and what to expect. Having a calendar detailing what events are coming up each day that they can rely on is helpful. Once you have a schedule and activities planned, create a calendar or daily schedule and post it where everyone can see it. You can try using pictures or symbols to make it fun and creative. In fact, you can even let ‘Creating the Summer Calendar’ become one of your activities!
  5. Plan for emergencies. We try to plan for everything, but something may go wrong. It could rain, an activity you planned for may be full, or it could be cancelled. It is always a good idea to have a back-up plan – it can be as simple as seeing a movie, going to the library, or getting a Slurpee at 7-11. Make that part of the schedule so that if you have to do the back-up plan, it is not a surprise, but it is part of the plan. 
  6. Ask for help. Know that you can always ask for help. Reach out to friends, family, or professionals when you need to. Parenting is not easy for anyone and it does take a village. You do not have to do it alone.

Do you have any tips that have worked for you when the days are long and the sun is hot? Share them in the comments!


Tracy Greenberg has become a strong part of the Sheppard Pratt community. She is mother to Bryce, who attends The Frost School, part of the Sheppard Pratt Health System. She gives her time as part of the Consumer Advisory Council, a group of family members, former patients, former students, and employees of the health system who are dedicated to improving our quality of care and enhancing recovery from mental illness and addiction. Follow along with Tracy through her blog.

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