Fresh Ideas: Some back-to-school tips for parents who care

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New shoes. New faces. The aroma of freshly sharpened Ticonderogas. A full box of 16 unbroken crayons. An empty desk. A clean slate.

Teachers and students alike experience the same mix of excited-happy-scared-anxious-hopeful feelings that accompany these annual new beginnings. Will this year be different? Will I do OK?

Teachers are energized by thoughts of implementing standards and practices learned in courses they took and books they read over the summer. Children are learning the routines of their new classroom communities: where papers go, how to get a drink, how to buy lunch tickets, the penalty for talking.

But after a few weeks, the back-to-school excitement wears off a bit.

New schools, new teachers, new friends are becoming familiar, routine. Perhaps even an old bad habit or two are slipping back in.

How can parents best guide their children throughout the rest of the year? With discipline and love and common sense, one day at a time. Here are some tips.


Meet the teacher. Make an appointment if necessary. Keep the school phone number handy. Many times a quick phone call can clear up a misunderstanding. But call before or after school, or plan on leaving a message. It is difficult for the teacher to give you full attention while a classroom full of 8-year-olds is in the middle of a chemistry experiment.

Ask the teacher about homework. What kind of homework will be expected? How often? Is it unfinished work from class? Is it extra practice or review? Is it a piece of writing that needs editing?

Some projects will require parental help, but a page of subtraction should only need a check for completeness or a spot check for accuracy at the end. (Yes, you may use a calculator.) But if homework is consistently taking more than an hour or so to complete or seems too difficult, let the teacher know. Contrary to what your child may believe, homework is not supposed to be punishment.

Ask your children what they did every day. Get specific. Ask, "What did you do in math?" "What books are you reading?" "What games are you learning in PE?" Listen to their answers. Praise, encourage, and empathize as needed.

Be the parent

Look inside that backpack. There may be an important note, paper, or project due your child "forgot" to tell you about. Is there a math page they struggled with, a spelling list that needs to be practiced? Read the school newsletter and other information that comes home. Look at the conduct folder every week and discuss it with your child.

Attend parent conferences and special events at school. Open houses, parent nights, science fairs, PTA meetings, and dinners are all attempts by your child's school to keep you informed and involved. They also show your child that you think school is pretty important.

Enforce bedtimes. Elementary kids are growing like crazy -- if you haven't noticed -- and need to sleep about 10 hours a night. Tired kids just can't perform as well as well-rested ones, so bedtimes of 8 or 9 o'clock are not unreasonable. But let your child stay up an extra 15 minutes if that time is spent in bed reading. Otherwise, it's lights out. To be honest, I always thought that early bedtimes were as much for my benefit as for the children's.

Encourage 100% attendance. There is no substitute for being in school, on time, every day.

This isn't nagging or being mean; it's your job. Unless and until they show you that they can be responsible on their own -- say around age 25 or so -- it's your job to check up on them. Just say, "It's because I'm the grownup and you're the kid, that's why." Then give 'em a hug.

Be Reasonable

We all make mistakes, especially when we're learning something new.

While not all children are capable of straight As, they are capable of doing their best. Give them a break once in awhile. Most people -- kids and grown-ups alike -- respond better to praise and encouragement than to criticism and punishment.

And remember to separate the child from the grade. Your child must know they are loved and valued no matter what happens at school. Show them and tell them you love them every day.


As the shoes, backpacks, and attitudes start to show signs of wear, keep in mind that school success, like growing up, happens one day at a time. Before you know it, another year will be over. Don't let your opportunity to make a difference in your child's learning slip through your fingers.

(Lorie Smith Schaefer and her husband have lived in Carson City for over 20 years. Their daughters are now in college. She is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.)


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