Back to School: A Parent's Guide to Helping Kids Succeed
Parents, it's that time of year again. Back to School brings about a spate of new questions: backpack or messenger bag? Lunchbox or lunch money? Aftercare program or after-school activity? Whether your child is a kindergartner or high schooler, the new school year can bring about its own stresses. What's the best way to help your child succeed without taking on too much stress? Here's a guide of helpful tips for parents who experience new-school-year stress. Please remember that every situation and every student is different, and you should assess which tips fit your family's unique circumstances.
Your child might take the bus or walk to school. In either scenario, something could go wrong. Maybe the bus came ahead of schedule and your child missed it; maybe it broke down before it reached your stop. Maybe the weather is too bad for your child to walk to school. Maybe your own work hours don't accommodate you bringing your child to school yourself.
- Go over the path beforehand.
Make sure your child knows where the bus stop is or what the safest route is to get to school. Go over traffic safety rules: walking on the sidewalk whenever possible and being safe around busses. Check out NAPT's school bus guide for more tips on school bus safety.
- Arrange a walking group.
For the safety of all involved, children and teenagers should walk with a buddy to school.
- Form a back-up plan.
Maybe another parent in the walking group is able to drive students to school if they miss their bus or the weather is bad. Make a plan for emergency backup transportation before you need to use it.
- Make sure the kids can contact each other during the day.
You don't want to get a phone call after school if your child missed both their bus and their ride. Check if your child and other members of the carpool are in any of the same classes during the day. Encourage them to communicate with each other if they are planning on leaving early, being absent, or staying late after school.
- Complete a teen driver safety program.
Maybe your child is ready to get behind the wheel and drive themselves to school. Ease your mind by completing a driver safety program, like Share the Keys, before they get on the road. NJM's program is designed for parents and teens to attend together, for the comfort of everyone involved.
Helping with Homework
It's likely at some point during the school year that your child will ask for homework help. It's also likely that, as your child grows older, you won't be able to help. Whether it's because you don't remember anything about Physics or you're not familiar with the Common Core method of Math instruction, sometimes you'll find yourself out of your depth for your child's homework.
- Arrange a daily homework time.
If your children are in elementary school, it's a good idea to have them complete their homework in front of you, like at the kitchen table. Emphasize that homework is an opportunity to practice – the same way you practice an instrument or a dance routine – and make it part of the daily schedule. As your children get older, consider putting a desk in their room – away from distractions like television or video games. They’ll appreciate the independence and trust you place in them to complete things on their own.
- Encourage practice outside of daily assigned homework.
Establish a "reading time" separate from "homework time." Obtain a copy of your child's spelling list – or other memorization-based work – and drill them during breakfast or car rides.
- Encourage your child to try on their own.
Homework is an opportunity to practice. The last thing a teacher wants is for a parent to be completing a child’s homework assignment. Encourage your child to complete his or her work independently. If they get stuck, guide them to the next step without taking over. At the same time, be careful not to teach problem-solving strategies that conflict with the methods being taught in the classroom.
- Allow your child to take breaks.
When feeling frustration, children will begin to shut down. Monitor signs of struggling and allow them to take a break when frustration begins to settle in. Coming back to the assignment with a clear mind might do wonders.
- Know that your child's teacher should only be assigning homework for something your child understands.
The best homework assignments are the ones that are for practice, not learning. Your child should come home with a basic idea of how to complete the work, based on what was covered in class that day. If your child asks for help, try questioning them about what they learned in school. "How did you do it in class today?" or, "Show me your notes," might be good prompts for your child to teach you the material. If your child expresses frustration, it might be a good idea to contact the teacher about what could have gone wrong.
There are two aspects to communication that parents might worry about: maintaining communication with your child and maintaining communication with their teacher.
- With your child:
The fact of the matter is we live in a world where everyone has a phone. But what is a good age for your child to get one? Consider your child's needs – maybe they take part in a carpool and need a way to contact you if schedules change. If your child has medical issues, you might want to stay in touch throughout the day to gauge their well-being. If your child tends to lose or break things, maybe don’t invest in the newest model of smartphone.
Remember, many schools have zero-device policies. If you really need to get in contact with your child, the school will usually prefer that you call the main office and communicate through them.
- With their teacher:
Make sure you communicate with your child’s teachers early in the school year about the best way to contact them. While some teachers are perfectly willing to communicate via text, others prefer an email or phone call. Many teachers will attest that there is a healthy balance of communicating: while they don’t want you to be AWOL, they also don't want you to call about every single homework assignment. It doesn't hurt to send an email once every week or two to ask for progress updates about a student. That way, you can keep current on what your child is working on and how they're behaving, without getting a surprise phone call when report cards are due.
Another great way to keep up to date with what’s happening in the classroom is to look into the teacher's web presence. Many teachers nowadays maintain a website or Google Classroom, where students and their parents can go for missed work, rubrics, extra help, and the like. Applications like Remind are also becoming more common in the classroom. Check with your child's teacher about these options for staying up to date without feeling like you're hovering.
Establishing Wake-Up and Bedtime Schedules
It's important for both you and your child to maintain a regular sleep schedule during the school year. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that school aged children (6-13 years old) sleep nine to eleven hours each night, and teenagers sleep eight to ten hours each night.
- Schedule homework for right after school – not before bedtime.
Encourage your child not to complete work right before bedtime. Model such behavior by doing your own work – whether it's balancing your checkbook or finishing something up for work – with them as soon as you get home. After all, if the homework takes longer than expected, starting it at 8 or 9 p.m. could mean finishing it at 10 or 11, pushing bedtime back and negatively impacting tomorrow’s wake-up schedule. The half-hour to hour before bedtime should be devoted to preparing for tomorrow and relaxing.
- Leave electronics out of the bedroom.
Blue light from electronics will impact yours and your child’s sleep schedules, either by pushing off bedtime, affecting your circadian rhythms or reducing melatonin levels. Don’t let your child face that temptation to browse the internet until all hours of the night: maintain a strict rule of no electronics in the bedroom.
- Find what works for morning wake-up.
Getting enough sleep and maintaining a regular wake-up schedule – even on weekends – should be enough to ensure that you are rising ready to take on the day. But sometimes it's not. So find what works for you to wake yourself or your child up. It could be a hot or cold shower, a warm breakfast, or morning exercise.
We all want our children to be successful in life, and there are some tried-and-true ways to do that. One way is to step back and allow your child to figure things out on their own. It may sound counterintuitive – after all, how will a child know what's right every time? – but it's important for kids to experiment and develop a sense of ownership over their own work and lives. Think about how you learned best – usually not when someone told you exactly what to do and how to do it, but when you made mistakes and had to fix them.
When it comes to a parent's experience of Back to School stress, we're here to tell you: Don't worry about it. They've got this. As long as you give your child the room to grow, they will grow. In the long run, your children will thank you for letting them take control of their own lives and being a support system in their times of need.