A new school year brings equal parts anticipation and apprehension, for both students and their families. New opportunities are exciting, but change can be hard. Here is help for tackling some of the biggest and most common back-to-school challenges.
The days of 6 a.m. wake-up calls have returned. After a relaxing summer, mornings are the most “alarming” part of the back-to-school bustle—unless you’re one of those chirpy early-risers. For the rest of us, our mornings suddenly turn to mayhem: lost sneakers, bathroom battles, and lunch scrambles. It’s no way to start the day.
Parenting champions invoke the magic wand of routine, asserting that consistent bedtime and morning routines can tame even the toughest forms of chaos and discontent. “Kids thrive on routine,” says Robert Nickell, syndicated parenting columnist and founder of Daddy & Co. “It helps them know what to expect, creates a sense of calm.”
A great morning starts the night before. Full-time educators Andrew and Lisa Weir and their four children include showering, laying out clothes, and packing lunches and backpacks as “must-dos” before bed. “Inevitably while packing the bag someone will remember an assignment that got spaced out,” explains Lisa Weir. “Discovering this in the evening avoids a morning meltdown.”
Mark and Jenna LaFleur of Littleton have found that clear expectations are key. In their house, family breakfasts are essential. Their children Rohan, Asher, and Sage are expected at the table by 7 a.m. They all touch base and discuss their needs and concerns and the day’s activities, and then each child has morning chores to complete before leaving the house.
“If expectations are clear, then when kids choose not to follow through they understand there are specific consequences,” explains Jenna LaFleur. “Usually, an extra after-school responsibility. If there are no consequences, we find expectations won’t get met and the morning lends itself to stress and yelling.”
Whatever evening and morning tasks you decide to include, make it the kids’ job, not yours. When starting a new routine, checklists can be helpful. Use pictures for younger children, and start early. Establishing the expectations and routine a week or two before school will help ensure a smooth launch day.
School lunch is “yucky,” sack lunch is boring, plastic bags are bad for the environment, and you’re spending money on food that comes back home and ends up in the trash. We just want our kids to be nourished so their brains and bodies can serve them well.
In addition to variety and nutrition, foodies advise us to also consider colors, shapes, and ease. “Bright colors are the easiest way to increase the wow factor in your child’s lunch,” says Catherine McCord, founder of Weelicious.
Charlene Prince Birkeland, parenting expert for Yahoo! Shine, says, “There’s something about a sandwich that seems daunting to kids.” She recommends cookie cutters to pare down the size and add some flair. Use them for sandwiches, cheese, and fruit. Your child has a geometry quiz? Go with triangles. Reading Charlotte’s Web? Try pigs!
Make it easy. “I didn’t have time,” is the daily explanation for why my daughter’s lunch seems almost untouched. Kids don’t have time to peel an orange or heat up noodles in the class microwave. Especially when lunch is also social hour and they need to network. Pre-sliced, pre-peeled, fully prepped small portions have the highest probability of being consumed. And nothing messy because that’s just embarrassing.
For both your budget and the earth, four words: buy bulk and bento boxes. Skip those individually packaged, pricey, preservative-laden foods. The bulk section at Sprouts offers more variety and nutrition at a drastically lower cost. Then skip the plastic bags by packing it all into a bento box. They are easy, earth-friendly, and everywhere. The separate food compartments allow kids to look—and pick—at everything all at once.
Again, have kids participate. The Weir family preps food and then posts a note of lunch possibilities on the fridge to help with the evening preparations: sandwich, hard-boiled egg, cheese or yogurt, chips or crackers, fruit or a hopeful suggestion of veggies and maybe a treat—one treat.
A few tears during morning goodbyes are normal—for both kiddos and parents. Many children experience mild and brief bouts of separation anxiety. As a teacher and a parent, I’ve been on both sides of the “peel the child off kicking and screaming” approach, and while that may work, no one enjoys it. Here are some alternatives.
- Refer to Morning Madness above to minimize morning stress. A stressful morning makes for a stressful drop-off.
- Practice. Visit the classroom and meet the teacher. Do trial runs at a grandparent or friend’s house. However, don’t anticipate stress if there may not be any. If your child isn’t worried, daily dry runs may create anxiety.
- Be your child’s cheerleader. Validate his feelings by acknowledging that this is a hard thing, and then tell him, “You are capable. You can do this. You are brave.”
- Create a goodbye routine: a special handshake, a secret whispered message, or a chant-for-courage.
- Pack a piece of home: a note, a stuffed toy, or other comfort item.
- Don’t linger—it sends mixed signals. She’s told she’s in safe hands, but you’re comforting her and hanging around. Instead, convey confidence by acknowledging her emotions while reassuring her she’ll be fine. And then say goodbye—don’t sneak away.
Piles of Papers
Question: How many pieces of paper are required for the education of a single child? Answer: An infinite, overwhelming, and continually regenerating number. Someday archeologists may find us all buried under a mountain of weekly newsletters, progress reports, graded papers, projects, flyers, permission slips, and PTA forms, and that’s not even including homework.
It took me until my kids were in late middle school to figure out a system. Don’t be like me. Learn from the organizational experts who pretty much all recommend a hanging file system.
- A portable filing bin that accommodates hanging files.
- A hanging file for each child. This is where they can keep their best work and memorabilia to be sorted at the end of the year.
- Two additional hanging files. Label one of these “Take Action.” This file is for permission slips that need to be returned, teacher requests, and flyers about events that need to be added to your calendar. Label the second “Short-Term Storage.” This file is for papers that you will need to refer to at some point in the near future. For example, a list of what your child is to bring on an upcoming field trip, choir schedules, or fundraisers.
LaFleur stores “keeper” items digitally. Each of the kids has a basket for anything they want to save: art projects, certificates, programs, and special projects. “I go through these every three months and take photos,” LaFleur explains. “I save very few (if any) and put the rest in recycling.”
A homework policy that includes a consistent time and location is essential for setting expectations and minimizing headaches. My kids get a half hour of downtime when they get home from school, and then they know it’s homework time. Other families find that a “homework first” policy works best, and definitely “no screens” until it’s done.
“I work hard to have a fun snack ready for them—to give hugs and create a positive energy of ‘glad you’re home,’ and ‘you can get this homework done,’ and ‘I’m here for you,'” says LaFleur. “Homework for us includes academics and music practice.”
In addition to a set time, establish a definitive workspace. “In our family, all homework is done on the main floor,” continues LaFleur. “I found that my kids are way more productive if they are in the shared space of our house. My oldest works at a desk/table in the front room. My younger two work at the dining room table.”
Organization expert Stacy Erickson cautions against defaulting to the bedroom desk. “Most desks in bedrooms end up as clutter-catchers rather than workspaces,” she says. “Kids generally like to do homework where they can interact regularly with adults.”
Interacting with adults is key. The Weirs know that one of them has to be fully available to help during homework time. “Sometimes help means staring uncomprehending at the textbook and asking detailed questions while the kids explain the work to me,” laughs Lisa Weir. “By the time I begin to get it, they’ve typically found the missing piece in their thinking.”
Even if you don’t offer direct help, it’s important to stay present and to set a positive tone and example by reading, paying bills, or working alongside them. This helps your child see that the skills they”re practicing are related to things you do as an adult.
If your child’s needs are beyond your abilities or availability, inquire about resources the school can offer. Most schools keep a list of tutors and secondary schools have designated times for one-on-one work with teachers.
While research warns against snowplowing, it affirms the importance of involvement. The National Center for Family and Community Connections reports that when parents are involved with their children’s education, students earn higher grades, perform better on tests, enroll in more advanced classes, and often continue onto college.
But honestly, as a working parent, I simply can’t give up my Saturday to volunteer for the orchestra fundraiser. However, I have found some ways to contribute, and more important, to stay informed and in touch.
- Identify lines of communication. Does your school use online portals where you can view grades, assignments, and disciplinary action, and easily send emails to teachers? Are there Friday folders? Know where to look for information and check in regularly, says Liz O’Donnell, author of Mogul, Mom & Maid: The Balancing Act of the Modern Woman. Don’t get blindsided by problems, events, or deadlines.
- Look for volunteer opportunities that don’t require committee meetings or other unrealistic commitments. I did my required volunteer hours at my kids’ middle school all in one shot by costuming the spring play, or hosting a fundraiser at a local business. These could be done in my own hours and in ways that worked for me.
- Make connections early and often. The schedule for back to school nights, parent-teacher conferences, and special programs goes out at the beginning of the year. We mark those dates as non-negotiable (in pen!) on our calendar. We have to get to know our kids’ teachers—and not just in elementary school. The high school teen years are when we most need to team up. I’m often emailing my children’s teachers first thing in the morning or late in the evening with questions about outings or grades or “was my son grumpy in your class today because something’s going on and he won’t say what,” or just “thank you for all you do for my kid.”
I want teachers to know me so that they keep my kids on their radar. We only get one chance to raise these humans and their teachers get way more of their time and attention than we do in an average week. Staying connected with them is a huge part of staying in the game.