The end of a relaxing summer is hard enough to face without stressing about your kids' return to the classroom. These ideas for family bonding, healthy eating, academic success, and more will make the transition a whole lot smoother. By Paige Carlotti and Julia Marino, REDBOOK.
Celebrate the first day
Start a first-day-of-school morning tradition, says Laura Bay, 2013 to 2015 National PTA president-elect, who gets up early to make her kids' favorite breakfasts each year. No time for an elaborate morning meal? Take a photo to commemorate the occasion, go out for ice cream after school, or slip an encouraging note into your child's backpack, suggests Sherrie Le Masurier, author of Organized Simplicity. These special traditions will make the first day of school seem like something to celebrate rather than something to dread.
Get organized with apps
During this crazy-busy time of year, keep everything on the one device that follows you everywhere: your phone. For after-school sports management, try TeamSnap, which lets you track your children's game schedule, players' contact information, and team photos. To get some back-to-school shopping support, download ShopSavvy, an app that allows you to scan barcodes and compare prices among different stores. And finally, the most important part of back-to-school-your child's academics. Help them make studying less painful with flashcard-focused app Mental Case-they'll be much more enthusiastic about studying when a smartphone or tablet is involved.
For little kids, a whole day away from home can seem like an eternity. So send them to school with a photo of you and their dad, or tuck a handwritten message in their folder, says 2013 New Jersey Teacher of the Year Lauren Marrocco. For an extra-special touch, attach your child's favorite mini candy bar to the note-and end it by reminding them that you're excited to see them again at the end of the day.
Choose brain food, not junk food
For a late-night healthy snack that kids can enjoy while doing their homework, frozen fruit can go a long way, says Dr. Lisa Young, an adjunct professor at New York University. Freezing yogurt and any combination of fresh fruits on a Popsicle stick makes a delicious, wholesome treat, as does tossing fruit in a blender with skim milk for a creamy homemade smoothie. The fructose found in fruit is converted into the energy that kids need to keep turning the page. Spreading some protein-packed peanut butter on whole-wheat crackers is a nourishing alternative for kids who aren't so friendly with fruit just yet.
Create a home gallery
Back-to-school means back to receiving piles upon piles of artwork, graded tests, and school projects. Keep the clutter in check by displaying the pieces your kids are most proud of on a "gallery wall." Ruth Soukup, the blogger behind Living Well Spending Less and a mother of two, suggests hanging several cute picture frames on a large wall in the house and gluing clothespins to them, then inserting kids' accomplishments. Alternate what hangs on the wall to create your own unique, ever-changing art show. If you don't have a large empty wall-and we know you don't have enough space on the kitchen counter-take photos of the special projects they bring home and save them in a scrapbook, advises Le Masurier.
Multitask to meet other moms
Playtime isn't just for the kids. Between juggling work life, home life, and family life, it's hard to make time for a social life, but befriending the moms of your kid's friends will make you sane and clued in. First off, don't assume that all moms at drop-off have jam-packed calendars. Instead, start conversations, find someone whose schedule is similar to yours, and make plans from there, says mom blogger Susan Carraretto. She suggests signing up for activities you can do together that allow you to kill two birds with one stone, like taking an iPad information class or giving a new spin studio a shot.
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Expand attention span
A short attention span can be difficult to overcome after a long, lazy summer. Reading aloud to the kids or, if they're older, having them read aloud to you will get them ready to focus through the school day. 2013 Arkansas Teacher of the Year Alexia Weimer recommends stretching out the story by asking questions, and helping them relate it to their own lives. It's a good idea to start with short books and work up to reading a chapter of a longer book each night. Recalling details from the night before will sharpen kids' focus on the story, a skill they can apply in the classroom, too.
Figure out your meals in advance
"If you don't plan ahead, most families will do whatever is easiest, and whatever is easiest isn't always the healthiest," says Adelle Cadieux, a pediatric psychologist at Spectrum Health's Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. Track down the school's menu for the week ahead, and decide which meals are okay to eat, and which days you should pack your child's lunch. While there are many more healthier options in the cafeteria today, trust your own instincts too-don't be afraid to use your veto power and send kids to school with some ants on a log.
Avoid emotional shopping
Don't let the kids take the wheel when it comes to back-to-school shopping. "Peer pressure often drives purchasing," says Steve Smith, CEO of Finicity, a financial services company that specializes in budgeting and monetary coaching. Kids nudge their parents to buy them more expensive products based on the brands the see their friends sporting-like the latest line of Justin Bieber school supplies-when you could be getting the same quality from a different, less tween-worshiped brand. "Create a budget, and separate it by 'needs' and 'wants,'" suggests Smith. "Don't just go out and start shopping, or you will spend too much on emotional purchases. You add in the 'I wants,' and you double your spending."
Practice what you preach
You don't let your kids leave the table before finishing all of their vegetables, so why should you be allowed to? "Often parents don't realize that their kids look at them, and see that they're not taking care of themselves," says Angela Lemond, RD, who specializes in pediatric nutrition. She encourages moms to make time for themselves to eat with their kids, and create a workout schedule with their spouses so one parent can take care of the brood while the other is getting in his or her exercise. "Don't just bend over backward for your kids," adds Lemond. "Make time for yourself to eat too." While their cheesy, deep-dish pizza may not be on your diet, you should take the time to make your own pie with a healthy twist and join your family at the dinner table. Try spreading some avocado-based pesto and part-skim mozzarella on a whole-wheat pita and top it with trendy superfoods like kale or spinach, salmon, and cruciferous veggies.
Encourage after-school learning
Urge the kids to make hanging out at home a time for both fun and knowledge-building. Blaise Messinger, 2013 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, recommends using technology to motivate children to continue academic pursuits even after the school day is over. E-readers, computer games, and websites-Messinger likes funbrain.com, mathplayground.com, and sheppardsoftware.com-are all enjoyable ways for kids to stay on top of their academic game year-round. In addition, Melissa Taylor, blogger and elementary school teacher, notes that because Pinterest has recently attracted so many users, it has tons of great ideas for at-home projects and activities parents can do with kids.
Make breakfast a priority
In order to avoid grabbing ready-to-eat foods like sugar-loaded, refined-grain pastries, Cadieux suggests planning wholesome breakfasts for the entire week. Any combination of a whole grain, carb and protein is a nutritious, stabilizing breakfast, according to Amber Massey, RD and mom blogger. "My favorite thing to make is a whole-wheat English muffin with peanut butter and bananas," she says. "The carbs from the muffin and banana give us energy and get our minds working. The protein and healthy fat from peanut butter take longer to digest, and can help keep the breakfast in our tummies longer."
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Examine the worst-case scenario
If your child is fretting about schoolyard bullying, discuss the scenario with them, says Michael Parker, author of Talk With Your Kids: 109 Character-Building Conversations That Really Matter. He recommends playing a game of "What's the worst that can happen?", where parents sit down with their children and discuss what could go wrong during the school day-like being excluded at the lunch table or being the last one picked in gym class-then countering that with the best thing that can happen. "Help children visualize all of the good things that are going to happen, and they will realize those can outweigh the bad."
Simplify together time
Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Families, advises establishing family rituals-science proves that they're what keep broods tight. "If you can have family dinner, that's great, but what matters is the 10 minutes of family bonding time that happens at the meal," he says. "If everyone can do it, fantastic, but if not, make sure you still have family bonding time for a different 10 minutes every day." He recommends creating a schedule-like takeout Tuesday, taco Thursday, or breakfast-for-dinner Monday-that will relieve the stress of preparing a new and unique meal every night of the week, putting more emphasis on having something to look forward to as a family.
Stock up on basics
Peanut butter and jelly will always be a brown-bag lunch staple, so why not save on the ingredients? Mom and blogger Ruth Soukup reveals that peanut butter sales happen most often in August as parents flock to the grocery store for school-lunch essentials. With a moisture content of only two percent, peanut butter usually stays dry and fresh for a year, so stock up!
Sprinkle some "jitter glitter"
Help your kids shake off first-day butterflies with Weimer's inventive trick. Buy a bag of table confetti from your local dollar store and scatter it under the kids' pillows the night before the big day. Use this fun decoration to start a conversation about how they're feeling, and assuage their fears by telling them that the "glitter" will help them sleep through the night and tackle the next day.
Make the preemptive strike
Before diving headfirst into the new school year, take time to reflect on the strengths and struggles of the previous one, says Cadieux. "Unfortunately the beginning of the school year is so busy that there's often not time to do this, and before you know it, parent-teacher conferences are over and you didn't get a chance to discuss your child's problems," she says. "Set something in place that your child can do to improve throughout the year. Take care of something before it becomes an issue." It's not too late to host a family meeting and assess your children's areas of challenge in the classroom, even if it's just the night before school starts. "Whatever you do, have a 'next-step' in mind," says Cadieux. For example, if you noticed your daughter struggled in math last school year, download a math app she can play with on the drive to school, or find a math website she can explore after school.
Schedule playtime before homework time
You may have heard differently, but kids shouldn't be kept inside until they finish their math worksheets. Carraretto recommends time for physical play first. "Kids need to get their energy out to get their brains active," she says. It's natural to want kids to start their homework as soon as they get off the bus for fear of procrastination, but that can actually give them more incentive not to do it when riled up. "It's also an opportunity for you to play with your kids, and show that you're involved," Carraretto adds.
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Don't have intense conversations between 6 and 8 p.m.
Two Chicago psychologists completed a study where they gave 50 families beepers that sounded every 12 minutes, then asked the subjects to rate their stress levels on a scale of 1 to 10. The highest numbers were recorded between 6 and 8 p.m. "Fights tend to break out in moments of transition," says Feiler. "They are very fraught. Everyone is tense. If you have an important thing to talk about, save it for later." That said, the moment your spouse walks in the door-even if that's at 5 o'clock-probably isn't the best time to tell him that your son failed his spelling test. Wait until after 8 to discuss how to handle the situation. Otherwise you could both end up going to bed angry, and with nothing resolved.
Make them work for their budget
The school year is a busy time-kids can easily forget about their chores between running to baseball practice and finishing their science projects. April Perry, codirector of The Power of Moms, suggests making a list of chores that kids are expected to complete each week, then asking them at the end of the week how many of these chores they actually did and how much allowance they think they deserve. Involving children in the process of deciding their rewards will motivate them to put in the work-so you won't be left doing the dishes every night.
Explore ethical dilemmas
Your kids won't find the difference between right and wrong written in any textbook, so it's up to you to program them with ethics. The best way to do it? Have a chat. Suggest hypothetical situations a kid may experience at school, like when a classmate texts them an answer to a question during an exam, or copying and pasting information from the Internet. These modes of cheating didn't exist even 10 years ago, much less when you were in school, so it can be difficult for kids to understand that these things are wrong when you've never addressed the issue. Start by asking your child what they would do rather than simply telling them what to do in the situations, then lead by example.
Stop fashion fights before they happen
Clothing can be a huge issue for young kids who want to decide what they wear each day-especially if you don't always agree with their, well, inventive choices. To avoid the morning wardrobe wars, Weimer recommends setting out five outfits on Sunday evening and letting your child pick from these choices throughout the week. That way they'll have some autonomy, but won't end up going to school in their favorite princess dress and rainboots every day.
Pump them up
Sincere acknowledgement, instead of blanket praise, will make kids feel confident and ready to go back to school, says Kelly Bartlett, blogger and author of Encouraging Words for Kids. The next time your son picks up his toys without being asked, genuinely thank and acknowledge his action-but stay away from vague phrases like "good job!" This will teach your children to feel proud of their specific accomplishments, and also let them know when they're succeeding-important lessons for any nervous back-to-schooler.
Meeting new people is scary-and that's true for kids as well as adults. It can be difficult to act confident around a new teacher, so Lopes suggests prompting kids to talk to unfamiliar adults, like the cashier at the grocery store or the Starbucks barista, when you're out and about. As they become accustomed to speaking with older strangers, they'll gain the sense of independence they need to approach their new teacher when they have questions or need help.
Let your kids know you're on the same team
From Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to Vine, it's hard to monitor your child's online presence without being a helicopter mom, which often results in your kids hiding their activity from you. Instead of letting them loose with your camera phone, give them photography "assignments," like shooting the pretty flowers in the backyard. If you make the Web a space for both of you, you increase the chances your child will be honest with you about what he or she is doing. In fact, a new Brigham Young University study found that families who friend each other on Facebook are more likely to feel closer in real life, as it gives parents a more intimate look into the life of their kids. Researchers warn to do so in moderation, however, and keep the embarrassing photos and snide comments to a minimum.
Make a cup of tea
An Australian study has found that drinking passionfruit herbal tea increases sleep quality, so sit down for a calming cup after dinner the night before the first day of school-it will help you and the kids snooze soundly, giving you energy for the big day ahead.
Let the kids play chef
In order for kids to be comfortable around nutritious food at an early age, parents need to make healthy eating fun, says Lemond. She recommends hosting weekend "cooking camps" at your home, during which kids can bedazzle aprons and learn simple meal preps and other age-appropriate tasks, like stirring and reading directions. "You can't underestimate the power of psychological aspects," says Lemond. "You can't show any anxiety around meal-prep, because then the kids will associate cooking with anxiety. If you show them good family memories instead, it will have a lasting impact."
Make a morning checklist
"I have found that it is our instinct as parents to keep the control with us, but the more you can empower children, the better the family will be," says Feiler. The author recommends giving your kids more responsibility by creating a morning checklist of the things they need to do to get themselves ready. Rather than sounding like a screaming broken record every day and making your kids feel like they can't do anything right, put the power in their hands, and make them feel like they are achieving rather than making mistakes. It will motivate them to take on more responsibility in the future.
Tackle the chores
Teaching children, especially young ones, how to do chores is a great way to spend time together and impart information about patterns, says Lopes. Since their academic knowledge may have regressed over the summer, the beginning of the school year is the perfect chance to show kids how to set the table or sort the laundry. Add a new component to the chore each day-have them do plates the first day, and then plates and forks the next day, for example-to educate children about the mathematical concept of pattern building. This fun and easy-and yes, mutually beneficial-way to socialize with your kids will prepare them for the learning they'll do during the school year.
Focus on home-life
Feeling stressed that you can't make it to as many of the parent events at your kids' school as you'd like? In the end, it may be more important that you set the tone at home. A recent California State University study found that instilling positive attitudes and expectations in your children at home is two to five times more effective in boosting a their academic achievement than to simply showing up at school-sponsored events.
Take an a.m. breather
Set aside time-even if it's only a few minutes-each weekday morning to connect with your children, suggests Bartlett. This may seem impossible during hectic mornings, but try setting your alarm just five minutes earlier so you can squeeze in some together time. Cuddle in their favorite rocking chair, give them a comforting hug, or get in bed and snuggle. Although you may be more accustomed to doing these things in the evening, a short break from the hustle and bustle will calm kids, and make them more willing to complete their morning routine without complaints.
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