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Best Ways to Start the School Year

How to help your family move smoothly from summer into the new schedule

Do you feel the wind of change? I do. There's an undercurrent of excitement and nervousness at our house. Our three children are preparing for a new school year. The calendar is crowded with activities. Whether your child is beginning kindergarten, fifth grade or the sophomore year of high school, each school year brings new opportunities and challenges. A smooth transition sets the stage for a successful school year. What does it take to move a family gracefully from the summer into the school year?

From Summer to School

Physical preparation supports our child's emotional preparation for the changes ahead. For example, shopping for a new backpack might be just one item on a lengthy list of errands. But it means more to your child. First, she phones a friend to find out what brand backpack she bought. At the store, your daughter sorts through racks and stacks before selecting the green backpack with four zippers and two pouches. Finally, she adjusts the straps for comfort. This simple errand for you can symbolize a fresh start for your child.

How does your child feel about the new school year? It's worth finding out, because feelings influence behaviors. You might feel more patience with a weepy child if you know she's worried about forgetting her locker combination. You might be more supportive of your son if you recall your butterflies prior to junior high basketball team tryouts.

Each child may experience the approaching of school differently. After our daughter Christy survives the initial uncertainties and worries, she develops routines that give her a sense of security. Our daughter Angela counts the days until school begins because she is eager to see her friends. Our son, Matthew, prefers the freedom and pace of summer; school attendence is a fact of life.

Also be alert to your feelings. Letting go is the hardest aspect of parenting for me. I must continually work at letting my children become the people God intends. If you are hesitant about watching your child go off to second grade or begin high school, talk with other parents. Record your feelings in a prayer journal. But give your child the emotional permission to grow up.

Checklist for Success

A successful school year begins long before the school bus pulls up. Many school-year problems can be prevented by proactive parenting. Here's a checklist:

Clarify chores. Our school chart has just replaced the summer chart. During the next few weeks, Matthew will begin to assist with morning laundry duties and cat care, jobs he didn't have during the summer.

Ask: What household responsibilities can my child realistically complete before he leaves for school in the morning? What new jobs can he handle this fall that he couldn't do a year ago? What child-friendly chores emerge with the fall season?

Ease into routines. During the final days of summer vacation, move up bedtime by five minutes each night. By the first day of school, everyone will be comfortable with the school-year bedtime. Review procedures for making lunches and unpacking the soccer gear bag. Tack up little reminders to avoid memory overload.

Ask: What were our biggest logistic hassles last year? How can we prevent problems this year? How can I make sure to see the school papers I need to see? How can I help my child move toward self-reliance in her daily routines?

Develop activity guidelines. Family-life experts indicate that "children's activities" are a major stressor for parents with school-age children. Discuss how you will prevent schedule gridlock this year. For example, our children were allowed to play one sport each season. With three children and one car, we could not manage both indoor and outdoor soccer in the fall. Each year, when we barely survived the overlap of seasonal sports, we were vividly reminded of the wisdom of the "one sport per season per child" guideline. It worked for us. What will work for you this fall?

Ask: What activities are most important to my child? Which activities match our family life? Which activities fit into our budget?

Get organized. Label a file folder for each activity, and then file everything related to that activity. This will prevent countless missed snacks at preschool and late arrivals at cheerleading practice. When you receive the school calendar, mark every parent conference day, early dismissal and holiday. Some parents color-code the calendar by child or activity.

Also, label three flat boxes into which your child can place his school papers every day: papers to sign and return, papers from school to read, graded papers to store or throw away. This will prevent the paper blizzard that flies out every few weeks when your child unloads his backpack.

Ask: What procedures have helped us stay organized in the past? What organizational techniques will simplify life this fall?

Clarify homework issues. Homework is a student activity, not a parent responsibility. We have only a supporting role. This means we might drive a child to the library or assist a student in getting onto the Internet. Or, we might set and enforce appropriate rules, such as "No television until homework is done." Talk with your child about ways you will support him, but mentally draw the line for yourself on what might be inappropriate help.

Ask: Does my child have a quiet, well-lit place to study? Does my child have a list of homework helpers to call if he needs assistance? Are homework guidelines clearly communicated and rules enforced?

Arrange child care. So often, child care is arranged backward: find a place and then try to fit a child into it. Instead, begin by identifying the qualities you and your child need. Many schools offer before- and after-school programs. Some children enjoy the security and reduced hassle of being at one place all day; others prefer child care away from the school.

Ask: What elements are essential for any child care program in which I place my child? What care is available on school holidays and snow days? How closely does this site match my child's needs and my needs?

Program the first day for success. Registration day typically begins the school year. Take information for the forms you'll complete: pediatrician's phone number; hospital preference; emergency numbers; verification of residence; certified copy of your child's birth certificate; validated record of immunizations, etc.

Talk with your child about ways you can make his first days easier. It's normal if your child is more tired than usual for the first two weeks of school. Remember, he or she is making a major transition.

Ask: How can I reduce stress on my child during the first days of school? How can our family celebrate the new school year? What is an appropriate way to record the memories of the first day of school for this year?

Focus Forward

The designers of school assignment books must be parents. They understand that the real calendar begins in the fall. Now is a good time to consider:

  • What do I want out of the school year for my child?
  • What are my child's goals, in and out of the classroom?
  • What are my objectives as a school parent?
  • What is my prayer for my child during this school year?

Answer these questions now, then periodically during the coming months.

Regardless of your specific objectives, research is consistent on one point: your child will perform better in the classroom if you are involved at school. Volunteer to activate a telephone tree, bake cupcakes or drive the chess club to the Saturday tournament. Your involvement gives tangible evidence that you support your child.

All of these activities contribute to launching a successful school year. Yet the most important action I take as a Christian parent comes every day at the front door: I send my son to school on the wings of prayer.

Matthew wears two things around his neck to school each day: his security tag, so he can be beamed onto the high school campus, and a wooden cross. The photo id is a sign of the times; the cross is a timeless sign of his faith.

I don't know what the coming school year holds. I do know Who holds my children in the coming school year.

Dr. Mary Manz Simon, an educator and mother of three children, lives in Belleville, Illinois. An adviser to Christian Parenting Today, she is the best-selling author of numerous books.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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