Ease the transition back into school for your children

FOR THE BELLINGHAM HERALDJuly 29, 2013 

Addison Huber chows down at a Bellingham Childcare and Learning Center pancake fundraiser in December 2012. An important part of the transition into the school year is making sure children eat breakfast.

THE BELLINGHAM HERALD Buy Photo

A nip in the morning air. That little hint of color in the leaves. School bus drivers practicing their routes. Cars in the teacher parking lots. It's hard to believe that it's time, but it is!

My kids have had ample opportunity over the last two months to retreat into the corner of their imaginations; to play comfortably with each other, friends and family; and to scooter or bike or play basketball or swim for hours. Now, in the waning summer days, I realize that it's time to put some energy into building up stamina in preparation for entering their classrooms in the fall.

School is a very structured environment, and summertime is a great chance for kids to return to their natural states of being. But just as the relaxing happens over time, so does remembering how to be a student. All students, no matter their age or abilities, need some time before school starts to rebuild stamina for the coming academic year. Here are some suggestions for easing the transition over the next couple of months.

GET BACK IN THE GROOVE: First things first: ease back in to a regular routine. The key word there is "ease." Gradually move bedtime back toward its school-year mark rather than abruptly changing it the night before. Try making it 10 minutes earlier each night. Prepare them the night before for what's expected the next morning. For example, get dressed by 8:30 a.m. or get up by 8. If we add in the expectations slowly, it won't seem as extreme on the first day of school.

BE POSITIVE: As a parent I have mixed feelings about back-to-school time. On the one hand, I will miss family adventures and it seems daunting to get them going again every morning. On the other hand, I no longer have to play social director for them all day, every day.

Whether you are thrilled ("YES! You are going back to school and I am SO EXCITED!") or dreading it ("UGH. Going back to school is such a bummer!") try to steer your talk into neutral territory. Try this for a mantra: "Yes, it's hard to see summer end. Remember, school is important. You will have some great experiences this year."

BREAKFAST: Please, make sure they eat it. On behalf of teachers everywhere, I thank you.

ESTABLISH A PARENT-TEACHER PARTNERSHIP

I'm a staunch advocate for regular, positive communication between families and teachers. However, there is a delicate balance at the start of the year. Remember, kids and teachers need some time to get to get to know one another. Introduce yourself on the first day of school if you can, and then step back and give them that time.

After a week or two, if need be, send the teacher an email to ask questions, offer to volunteer, or talk about the needs of your child. Allow the busy teacher some time to get back to you. (Of course, if your child has significant special needs, communication may need to be earlier and/or face-to-face.)

Another important thing to remember as you move from year to year is that every teacher does things differently. In other words, loosen your expectations and allow the teacher to show you how the year is going to go. Be OK with waiting a while before seeing things come home from the classroom. Remember, the first few weeks are used for building community and routine that will allow for all students to learn throughout the year.

Above all, start the relationship off on a positive note. Let the teacher know that your child (and you) are looking forward to the year and are glad to be in his/her class.

TALK TO YOUR CHILD ABOUT SCHOOL

"How was your day?"
"Fine."
"Anything interesting happen?
"Nope."
"How did the test go?"
"Okay."
"Do you have homework?"
"Did it."
"What did you work on in class?"
"Can I have a snack?"

We want to know what they've been up to all day. They desperately want to not think about it anymore. Somewhere in the middle rests a happy medium - and on days when the stars are aligned, here are some tips to find it:

1. Wait. Think about the end of your day. If you walk into the house and immediately someone begins interrogating you about everything you've done, you may quickly turn around and go right back out. But after you've had a chance to take off your coat and put your feet up, it feels a little easier. The same is true for young people.

2. Respect their school life. A wise person suggested to me recently that part of the reason it's hard to get anything out of a kid after school is because to a child, school is "their" time. Especially as kids get older, their lives outside of home become more and more independent and personal. I'm not proposing that we don't keep trying until we hear the important things. But if they don't want to talk about what they did in music that day, maybe that's OK.

3. Ask open-ended questions. Even though you may not get as much as you want ("My day was great! I aced my test and I sat next to Stevie at lunch and I raised my hand six times and volunteered to feed the hamster!"), you will probably get more than "yeah" or "nope."

4. Tell them about your day. A little reciprocity goes a long way.

HANDLING HOMEWORK

There are several reasons why homework might appear in your child's backpack. Homework is often used as additional practice of skills learned in the classroom. It could also be incomplete classwork needing to be finished before the next day. Schools often have generic policies regarding homework, but the truth is that a family's experience with it will vary from grade to grade and teacher to teacher. In my opinion, the most valuable thing about homework is that it teaches responsibility and time-management.

So what are the best tips for parents?

1. Find a quiet space away, free from distraction, where your child can work every day. This doesn't need to be their bedroom; in fact, if they are somewhere central it is easier for you to be available. However, younger siblings need to wait until after homework to play their plastic earsplitting saxophone. (Or is that just my house?)

2. Set up a regular schedule for homework so that the routine becomes automatic. In our house, kids get to have some downtime for a snack, some screen time and play before homework. However, it always gets done before dinner. For your family, the schedule may be different. Whatever it looks like, strive to keep the routine as similar as possible. Have sports three days a week? Try to keep homework at the same time every day, whether they are home late or not. What happens is that they see it as a routine rather than something they can put off until the last possible minute. (Not that they won't still try.)

3. Be available for support and encouragement, but that's it. It is not a parent's responsibility to do the homework. If the adults provide space, time and support, the child has the opportunity to do the homework and do it well. If the child chooses not to do it or does it with little effort, then there will be a natural consequence in the classroom. If we do the work for them, they will not learn the lessons of time management, initiative and responsibility.

4. If there is ever concern about homework requirements or struggles your child is having, talk to the teacher. Open communication is the lifeline of the home-school connection.

UNDERSTAND THE GRADE LEVEL

Do you know what your child is expected to be able to do in his or her current grade? You will find out when your child receives his/her first report card, but if you'd like to know earlier, information about state standards is available on the website of the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. It is important to note that Washington is in a four-phase process of implementing the Common Core Standards, a nationwide program providing consistency across districts. The Common Core Standards are available at corestandards.org. Click on "The Standards" and then choose either the PDF named Common Core Standards for English Language Arts/History or Common Core Standards for Mathematics.

Before you tackle this "light" reading, please know that there's no need to commit them to memory. It can simply be useful to get an overview of what students are working toward each year.

Stephanie Dethlefs is a blogger at BellinghamFamilies.com. She taught fourth- and fifth-graders in Blaine and Bellingham and founded Young Writers Studio, a local nonprofit organization. She teaches elementary education literacy courses for the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University.

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