Joy Magazine

Parents' back-to-school Survival Guide

A longtime teacher offers her tips for getting the year started right

Face it. One day it's flip-flops; the next, it's backpacks and binders. School? Now? Where did the summer go?

As a veteran elementary-school teacher and mom, I speak from new-lunchbox experience. Here are some tried-and-true tips that should help you shine in the back-to-school department.

1. Shop early. Shop often. This time of year, retailers stack their best displays with school supplies. I even saw some hiding in Safeway and Food 4 Less. Try shopping in the early evening to avoid crowds. Buy all of the basics that are on sale. Glue. Pencils. Dividers. Notebook paper. Don't forget scissors, rulers and a big, pink eraser. Many schools print up lists for each grade. The bigger stores will have these on hand. If you don't get it all now, at least you have a head start. Pat yourself on the back. Reward yourself with a latte. When you get home, put all supplies in a big, paper sack in a closet. As you pick up more items, just dump them in.

2. Buy a backpack to last two years. Announce this to your child. Every other year, be prepared to shell out the $25. Most backpacks wash well. Send the backpack to school every day, and you get an A+ from the teacher. That's me.

3. Clothes? Nobody hates that trip to the mall and the headache that follows more than the moms and dads of the I-grew-out-of-everything kid. Try one trip for jeans and scout the bargains. For older ones, especially girls in the 14-to-17 range, make a budget and give them the money. Let them manage it. All of a sudden, the designer shirt for $34.95 won't be so appealing. And should they come home with only three new things, oh well. I have seen my daughter clip coupons and demand a salesperson recheck a discount. Now, that's more what I had in mind.

4. Starting at a new school can be terrifying. If that's your story, plan to take some time off work the few days before the big day to walk or drive your child to school. If possible, ask the school secretaries for ideas on local clubs, Pop Warner football, soccer, Girl Scouts, volleyball, etc. Meeting friends in a club will help new friendships form fast. Make after-school pickup or walking plans ahead of time. Try a run-through for younger students a week before school starts.

5. Cellphones? Everyone seems to have one these days. The elementary through high schools I am familiar with have one hard-and-fast rule. Phones are off during school hours, or they get to stay with the teacher or office. I recommend no phones at school until high school, as theft is a constant problem. Teachers have desk phones, and most carry cellphones. In an emergency, your child will be able to call home. No matter what they tell you. Ha!

6. Pack a lunch for elementary students for the first day. Shop with your child for favorite things: a special drink, sandwich wrap or energy bar. Any teacher will tell you the lines in the cafeteria are horrendous the first week of school. Kids with cold lunches walk in, sit down and eat. After a long morning of math, science and reading (who remembers how to subtract double-digits anyway?), your child will thank you.

7. Buy a basket or decorate a large shoebox. Place it on the kitchen counter or near the door. Label it "school stuff." Reward your child for putting papers you need to sign in there. Folders, field-trip notes, newsletters, etc., will be easier to find if they go in one place. This is especially helpful in families with more than one child in school. Or for students who live in two different households.

8. Plan to bring home dinner or eat out early on the first day of school. Your kids won't admit it, but they need you. After a long day, a 6 o'clock dinner together will help everyone decompress. If you are not faced with cooking, that means more time to listen to your child's stories of the day. I call it "let's celebrate a new school year dinner." We go somewhere easy and fun and order a pizza or burgers. Many horror stories of new teachers and principals are shared. As a teacher, this is an especially long day for me. My family will tell you that having a plan for dinner is just one less thing to stress about.

9. Set ground rules for school days. If nightly reading is a priority, decide with your child what time of day this will happen. After-school sports can take away from homework, so I recommend canceling the television on sports nights. Bargain one night or show a week and have a Friday "freedom" reward. Living with a sports nut resulted in nonnegotiable, no-TV Tuesdays at our house. The quiet time of this day turned into a relief for all involved. It was amazing to have no television on in the a.m. Wow, what a concept. We were able to eat breakfast and talk to one another.

10. Make an appointment to call the teacher. Just like trips to the doctor or dentist, add "Call Mike's teacher" to your calendar, planner or phone. I recommend the end of September. After three weeks of school, your child's teacher will have a handle on your son or daughter and how they are doing. Call between 3 and 3:30 p.m. If the teacher is busy, ask for a good time to call. Is homework being turned in? Ask how you can help your son or daughter have a successful year. Volunteer to do something for the class. As a teacher, I often was short on supplies or needed a parent for one hour a week to help with paperwork. Any help is very appreciated. If your school or child's teacher has a website, check it out. Many teachers communicate by email on a regular basis.

11. Easy does it. Back-to-school time will be here and gone before you know it. One day soon, you will be the happy parent buying college-dorm-room lamps or garage-sale dishes to help with that all-too-important first apartment. Enjoy these days of controlled chaos. Hug your kids and remind them of how special they are. Supersize that bottle of aspirin. You're off to a great start.

Katherine Leppek recently retired from teaching elementary school for 22 years in the Rogue Valley and has two children, ages 28 and 22, who survived school days in Ashland, Eagle Point and Medford.


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