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Eileen Wacker Headshot

Weathering Back to School Madness

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Well, we are surviving the summer with our kids. They enjoyed activities and camps, playing with friends, watching movies, and occasional sleepovers. We found cool water for swimming and delicious ice creams to eat. We had a few meals out and visited our favorite cousins.

But as I look out on the horizon, the "back to school" tidal wave is approaching fast. We have four kids in three different schools entering 8th, 7th, 4th and 3rd grade so we have great personal stress related to the kids returning to school. But we have learned an important lesson: getting ready for a new school year is one of the biggest transitions our kids make. Going to a new grade in the same building is like getting a new job in the same company. Going to a new grade level in a different buildings is like getting a new job with a new company. This is a big deal for kids and they can experience anxiety.

When we talk to our kids, they are not typically worried about the next batch of teachers -- but they say they are reluctant to return to school because of all the "homework" and "hard work". They are, in effect, worried about the "expectations" and measuring up. Upon further review, our kids, like most, miss their friends and are excited at the overall idea of going back to school but the death of summer, memories of late nights doing homework with a parent looking over their shoulder and getting up early can make even the most optimistic child shiver.

So we've decided to try to shape positive expectations using some of these approaches:

1) Send the teacher an email-- if possible work with your child and send from him/her. Do not lobby in the email, just write a friendly, 'I am ready for the new school year and looking forward to being in your class' note. This is especially helpful for a shy child as the teacher will normally respond with a quick email back and the child will experience the first personal connection.

2) Teachers use their own personal time to set up their classrooms so do not stop by unless you are sure this will be welcomed. Almost every school has a dry run to the next grade level just before school lets out so most likely your child has seen the classroom. Your opportunity to see the classroom and meet the teacher is the Open House. Make sure you go and leave your child at home. A long-time teacher remarked, "the school always requests parents do not bring their child but every year some parents inevitably drag their kids along". This stresses the teacher who has tailored the material for parents, not a tired child. The next morning, comment to your child about the impressive teacher and bright classroom.

3) Understand the school's electronics policy and get your child ready. Since technology is moving so quickly, policies shift quickly to adapt. Do they allow laptops and cell phones? Are the cell phone ringers turned off but texting is allowed? Use something sharp to scratch your child's name onto any device that leaves your home. If a device gets misplaced, you want it to come back and you want your child to recognize their device on sight and be able to prove it is his or hers.

4) Plan out breakfast for the entire first week. The menu should consist of what they will actually eat. Our youngest two want Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Chunky soup for breakfast, so we let them eat it. It is a warm meal (and fairly healthy) and we feel better knowing they have something in their stomachs. Our older two want pop tarts or something they can eat standing up. Using logic about energy and concentration only leads to a battle in our house.

5) For elementary school kids, find one child in his/her new class they are "glad about" and have a play date with him/her. Children worry a lot that there may be "no one they like" or that they will have no one to talk to and play with. And, you can emphasize that he/she can still see their "bestie" at recess, lunch and after school. Watch how you talk about going back to school. Try to avoid saying things like, "there will be no more sleepovers" and "you will have to go to bed early once you are back in school", etc..

6) If there are back to school "supply lists", incorporate into something fun and let them handle the money. I have my kids go with the babysitter to the school supply store then get an ice cream or lunch afterwards. They like to pick their own stuff, and they especially like to pay (and it starts teaching them what things cost!).

7) Think about your individual child's personality and strengths and weaknesses. Actually think through a few reasons you are sure this is going to be a great year for him/her. Our oldest child struggles to get good test grades. So we emphasize she has amazing organization skills and always gets her homework done. We remind her that teachers love her -how she impresses them every morning with a smile and positive attitude toward working.

8) Make an agreement with each child about how you will wake them up. One of our kids likes to get carried to the kitchen and placed in a chair. Another uses an alarm clock while another wants the shades opened up. Being organized and getting up and out on time are huge challenges. Of course all clothes should be laid out the night before and backpacks readied to go.

9) Back to school outfits and first day pomp and circumstance are outdated concepts. Today, the weather is still hot and kids wear comfortable and weather appropriate clothing. The perfectly groomed first grader wearing sensible new shoes with perfectly cut hair, smiling for cameras is too stressful. Now, parents should label the clothes they already have so they actually bring them home. School "Lost and Founds" are overflowing with kids jackets, shoes, water bottles and other stuff. Label their treasured used clothes and skip the first day ceremony.

9 ½) This one is extra credit for the overachieving parent. Read some of their required summer reading and strike up a casual conversation about the book -- most kids struggle with reading comprehension but do not want an overinvolved parent looking over their shoulder. Make sure you have your own copy and keep it casual. This summer I read Surviving the Applewhites and Maze Runner on the Kindle. At a theme park, I pointed to a boy and said, "this is what I picture Jake to look like" and we started talking from there.

10) End the first week with a celebration! We go to dinner and create little video interviews about the first week. They comment on their favorite things and do a funny imitation of the teacher. Then we email their clips to them-- they enjoy watching themselves endlessly.

We put small notes in their backpacks, sports bag or lunch. We write things like "you are brave" or "have the best day ever". We ask open ended questions every day and try not to correct them when they answer. Who do you sit next to in class now? What was lunch like? What's your new teacher like?

Now that we know what we CAN do, some landmines to avoid-- on the first day of your new job, you would not want anyone to yell at you or demand you eat what they have cooked. You would not want anyone to criticize what you are wearing or how your hair looks. You would NOT want to be late. You would not want to enter the new office crying. These must be avoided at all costs. We all yell at our children; but let's not yell in the morning on that first week of school.

I am secretly relieved they are returning to school. I have not had much time to work out or focus on work during the summer. I might even be able to get my nails done and my hair highlighted. I channel this joy into remaining positive the first week. It is not easy -- they test me every time, refusing to get up or making a last minute change to a shabby outfit. The back to school drama is coming but you can send an excited child to school with optimism for a new year. And p.s. I do agree with my kids -- there is too much homework! I just don't tell them.