For most households with school-aged children, back to school is an exciting time of hope and optimism. The beginning of each new school year, from the first to the last, represents the opportunity for students to expand their knowledge, grow socially and emotionally, and develop valuable skills they’ll be able to use the rest of their lives. However, it can also be a time of anxiety and apprehension, as kids prepare to swap the carefree days of summer for a much more rigorous schedule and the academic challenges of completing a higher grade.
Whether up until now your child’s experiences in school have been smooth sailing, a bumpy road or even if it’s their first year, it’s never too early or too late to start grooming a student for success. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” And while we can only hope our kids have the capacity to attain the level of accomplishment of old Ben, there’s plenty we can do together, parent and child, to ensure they’re getting the organization skills, study habits, strategies and support to reach their potential.
Getting Off on the Right Foot
According to Cecile Selwyn, the director of Commonwealth Learning Center in Needham, the first thing parents need to do before school starts is help their kids get organized and establish a routine. She recommends involving your children in the process of everything from picking out the right supplies to sharing ideas on how to formulate a smooth running schedule. “Then they take ownership,” says Selwyn. “Getting them involved rather than having parents doing it for the kids gives them an important way to get going that first week of school.”
Tracy Dean, a third-grade teacher with the Natick Public School System and mother of two boys in middle school, agrees there’s a lot you can do to prepare children for school, especially in the elementary grades. “What you want to do is help them develop the right habits,” she says. “You’re setting the routines early so when they get older, they kind of have that ingrained in them.”
Selwyn’s next step to getting ready for back to school is ensuring everyone is on the same page. She recommends starting a family calendar where you can write down important events, school activities, play dates, sports and so on. Choose a calendar that’s large, color-code it so it’s easy to read and hang it in a prominent place where everybody is sure to see it every day.
When it comes to getting organized in school, Selwyn says for older students it usually starts with straightening out their locker by putting a shelf in the middle (morning books go on top, afternoon books on the bottom), hanging a calendar on the door and maybe a small white magnetic board to keep a to-do list. Other tasks, such as color-coding the different subject notebooks, cleaning up and organizing backpacks, using a planner and designating specific folders for carrying homework to and from school, are basic pieces of organization students of all ages can follow.
“It goes back to starting them young,” says Dean, adding you want to make sure your child is the one actually doing these steps. “We’ve all been busy and have said, ‘give me the folder,’ and thrown it in the backpack and zipped it up. We’re trying to build healthy, positive habits, but if you do it for them, it’s going to become your habit, not theirs.”
Designated Study Space
“Quiet, well lit, minimal distractions, no screens – and then try really hard to have them revisit that space,” says Dean of a suitable study space. “Someplace you can be near, so you’re there for support, while not being on top of them.” Dean says a lot of getting organized involves simple things like picking up your list of supplies and putting them in a place where they’re easily found. “I actually have a homework cart that’s stocked with everything they possibly need for whatever it is they’re doing,” she says.
Selwyn agrees when parents organize their kids at home they should designate a specific workspace, as well as a place where they leave their backpacks. And wherever they work, it’s to the child’s benefit to put an emphasis on keeping it neat and well organized. “It actually takes away some of the anxiety and tension. It’s so much more calming because they know where things are,” Selwyn says.
Homework and Study
A skill that typically needs to be taught to kids is time-management, especially when it involves homework. So it’s crucial to designate a block of time that works for your family schedule and the individual child. “Some kids, once they’re out of school mode, it’s very hard to get them back in,” says Dean. She recommends that as soon as kids get home, to give them a snack and a drink, then have them sit down right away to get their homework completed.
In her work at the Learning Center, Selwyn encounters a lot of kids who by nature have difficulty organizing their time and managing homework. To help get back on the right track, she has them prioritize their homework assignments on a daily basis so they’re starting with a clear plan of action. “They can figure out what’s the most important and the longest assignments, and what are the easiest assignments that they can knock off even when it’s closer to bedtime.”
Dean believes while the routine is the foundation, you also don’t want to be too strict about when and where your kids do homework. If some of it gets done on the sideline of the soccer field or in the back of the car, the important thing is it gets completed. “You want to teach them to be flexible and able to problem solve. When you’re really stringent, you’re not teaching them to problem solve through anything,” she says.
Attributes of a Successful Student
It can be difficult to accurately and objectively assess how your children are developing as students. Selwyn points to benchmark skills to be aware of that kids need to acquire from the earliest grades, such as knowing how to organize binders, writing down homework assignments and checking book bags and planners, to make sure they have everything they need. She also says it’s a good sign when kids have the impetus to ask a friend or go to the teacher if they aren’t sure or have a question.
Often during the school year your children might spend more time with their class than they do with you, so it’s essential they learn to be proactive. “I think one mistake parents make, especially in the younger grades, is assuming their child is either too young or not able to advocate for themselves,” says Dean. She sees a lot of emails from parents trying to smooth out problems their kids are having in class. As a teacher, Dean would rather parents encourage her students to work out the problem for themselves by using available resources or speaking to her to get the information they require.
Says Dean, “A lot of times when I look at my classrooms, the kids that are successful are more well equipped at navigating the school, the class, their friends – problem-solving through things so they don’t take away from doing their work.”
In addition to self-advocating and having a strong organizational system, Selwyn says the better students tend to enjoy reading. “The more they put their hands on books, the better off they are. But that’s not the whole picture,” she adds. “The good student would be the well-rounded student. They like to do other kinds of things so it gives the child the opportunity to develop and to see what they really like.”
Raising a child with the skills to be successful in school isn’t something that happens by accident or overnight. It requires a thoughtful approach, consistent support and a concerted effort by the parent, school and most importantly the student. And when success is attained, whether it manifests itself in improved grades, increased sense of responsibility or anything else that makes you, as a parent, proud, cheer them on as you would if they just scored the winning touchdown or nailed a solo at the choir recital. Says Dean, “Success in school should get equal weight if not more than anything else they might do. I’m all for celebrating effort, improvement and growth.”
Try These Expert Tips for Laying the Foundation for a Successful New School Year
• Set the Tone – It’s just as important for parents to also start the year off in a positive frame of mind and to be very supportive and understanding.
• Learn the Lay of the Land – With younger children, try and visit the school before the first day. Ensuring they’re aware of the little things, like where the bathroom is, can make a big difference.
• Plan Ahead – Pick out clothes, make lunches and get the backpack in order the night before school, so your kids aren’t rushing around and have extra time in the morning to relax.
• Take a Break – The human brain is able to concentrate on something for about 30 minutes before it begins running dry of ideas. Have students set a timer to take five-minute breaks every half hour in order to remain fresh.
• If It’s Broke, Fix It – Sometimes you need to experiment with routines and study tactics to learn what works best for your unique child rather than what works best for you.
• Start a File – Dedicate a space to store important communications, study materials or whatever else you or your student might require in the future. While you’re at it, take all the other stuff piling up in the backpack or locker you don’t need, and file it in the recycle bin.
• Build a Bridge – Attending back to school night or a curriculum meeting is a great way to get to know the classroom and learn the teacher’s rules and expectations. Don’t be afraid to share anything about your child with teachers you feel is important at the start of the year.
• Don’t Do Their Work – Your role as a parent is to be there for support, help clarify directions and make suggestions, but not provide the answers. No matter what grade they’re in, the goal is to set them up so they’ll eventually be able to do it on their own.
• Stop Over-Scheduling – As a culture, we seem to increasingly feel compelled to fill every minute of our children’s days with meaningful activities. Creative and physical outlets are something every kid needs, but if school is suffering, education needs to take top priority even if it means cutting something else out.
• Avoid the Backslide – It’s not the start of the year teachers are typically most worried about, but the middle and the end. Use events, such as report cards, winter break and other markers, as a reminder to reassess routines, reaffirm techniques and restock the “homework cart.”
• Watch for Red Flags – Every kid struggles from time to time, and it’s important to give them the opportunity to work things out. But if you notice a drop in grades, effort without improvement, excessive frustration, difficulty completing assignments, negativity toward school and not wanting to go, it’s probably time to request a conference and take a closer look.
Brian Spero is a frequent contributor to Boston Parents Paper.