10 Little Ways to Make Back-to-School Easier
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It certainly seems there may be some kind of new normal for the upcoming school year. Of course, there is still a swirl of uncertainty involving those kids ineligible for vaccination, the Delta variant raging in parts of the country, and schools unsure about social distancing and mask requirements.
Returning to school also means saying goodbye to weekday movie nights, sleepovers with friends, and impromptu hangouts at the local ice cream joint. But with school opening up again, kids have the opportunity to learn about interesting ideas, make friends, and explore fun new extracurriculars.
Parents may welcome the routine, but also have reservations about reentry. That’s understandable! While the transition can be daunting, we can also take some tangible steps in our homes to help. We spoke to parents, mental health experts, and teachers for their best ideas on creating simple systems that set families up for back-to-school success.
Here’s what they had to say.
Optimize your home with smart organization.
Creating a reusable command center is a good way to keep up with kids and their many activities. “You can buy two large picture frames and replace the insert they come with a blank weekly or daily schedule. Then, use dry erase markers to write on the glass so everyone can see schedules, events, activities, and knows exactly where it is supposed to be. You can erase and start over each week or morning,” says Melanie Bierliet, a lifestyle expert. Get older kids involved by allowing them to add their own activities.
Don’t wait until the last minute to organize your home for school. Creating a plan at least one week ahead can eliminate morning chaos. For school clothes and uniforms, try “days-of-the-week closet tags so you can label hangers to denote days of the week [for each outfit]. If that feels like too much, go old-school and designate an area to set aside outfits for the week,” adds Bierliet.
One way to keep the backpacks from piling up is to create a spot near the front door or whatever entrance your kids use most often. You can hang hooks or create a cubby space.
A paper tray in the same area can help encourage kids to unpack important handouts at the end of the school day and put them where everyone in the family can see them (it’s a great visual reminder). “So much of getting organized for school is keeping everything in one place and avoiding losing things,” says Bierliet.
Get everyone back on healthy habits.
Teacher and parent Kate Fraiser has a reminder for parents and children: “You and your children need consistent sleep, exercise, and eating times for optimal health.” Often when kids return to school, they are tired and ill-prepared to tackle the day. To include exercise into your routine, think family bike rides or a walk around the block. Make it fun with little challenges or games like “I Spy.” When it comes to bedtime, have a discussion about a bedtime that works for your family. Giving children an opportunity to suggest a reasonable bedtime might make it easier for them to take ownership over their schedules.
Meal plans are the ticket to seamless dinners, although they do take a bit of prep to get there. That prep can be as complicated or tech-heavy as you choose (we like the Cozi app for easy access), but try to divide responsibilities within the household. More hands make lighter work! Shared grocery apps are great for keeping track of all the needs in a household too.
Setting kids up with a solid breakfast is also a good step in the back-to-school routine. “Cereal is tempting and may have been a go-to, but with longer school days, children need to have balanced blood sugar,” says Amy Shapiro, MS, RD, CDN. Some ideas include eggs with toast, yogurt with berries and granola, and oatmeal with nuts. And if your kids like to snack on the go, bake these ingenious bus stop cookies.
When you’re packing lunches, don’t be afraid to get the kids involved! “Allow kids to create a list of snacks they want added to their lunch; it gives them something to look forward to and they feel like a partner in the process,” adds Shapiro. Create a print-out with four columns; Main/Entree, Fruit, Vegetable, and Extra (like a roll or goldfish crackers). List a bunch of items in each category and let the kids choose their own food adventure.
When it comes to snacks, organization is key. Calendaring after-school snacks allows kids to look forward to something after the school day is over. You can make Sunday the appointed day for them to pick snacks they enjoy. If they complain about the snack later, you can alway remind them they picked it!
Try to have those snacks available when the kids get home so they won’t gravitate toward processed options instead. Lazy Susans on the countertop are a great option for displaying a bunch of options at once. We also love clear acrylic trays in the fridge, so that snackers can easily see what’s available.
Rehearse the routine.
Since children’s sleep and wake-up times may have been erratic during the prolonged break, it is helpful to practice a school routine. “If your student starts school at 8:30 a.m. and needs to be ready to go by 8:00 a.m., start that schedule prior to the change,” advises Chicago-based psychologist Laura Reber.
One way to do this is to gradually ease back into the new routine a week or two before school officially begins. Maybe you start setting alarms, or maybe you “start getting into a routine of picking out clothes the night before and getting ready again in the morning,” says Dr. Nicole (Nikki) Lacherza-Drew, Psy.D., a licensed psychologist in New Jersey.
Small kids are often very visual, so perhaps you could consider using a checklist with pictures of all the steps in their routines that they can easily check off. When you can, allow your kids to practice independence in age-appropriate ways (brushing their own teeth, making their bed, putting their water bottles in their backpack, gathering their homework). The routines are always easier when everyone participates!
Normalize mask wearing and other safety measures.
Have kids shop for masks with you so they can pick out fashionable coverings for themselves. Maybe you practice wearing them when you’re out, so kids know what to expect. A useful accessory in our shopping carts? Mask lanyards! They make it a cinch to keep track of your masks after lunch and recess, when kids can typically go unmasked.
In the home, designate a place to hang your masks — maybe the same place where backpacks are hung, as another visual reminder. You can always place a small mesh bag on a hook, so kids can toss used masks in one place. When you are ready to do laundry, just throw the bag in the washing machine. Also, for good measure, keep an extra mask in your kid’s backpack and a few in the car (they seem to always go missing).
Pick out some fun mini hand sanitizers with clips to latch onto kids’ backpacks. At home, you can set up a station with wipes and hand sanitizer near the entry, so kids can continue to practice good hygiene. (And it never hurts to remind older kids to wipe their cell phone screens daily, too!)
Create casual opportunities for socialization.
Join your school’s PTO group on Facebook and put out a call for kids in your child’s grade for an informal get-together. Most of the time, other parents are eager for a chance to connect too! Limit events to small groups, so that everyone can truly get a chance to get to know one another.
Group activities might include an outdoor picnic, or even a simple run around the sprinkler on the lawn with Popsicles. Families can get together in a stress-free, low-stakes setting where kids can socialize, discuss if they are in classes together, and, of course, learn if they are going to have the same lunch period and recess with their friends. By forming a community before you get to school, your kids are already building social skills and confidence — not to mention, some anticipation!
And afterwards, keep track of phone numbers and email addresses; you never know when another parent might have to step in — or vice versa. After all, it takes a village.
Create a getting-ready caddy for each kid.
Younger kids might not be accustomed to getting ready for school. (Okay, let’s be honest — even older kids may struggle too!) One simple way to reintroduce good hygiene is to create a “morning routine caddy” similar to what college students keep in dorm rooms. Decorate a plastic caddy and fill it with the essentials.
“Include everything they need to use in the morning before they are completely ready. Whether it’s younger kids who need to wash their face and hands and brush their teeth, or older kids who need deodorant, body spray, hairbrushes, whatever,” says Jamie Racine, licensed social worker.
You can take your kids to the drugstore, so they can pick out their favorite kinds of toiletries. Keeping everything in one container allows it to stay organized (read: off the bathroom countertops), and easy to see when things need refilling. Plus, if you have siblings, caddies reduce the confusion over whose hairbrush is whose!
Let kids be responsible for their daily checklists.
I love utilizing lists for myself, and kids can quickly adapt to them too. Lanie van der Horst, mom of two, has “a checklist on the door that we can all read and see what is needed each day.”
You can buy pads of paper for both you and your child and make it a habit to do your to-do lists the night before. This also fosters independence and fun by making kids accountable for remembering items and allows them to cross items off their list. If you have multiple kids, it’s also a great way for them to learn personal responsibility — and to help you remember all the many sports practices and social gatherings they’re sure to want to join!
Firm up your transportation routine.
Transportation is a factor that is often completely new to first-timers at school. And even if your child is a pro at getting to school, a refresher never hurts! Allison Wilson, senior director of curriculum and innovation at Stratford School, suggests developing a special goodbye routine, like a handshake, wave, or high-five. Sometimes, the physical reminder of your presence will be enough to chase away any lingering worries. Keep your goodbye quick and lighthearted.
If you pick up your kids from school, consider how they best unwind. For example, some kids love to talk about their classes and friends, and want you to ask lots of questions. Others may prefer to listen to music quietly to recover from the stimulation of the day.
For kids using the bus for the first time, parents can introduce them to the bus driver and explain bus safety. Reading picture books can be helpful in familiarizing kids — and you can always do a “test run” beforehand of the route via car, so your kids know what landmarks to look for and expect. Uncertainty is particularly tough for little ones, so adding familiarity where you can goes a long way!
If your kids are older and will be staying home alone after school, make sure they can locate a spare key and know a neighbor they can call on. Emergency numbers can be programmed into their phone on speed dial, and you can always establish a way to check in, even if it’s just a quick emoji thumbs-up text as soon as they walk in the door.
Open the discussion about screen time.
It was inevitable that screen time during the pandemic school year increased, and while we’re not anti-screen time, we all understand that even the best of inventions are better in moderation.
“Screens often hijack time that should go to sleeping and exercising, resulting in tired adolescents at risk for poor physical and mental health,” says Dr. Parikh. Consider putting limits on your kid’s screen time and making a family media plan to protect them. As always, review the risks of social media, especially around unwanted contact and cyber-bullying. Encourage questions and open communication where you can!
Here are some things to discuss around a family media plan.
- The benefits of disconnecting
- Reasonable boundaries around the use of electronics
- Age-appropriate apps
- Maximum limits of screen time per day
Write out your agreement and ask each member to sign the plan, so that you have something to reference.
Prioritize vaccinations, well-check visits, and sports physicals.
For older kids, the best way to protect your teenager this back-to-school season is to get them the COVID vaccine. For littler kids, make hygiene part of your daily ritual. “At this time, children under 12 cannot receive the vaccine, so it is very important to reiterate the importance of masking, washing hands, and social distancing as much as possible,” says Dr. Preeti Parikh.
While you’re at the doctor, check to see if all other vaccinations are up to date, including the annual flu shot. “Experts expect this coming flu season to be the worst in years. Widespread mask and social distancing mandates over the past year largely prohibited the spread of the flu, so kids and teens who might not have previously been vaccinated or had natural exposure to the virus will return to school with lower immunity,” adds Dr. Parikh.
It is also a good idea to schedule well-check visits, dentist appointments, and sports physicals all at once. Try to get it on the calendar as soon as you can before doctor’s offices fill up for cold and flu season.