How to have the best school year ever

Stay on track with your family's back-to-school goals this year with our extensive guide to school success.

School Primer

Like most parents, I want my kids to flourish academically and grow up to become great successes, but my parenting style is best described as lovingly lackadaisical. (Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother gave me nightmares; Confessions of a Slacker Mom made me think the author and I were separated at birth.) But this school year, my six-year-old daughter, Maia, will be in grade one and my seven-year-old son, Joseph, in grade two. They’ll both be in the “big yard” at recess, with all the changing social dynamics that go along with that. They’ll both have homework. They’ll both be eating lunch in the cafeteria, with no motherly “lunch lady” to make sure they eat their apple.

Meanwhile, I’ve been worrying about how to juggle the competing demands of motherhood and my career while maintaining my sanity and making sure no one gets scurvy. So I’ve come up with a comprehensive blueprint for this to be the best school year ever. This plan will likely not include hand-rolled sushi for lunch and cello recitals—but it just might mean combed hair and brushed teeth every morning, and a happier, more organized family in general. Here’s the plan, starting today.

Summer brain gain
I’m never sure if I should be pushing the books on my kids throughout the summer to prep them for the school year ahead. According to Susen Anderson, a former elementary school teacher in Oakville, Ont., and mom of four, ideally, you should try to get in some reading, writing and arithmetic during the summer months, but don’t stress out about it or make it too regimented. “Writing out the shopping list, sending postcards or keeping a trip journal are some fun ways to get children writing,” says Anderson. “Playing board games often involves reading and math, and there are also many excellent online math games that children love.” (My money-obsessed son adores the Cash Cow app, available at the iTunes store for $1. The Splash Math apps are great, too.)

Jackie Madden, a Toronto kindergarten teacher and mother of three, agrees. “Raising a lifelong learner is a huge commitment,” she says. “But realistically, I don’t think kids should be doing any formal curriculum during their time off.” (Phew.) According to Madden, a family’s “summer programming” can include personal-interest camps, library programs, day trips to local attractions and travel. “Education can come from any experience in the summertime,” she says. I couldn’t agree more—and it’s a good excuse to spend the rest of the year planning the fun stuff you’re going to experience together next summer.

Rise and shine
Sleep is probably one of the most crucial factors in how children deal with their days, so getting back to reasonable bedtimes and wake-up times well in advance of the first day of school is essential,” says Anderson. This means you should start adjusting bedtimes at least two weeks before the new school year starts. Even if your kids aren’t ready to go to sleep earlier, you can ease the routine back a few minutes earlier each night and spend a bit of extra time reading and relaxing together once jammies are on and teeth are brushed. Invest in blackout curtains if your children are really struggling with getting into bed when it’s still light outside.

There will likely still be nights when a late bedtime is hard to avoid—Labour Day weekend fireworks, for example—but at least try to be mindful of the change in schedule you and your children will soon be facing, or that first day back is sure to be tough.

Breakfast of champions
I can’t even look at food in the morning until I’ve consumed at least two cups of coffee, so breakfast is not my strong suit. My husband is great about stepping in, but he only has two moves: cereal and fruit, and toast and fruit. (Oh, wait. Sometimes, he also makes leftover-waffles-from-the-weekend and fruit.)

“For kids and breakfast, my focus is always protein and fibre,” says Petawawa, Ont., holistic nutritionist Seanna Thomas. Her go-to dish: “Smoothies. A banana, strawberries, yogurt, milk, chia seeds—and you’re out the door.” If your kids aren’t into smoothies (my daughter loves them; my son knows I sneak spinach in, so he avoids them), cover all the bases on the run with a whole wheat tortilla smothered in nut butter and wrapped around a banana.

If you have a child who doesn’t seem to want to eat anything in the morning, stay away from the pre-made and powdered breakfast drinks, which can be full of additives and sugar. Instead, simply offer a glass of milk, says Thomas. It’s not an ideal solution—a balanced meal is always best—but at least milk, unlike powdered drinks, is a whole food and a good source of protein. Oat and hemp milk are good options for lactose-intolerant or dairy-free kids, if you’re wary about giving them soy (which has the most protein of all milk alternatives).

Getting out the door
When a 2013 joint University of Michigan and University of Pittsburgh study revealed that yelling at kids may be just as harmful as hitting them, I cringed. I try to avoid shouting at my children, but when we’re frantically trying to get to school, I’ve been known to raise my voice. (My kids have a game they like to play: It’s called “Let’s Get to School Before Mommy Has a Meltdown.” Fun times.)

“Kids can become so overwhelmed by all the stuff they need to do every morning that they end up doing nothing,” says Christopher Shulgan, a parenting expert on CBC’s Steven and Chris Show. A solution that revolutionized mornings for his daughter, Penny, 6, and his son, Myron, 8, is simple: A framed to-do list hanging by the front door. “After we brainstormed together to come up with the list, they then had a schedule that allowed them to prioritize and figure out, step by step, how to go from waking up to getting out the door. It’s pretty basic. The first step actually is ‘wake up’ and the second one is ‘go pee.’ Since we started the list, our mornings have actually become kind of fun.” (Imagine that!) The kids don’t have to check items off this straightforward list, either—just having it for reference is enough to keep them on task, says Shulgan.

Post a family calendar or weekly plan in a central place in your home, too, suggests Anderson. “Most adults rely on a calendar or planner to keep them on track with commitments, and children can benefit from this tool as well. Posting the weekly plan can help them learn to organize themselves and their time, and give them a sense of structure.”

My family does OK with getting their morning tasks done—once they’re actually out of bed. To help with this, we recently got digital alarm clocks for both kids, so they could get themselves up and get dressed in the morning on their own rather than relying on us to wake them. (A bonus to this is we can now avoid having to rouse our incredibly grumpy daughter, who at seven o’clock in the morning behaves like a surly teenager.)

Get your kids to take on more responsibility by discussing what’s coming up on the calendar. (“Tomorrow is your swimming lesson. Please go and put your swim bag by the front door so that it’s all ready.” Or, “Saturday is Emma’s party. Have you made her a card?”)

Another brilliant suggestion for saving time is pre-packing designated bags for post-school activities with clothing, equipment and non-perishable snacks, and keeping them in specific spots. This doesn’t mean cluttering your entryway; a swim bag can be kept in the laundry room until the towels and swimsuits are washed and ready for the next lesson, and tucked into a front hall closet once it’s ready to go again. And here’s a common sense tip I wish I’d thought of a long time ago: “If you need to send consent forms or payments with certain activities, put them in the bag, too,” says Anderson. “Then, it’s there when you arrive at the activity. No more ‘Oh shoot, it’s on my counter’ for the third week in a row.” (Not that that’s ever happened to me…)

Then there’s the rest of the paper onslaught that back-to-school brings. From notices to artwork to those lists of high-frequency words the kids are supposed to read daily, I’ve never come up with a better idea than, “Leave them in a pile on the breakfast bar and hope for the best.”

Try a mini hanging folder, suggest Cambridge, Ont., mom of three Shannon Stampatori. “I keep the folder in a drawer. If it’s paper I need for future reference, I put it in each girl’s file folder. I find stray homework or notes all over the house and throw everything in their files so no one loses anything.” Set a reminder on your computer or phone calendar so you don’t forget to check the folders before the end of every week.

You can also use technology to help manage the piles (and piles and piles) of artwork your kids will bring home. “I take pictures of the good stuff as soon as it comes home from school,” says Chantel Guertin, a Toronto mom of three. “At the end of the year, I make a ‘yearbook’ on Blurb.ca with the photos. You upload them and get a nice hardcover book printed, and the great artwork is captured in it.” You can pitch the originals (except your very faves) and avoid all that clutter.

Homework helpers
I recently read an article in The Atlantic about a 2014 study revealing that children of parents who help with their kids’ homework actually end up with lower grades and poorer standardized test scores than children of parents who don’t. (A habit that does make a positive academic difference? Reading aloud to your kids at home.) “Homework should not be a battle,” says Andersen. “I’ve always reminded the parents of my students that homework is their child’s responsibility—it doesn’t matter if the child is five or 15.” This doesn’t mean completely ignoring the fact that your child has homework, but it does mean encouraging a self-directed approach to getting it done.

A key to success with a hands-off style like this is communicating with teachers. “I’ve told parents that if their child, after encouragement and support at home, did not choose to do their homework, they should let him come to school with it not done,” says Anderson. This might seem like a scary concept to parents, but I totally see her point. I think Joseph and Maia will benefit more from learning the natural consequences of not doing homework—for example, having to stay in at recess and finish it. But, especially with children as young as mine, I know getting them to sit on their own at the table and do homework isn’t going to be an easy task. I like the approach taken by mom-of-two Jennifer Parker-May, from Stouffville, Ont.: “I sit down across the table from them and do my own ‘homework,’ she says. “Returning emails, checking Facebook, reading a report for work, writing birthday cards.”

I also find that my kids always respond to routine. If they know what to expect, there’s less, “I don’t waaaaaaant tooooo!” So we’re going to establish a daily homework time—most likely while I’m also in the kitchen, making dinner. And if they don’t have homework, they can help me with simple meal-prep tasks rather than running off to watch Johnny Test (which they swear to me is educational, on account of all the science).

“Homework should be something that the child can complete almost independently and in a reasonable amount of time for their age and ability,” says Anderson. If this is not the case, speak with your child’s teacher.

Cultivate co-operation
In my favourite parenting book, Family Whispering, author Miranda Blau recommends holding regular family “check-ins” that focus on the family providing feedback and input as a whole, rather than the parents telling the children how things are going to be.

The week or so leading up to going back to school is the perfect time to hold a check-in, says Blau. “Don’t make the meeting about shoes, clothes and school supplies, but about getting into that headspace of going back to school after vacation and how the new schedule will affect the family.” Get the convo started by asking your kids what they’re most nervous or excited about, which activity they might want to try, or if they have any new ideas for better mornings.

Be authentic with your kids during this discussion, says Blau. “So often, parents are afraid to admit their own concerns or misgivings, but it’s OK to say how you’re really feeling.” This can provide an opportunity to come up with solutions together. You can say something like, “I’m not really looking forward to Wednesday nights, when I often work late, because one of you has hockey and the other swimming.” And the conversation could become about how the kids might help Dad get dinner on the table that night, or how Wednesdays might end up being pizza night.

“Being honest about your concerns also teaches children that it’s OK to have emotions, feel them, move on and still do the things expected of you, or that you expect of yourself,” says Blau. It also might open the door for your kids to tell you how they’re really feeling about going back to school. The summer can be a lovely hiatus from the worries of regular life, but once September rolls around they might become anxious about social issues or learning problems—or the fact that they really, really hate their backpack.

Family check-ins shouldn’t just happen before the start of school, but should become a part of your family’s routine about once a month (or when something comes up that you need to deal with together), last about 10 minutes and happen during a relaxed time, like Sunday-morning breakfast, rather than a busy weeknight dinner.

Avoid overscheduling
Once you’re truly into the routine of the new school year, family check-ins can also be a good chance to ask your children how they’re enjoying the activities they’re enrolled in. Last year, my son really wanted to try karate, but he revealed to us at a check-in a few months into it that karate wasn’t turning out as he had expected. (To be clear, what he expected was for it to be like the TV show Lego Ninjago.) We agreed he would attend all the classes we had prepaid for, and then we’d let him move on to something else.

According to life coach Julie Robbins, from Vancouver, we did the right thing. “Children should engage in activities they’re excited about—budget permitting, of course,” says Robbins. “It’s important to provide space for kids to try things on, and there’s no need to then say they have to stay in something for years just because everyone else does or because as a parent you feel your child simply must finish something they’ve started.”

When it comes to scheduling activities for your kids, be mindful of what’s right for your family, says Blau. It’s very easy to look around at what others are doing and think that if your children aren’t doing it all—swimming, art, music, sports, academic enrichment—they aren’t going to be well-rounded, successful people. “Many parents don’t realize that marketers play into parents’ fears of their kids not measuring up,” says Blau. “A lot of people are making a lot of money from all these after-school activities, and that’s where some of the pressure can come from.”

Real concerns from real kids—and real solutions
Here are some of the concerns real kids and parents are agonizing over as the school year approaches, with tips from Christina Rinaldi, a school and applied child psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta, on how to help them overcome their worries:

Friend drama. Mackenzie, who is eight, and going into grade two, worries a lot about her friends. “Specifically, she worries about how she’ll manage all her girlfriends,” says her mom, Heather Read, of Waterloo, Ont. “Will they all play together? Will some of the girls want to play with only her during a recess? If she promises to play with someone one day, what will she do the next day? How can she not play with someone without getting into trouble for ‘excluding’ them?”

Relationships between children can be surprisingly complicated and fraught with hurt feelings and emotional missteps. “Children need to know that it’s OK to be clear about what they want, or don’t want, to do,” says Rinaldi. “They have a choice about whether to participate in something or not, and just because they’re choosing a different activity than a friend does not mean they are excluding him or her.” Rinaldi also says it’s important to tell children they do not have to take the weight of the world on their shoulders when it comes to the feelings of their friends. Yes, empathy and sensitivity are important —but, as I always tell my daughter before she falls asleep, tomorrow will be a brand new day. In the words of that song we’re all still trying to get out of our heads, sometimes you just have to let it go.

Starting over. Keira O’Donnell is the mother of three girls, ages 12, nine and seven. Recently, the family moved from Toronto to Calgary. “The kids were anxious, and I was nervous myself, which probably didn’t help,” she says. If you can visit the school ahead of time, do. Contact the principal and ask for a personal orientation, and take some time to familiarize your children with the neighbourhood around the school, too.

“Approaching other children and asking to join in an activity can be daunting,” says Rinaldi. “But you can give your child suggestions: For example, instead of saying, ‘Can I play with you?’ which might give other children the opportunity to say no, your child can say things like, “I really enjoy soccer, too,” or compliment another child’s artwork, then mention that they also enjoy drawing. Make sure that your child understands that it can take time and patience to build new friendships, but that the fact that they don’t happen right away does not mean that they never will. Elementary school teachers should play a role in welcoming and helping new kids ease into life at a new school, so keep the lines of communication open and share any concerns before the first day, says Rinaldi.

Sometimes, a good icebreaker is your best bet: A basketball, jewellery-making kit or skipping rope large enough for others to join in can make it easier for a new kid to participate in games and conversation.

Bullying. Eight-year-old Sophie* has only one major worry about returning to school, says her mom, Penelope.* “She worries about being bullied, like she has been in previous years.” As a first step, Rinaldi recommends visiting prevnet.ca, the website of a network of leading researchers and organizations working together to stop bullying in Canada. (Rinaldi is affiliated with this organization.) You’ll find assessment tools and tip sheets for kids who are being bullied, and healthy- relationship-building resources for children or parents of children displaying aggressive behaviour.

The most important thing, when seeking to help a child who is being bullied, is to be proactive. “One of the messages schools and parents send is that if you are being bullied you need to seek help: Talk to a teacher, a parent or an adult. So we need to make sure we’re taking some sort of action,” says Rinaldi. “Otherwise, the child may feel she’s getting mixed messages—being told on one hand to talk to an adult, but on the other perhaps feeling like there is nothing that can be done, so why tell anyone?”

Don’t let the pressure of coming up with a solution lead you to promote aggressive behaviour in return, says Rinaldi. “Data suggests fighting back can make the experience worse and more prolonged.” If your child is being bullied at school, encourage combatting it with words, rather than fists. Role-playing at home can help facilitate brainstorming for phrases to suit the situation. (“Bullying is not cool!”; “Your opinions have no effect on me!”; “I’m not going to let you get to me!”)

Encourage kids who feel threatened to stay in areas where they feel safe, close to friends they can count on, and to walk away and seek help if things look like they could get physical. Penelope agrees. “We helped Sophie learn to handle herself by being assertive, not aggressive. It was a relief for her to know that we took it seriously, and we taught her to find ways to remove her focus from the bullying and find her strength and joy everywhere else.”

*Name has been changed

A version of this article appeared in our September 2014 issue with the headline, “Best year ever!” p.89-94.

Read more:
How to get your family organized and on a schedule—in three steps
11 ways to salvage a bad morning
5 ways to end the homework battle for good

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