Back to School

This week or next, your kids will be heading back to school. If your house is anything like mine, that means terror, trauma, and chaos – and that’s the good stuff!

The first few weeks of school are probably going to throw you some curve-balls, too: your child gets bullied, the bus schedule is rearranged at the last minute (we lost a 6th grader for two hours the year before last when they changed the bus routes at the last minute!), or the teacher is “a big old meanie!” You can spare yourself the time to deal with those sudden crises by making sure that you and your children have set up an efficient system to deal with the everyday stuff of going back to school.

Especially if the adults in your household are all working, just making sure the kids are up, fed, and ready to go to school – and home, fed, and ready to do their homework – can be a hassle in itself. Try some of these tips to take the hassle out of Back to School time, and save your energy for the unexpected crises around the corner.

1. Plan meals a week at a time.

Make a list of the things you regularly make for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, and pick 5 of each off the list every week. This will help you a) put together a shopping list that doesn’t have you running to the store every other day to pick up whatever you forgot, b) make sure your kids get a balanced diet, and c) save money by avoiding unnecessary shopping or wasting food.

You can also save some time during morning crunch times and post-work exhausted times by cooking or otherwise preparing food in advance. We do up 5 lunch bags for each child with all their non-perishable foods – cookies, crackers, muffins, whatever. Then we only need to make a sandwich or whatever and drop in a bag of veggies and they’re ready to go.

2. Set up a Snack Drawer.

Instead of mounting a 24-hour death guard on the pantry door to make sure that unauthorized snacking doesn’t occur – and that authorized snacks don’t consist of piles of sweets every day – make the pantry (or cupboards, or wherever you store food) a “No Kid” zone. Instead, designate a drawer, cupboard, or even a basket on the counter as a “Free Zone” and stock it with enough treats for the week. Make sure to balance sweets with plenty of healthy foods like apples and bananas.

Once your snack drawer is set up, let your kids pick their own snacks every day from whatever’s in the drawer. If they want sweets every day, that’s fine – after a day or two, though, there won’t be any left, and they’ll have to pick something healthier. If they want to gorge themselves on Monday, that’s fine, too – by Wednesday there will be nothing left, and they’ll face the rest of the week snack-free. Giving your kids control over their own snacking (within the parameters you’ve set up) will help teach them to regulate their own eating habits and be responsible for the amounts they eat.

3. Clear the bulletin board.

Or set one up if you don’t have one. Ours is in the kitchen, and announcements and stuff needing a parent’s signature goes there – or it doesn’t get signed. The corkboard is also a “brag board”, for posting the latest masterpiece from art class or the letter announcing someone made the Dean’s List – which keeps our refrigerator door a little less cluttered.

4. Set up the Landing Strip.

A landing strip is a point at or near the front door for kicking off shoes, hanging backpacks and coats, and clearing the pockets. We have an entry table across from the coat closet – it’s the last thing to check in the morning and the first thing to check when you get home. Packages go there, as does mail (when the kids get it), and anything else that needs grown-up attention. More importantly, although the landing strip gets cluttered, it’s easier to straighten out the entryway than to look all over the house for a missing sneaker or dropped keychain.

5. Start a Weekly Review and Homework Buddy time.

Schedule a block of time once a week to sit down, with or without the kids, and go over the upcoming schedule and iron out any problems that have emerged over the week. We do this when we plan meals and write up our grocery list.

Also, schedule at least one block of time each week for homework help. Spend some time helping, or just reviewing the work they’ve done recently. This is your chance to take an interest in what they’re learning – and maybe to show them that it’s not all quite as useless and stupid as they think, especially if you can show how you use the same topics in your own work.

6. Do a false run.

If you have the time, get up one morning as if it were a school day and run through your morning routine. This will help you identify any bottlenecks (our 12-year old is going to take a little longer this year because she has discovered eyeliner!) and also start getting the kids into the habit of getting up early again. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to do a full morning routine each morning in the week leading up to the start of school – so that, while  you’ll still have to deal with all the trauma of actually going back to school, you won’t have to deal with it at the same time that the kids are recovering from a summer of sleeping in.

7. Update your emergency contact and pick-up information

Make sure the school has current information to reach you at work or on your mobile phone if they need to. Also, designate a couple of trustworthy adults – a boy- or girlfriend, a grandparent, a close neighbor – to pick up your kids in case you can’t, and give their information to the school. Some schools require information like Driver’s License numbers or photos – make sure they have whatever you need. The time to discover that your best friend can’t get your kids from school is not when you’re in the Emergency Room following a workplace accident.

8. Set up a Homework Zone

Clear a place – in their room, in an unused room, in a quiet corner, or even at the kitchen table – where the kids can do their homework, and stock it well with pencils, pens, markers, paper, and other supplies. Put everything into a basket that can be easily moved if the Zone is needed fro something else (like actually eating on the kitchen table). Establish clear rules for behavior around the Homework Zone – for example, kids that don’t have homework have to stay out of the Homework Zone until everyone is finished.

9. Update your address book

Get the phone number and email of all your kids’ teachers, and their room number (in case you have to have a child pulled out of class in mid-day, it will save time if you can tell the school what room they’re in). Also get the front office, principal’s office, and nurse’s contact information. All this goes up on our bulletin board, and also into everyone’s phones.

10. Stick a box of school supplies in a secret place.

Avoid the inevitable “I have to do this by tomorrow, we have to go to the store now!” emergencies – instead, keep a box full of school supplies in a “secret place” (your bedroom closet, for instance). Put pencils, paper, spare scissors, glue (stick and white), a ruler, and anything else they need in the box and forget about it – until the emergency comes, when you can just say “give me a minute” and pop upstairs to get whatever’s needed.

11. Add school dates to your calendar.

Add the dates for Parent-Teacher conferences, Teacher Development days, and any other school holidays to your calendar now, so you won’t have to count on the kids to bring notices home later. Also add any field trips, school events, or recitals the school informs you about at the beginning of the school year.

12. Assign “first thing” chores

If you can’t trust your kids to have the good time-sense to get their chores done before dinner or before bedtime, assign them “first thing” chores – chores to be done “first thing” when they get home. In our house, take out the trash is a “first thing” (and bring the trashcan in on trash days), as is clear the dishwasher and straighten the downstairs bathroom. They won’t always remember, but after a few reminders they’ll start to get things done without being told. One small step for parenthood…

Do you have any tips for the first week or so of the school year? Let us know in the comments.

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