Every parent dreams of a stress-free school year — you know, the one where healthy breakfasts are happily eaten every morning, homework is turned in on time and you never send your kid to school in sweats on picture day. Before reality inevitably hits, here are a few sanity-saving tips I’ve picked up from my time in the classroom and more than a dozen back-to-school seasons as a parent.
Ease into the school year routine
Sure, it’s tempting to sleep late the last few days of summer, but starting a school routine early can make the first day go smoother. Gradually set kids’ bed and wake up times earlier during the weeks before school, and make a habit to set a bedtime alarm as well as morning alarm. Get kids involved in planning healthy breakfasts, and have items like cereal, fruit and yogurt easily accessible in the morning. Protein is important fuel for growing bodies, so try out nut butter on toast, Greek yogurt or grab-and-go protein bars.
Spending is part of back-to-school season, but it’s possible to keep your budget in check and still have some fun. Jumpstart excitement for the year by letting your child splurge on a special item like a lunchbox or first day outfit. Review your school supply list, and take inventory to see if items like backpacks and binders from last year can be reused. Plan a special outing with your child to shop for items that need to be purchased, and let him choose his favorite characters or colors. Look through fall clothing to see what pieces from last year still fit, and make a shopping list of must-have wardrobe items. Try giving older kids the freedom to shop on their own by outlining a budget and list of essential pieces.
Get moving on your transportation plan
Sit down with your family’s work and school schedules to figure out which transportation options work best. Identify your bus stop and review your school’s policies to understand how students will arrive and depart. If your child is new to taking the bus, visit your bus stop before the first day and do a morning and afternoon walk-through at your school’s open house. Make sure to have a backup transportation plan if your child misses the bus, whether you will drive him or call a neighbor to carpool. If you’ll be driving your child to school, make sure to review the carpool rules and procedures. A neighborhood carpool can be a time-saving option, and you can even set up an online schedule for pick-ups and drop offs.
Set up a master calendar for the year
It’s never too early to go through your school’s calendar and mark off days that school will be out of session or have early dismissal. Planning ahead will give you time to arrange child care or request a day off work. Check to see if your school’s after-school program offers child care on early dismissal days and teacher work days. Think about the best times for family trips and plan in advance for long weekends or during spring and winter breaks. If you plan to take any vacations that will require your child to miss school, let his teacher know at the beginning of the year.
Communicate with (and help) your teacher
Attend your school’s open house so you and your child can meet the new teacher, and follow up with a personal note to share your excitement for the upcoming year. It’s a great time to communicate any special needs your child has. The teacher will likely use that time to share about the need for volunteers in the classroom for field trips, mystery reader days, class parties or other special programs. There are plenty of opportunities to contribute whether you have weekly availability or can help on one time projects or trip needs. If you volunteer to be a room parent, make life simpler by organizing online sign ups for school supply wish lists, class snacks, tutoring time and more. This allows parents to easily commit to time slots that work for their schedule and receive reminders a few days before their event.
Plan extracurricular activities
Activities such as sports, dance, Sunday School and scouts kick off with the start of school. Make sure your commitments don’t overlap, and that you aren’t wearing out your kids with overscheduling. Organize a neighborhood carpool if possible and look at your family calendar (especially if you have multiple kids) to coordinate activities. Add these dates to the master calendar for the school year and try to build in some intentional rest time between commitments. If your family is busy with sports in the fall and spring, consider taking the winter off or trying a new activity like an art class.
Prepare healthy meals in advance
Are Wednesdays crazy between Sophia’s dance practice and Caleb’s karate sessions? Plan healthy meals in advance that can be eaten on the go or served quickly when you return home. Set up a freezer meal session with friends once a month, so you can thaw out your meal the night before and pop it into the oven for a quick reward. Crock pot dinners are another convenient and healthy way to whip up meals ahead of the evening rush.
Encourage independent learning
Where are your child’s strengths and weaknesses? You should be contacted about parent-teacher conferences a month or two into the school year, but don’t wait until then if you’re concerned about a particular area. Emphasize reading time at home and set up a designated homework area. Your ultimate goal is to nurture a child who is independent and can keep tabs of assignments without your assistance. As children progress through elementary school and into middle school, continue to give them more freedom to study on their own. Sometimes they’ll have to feel the consequences of a missed assignment or a poor test grade. Discuss how this can be a learning opportunity and create a plan to avoid another setback.
Create technology rules
Screen time can creep up during the summer, but unplugging is essential to ensure good study and sleep habits. Set a time each night when devices will be turned off, and try to have mom and dad ditch the devices as well until kids are asleep. If your school is BYOT — bring your own tech — decide if your child is responsible enough to bring a personal device. It also never hurts to give that tablet or phone a look to make sure your parental controls are set where you’d like them to be.
Get to know fellow parents
Parenting is tough work! Make friends with those who are in your same life stage. You may feel some jitters when introducing yourself at school events and PTA meetings, but it’s more than worth the effort. These relationships will become invaluable. Whether it’s picking up your child in an emergency or giving advice on a behavioral issue they’ve also experienced, you won’t regret making that initial introduction. Invite new friends to join you and your child for a playdate at the park or visit to a local museum. For example, my new friend Marina Popova - author and editor of awesome web-page about academic writing.
With a little preparation, you can ace back-to-school season and still spend plenty of time with your family savoring the last days of summer and the start of fall. And if one of your kids still ends up in sweats for school picture day, don’t worry. The rest of us moms will be glad we’re not alone.