This article comes from Carol Mapp, LCSW, an Arlington-based therapist with Integrated Healthworks.
In area megastores, the aisles have been filling steadily with flashy, multi-zippered superhero backpacks, packages of hermetically-sealed notebook paper, and television character-inspired lunch boxes since the July 4th holiday. Although blissfully unaware children can still be found in swimming pools, at day camps, and on vacation sites all over the United States, many parents are already bracing themselves for the rigors of the upcoming school year. There might even be a bit of uneasiness as adults realize that it is almost time again for keeping up with homework checks, teacher conferences, and report cards.
Follow these time-honored suggestions to assist children in reintegrating back into a school mindset.
About two weeks before school starts (in both of the child’s homes):
1. Begin following school-year schedules. Returning to the school schedule two weeks early directly benefits children’s success in the classroom, where their day is full of routines. Begin by going to bed and getting up on a school schedule. Give each kid an alarm clock so that they can become used to getting themselves up in the morning. If your child has a hard time waking up, try putting the clock across the room. If regular dinnertime has shifted to a later hour during the summer, reintroducing the earlier school-year dinnertime will help kids transition back into a routine that is structured for homework, free time, and quiet time before bed. Begin developing low-key, quiet bedtime and waking routines.
2. Make after-school plans. Will your child participate in an after-school program, or come straight home after school? Will you be waiting at home, or will a babysitter be there? Some kids only go to after-school care on certain days, and come home on the other days, which can create confusion for them. Are there after-school activities or tutoring sessions to consider? Don’t forget to check out that bus schedule. If the bus stop is far from your house, arrange for kids in the neighborhood to walk home together. If you are a part of a carpool schedule, include that on the calendar so you don’t miss your turn.
3. Immunizations and physicals must be completed. Contact your child’s school to find out which ones they require. If medicine must be given at school, be sure to introduce yourself to the school nurse to discuss any concerns. Make sure that both parents’ contact information is noted on each child’s school emergency card.
4. Discuss expectations and check for concerns. If possible, schedule a family meeting with both parents present to discuss rules and adjustments for school days, including: homework schedule, television schedule, bath time, bedtime etc. Discuss curfews with teenaged children. Set aside a time to sit down with your children and ask them how they feel about the upcoming school year. The idea of a new school year can stir up a host of emotions like fear, excitement, and doubt. Explain your expectations as a parent and ask each child to share his expectations for himself. Address any specific concerns with your child. When children express apprehension regarding making new friends, start a discussion. Present some food for thought; “What are some clues that tell you someone is interested in being your friend?” and “How can you let someone know that you are interested in being their friend?” are good discussion-openers. Parental positive attitude goes far to reassure children, and helps them to be open to making new friends.
5. Develop a Central Note Station. At the beginning of school, every child comes home with an overwhelming amount of paperwork that needs to be completed and signed, including permission slips, field trip information, contact information, teacher contacts, and school and sports supply lists. Make a special box for your child to place forms and notes from school. Sign and return all papers to the backpack the night before, and if needed, make a copy of any relevant information for the co-parent. It is useful for each parent to have a master list of all important contact names and numbers along with the master schedule. This reduces miscommunication between parents.
6. Create a homework center. Decide on the best location in your home to set this up (and make sure it is not near the television). The best spot is quiet, provides adequate seating and work space, and has good lighting. Take into consideration how involved you need to be with homework. Does your child focus better with people around, or when working on his own; is he better suited to sitting at a table, or on a couch with a lap desk? Be sure to stock with the school supplies needed to complete homework such as: pens, pencils, erasers, paper, crayons, markers, colored pencils, basic craft supplies, stapler, dictionary, thesaurus, and a pencil sharpener. Put the computer in a central location so that parents can monitor its use easily. Keep a kitchen timer handy if kids are reluctant to start (or finish).
7. Review school safety procedures. Discuss all possible safety procedures including: school pick up and drop off; walking to and from school; home fire exit plan; and inclement weather procedures.
8. Engage kids in “end of summer” activities. Pop popcorn and watch summertime movies. Pitch a tent in the backyard or at a local campground, roast marshmallows, and tell ghost stories.
When school starts:
1. Get to know your child’s teacher. Make an appointment to speak to your child’s new teacher, and be prepared with questions to ask regarding his or her teaching style, your child’s learning style, his or her rules and expectations, his or her expectations for you as a parent, school trips, special projects, and his or her homework policy.
2. Update the family calendar. Share it with your child’s other parent. Mark down important dates such as school-wide events, parent conferences, PTA meetings, fundraisers, school holidays, holiday parties, grading periods, and school breaks. In addition, both parents can access information that schools post online. Some schools have small websites with basic information, while others have features like calendars, information on joining parent groups, programs to track your child’s grades, and links to district-wide information.
3. Remember that “more things are caught than taught.” Communicating appropriately with your child provides the model he or she uses when out in the “real” world. Kids groan about the start of the new school year, but often they are as ready for school to resume as you are. Keep a positive attitude about the start of school, even when things do not go exactly according to your well-laid plans. When parents treat school as a crisis, so will their children. Take the time to focus on and listen to your child. Acknowledge his feelings. Utilize words of encouragement and hope, and inject some humor into the situation when you can.
4. Prepare tonight for tomorrow morning. Get everyone involved. Teaching children responsibility starts early. Doing everything for your children does not teach them self-reliance. Together, set out tomorrow’s clothes, make and refrigerate lunches, and put out medicine the night before. Assign a child to put cereal bowls, napkins, spoons, etc. on the table. Put all homework and forms into the backpack to reduce a crazed and chaotic morning. Go ahead and put backpacks, etc. in the car the night before so that there is no search and rescue mission the next morning.
5. Adopt a “Do it Now” attitude. If paperwork comes home from school that requires parental attention, do it immediately, as most forms are time-sensitive (such as permission slips). Return the paperwork to the homework folder and the backpack. On the way to school is not the time to fill up the gas tank or drop by the grocery store. Take care of these errands after school.
6. Decide who is picking up the check. Both parents need to review how school expenses are to be paid. Do not wait until the first day of school to resolve this matter. Who pays for supplies, extracurricular activities, and back-to-school clothes? Do not take this opportunity to throw the other parent under the bus. Discuss it out of the presence of the children.
The transition from summer free-for-all to back-to-school schedule can upset any child’s daily rhythm. For children living in two homes — whose parents have separated, divorced, or remarried — creating predictable routines at each household and communicating your expectations to your children promotes a sense of calm, order, and security. Just remember: the more coordinated and organized the parents are, the more confident and secure a child will feel about going to school and focusing on learning.