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Back to School Tips!

Written by Courtney Sheppeck

“Success in school starts at home.” During a time of Fortnite, iPads, and, iphones for toddlers, this old adage rings true. The following is a list of good ‘ole fashioned strategies to start the 2018-2019 school year off on the right track, as well as refer back to when you, as a parent, are feeling you need to re-group and focus on academic success with your child. Whether your goal is for your child to learn to take turns or your goal is a report card filled with straight A’s, here are a few practical tips that families can use at home to help their child flourish in school.
Success in school starts at home.

Set a bedtime and stick to it. Whether your child is three or thirteen, kids need to know when it’s lights out. Homework should be complete, TV off, phones and all electronics are out of sight and out of the bedroom. Sleep is vital to success the next day.  Plus who wants to start the morning off with a grouchy kid by choice? Ensure that they are positive and well -rested with at least 8 to 10 hours of sleep.

As my father always reminded me, “Failure to prepare is preparing to fail.” Get your act together! Set everything up the night before. Lunch, check. School clothes, check. Homework folder in book bag, check. Kids should know where all this stuff is too. For example, “I put my lunch in my bag and my bag is stored near the front door.” Twenty to thirty minutes the night before can save you a chaotic morning of power struggles. I cannot guarantee that every morning will be stress-free, but why add more complications to the mix?

Ahhh! The morning rush. A quasi schedule should be in place. I am not suggesting that there is a minute-by-minute rigid routine, like in the Sound of Music, although some mornings, I could use a whistle. Plan backwards, what has to be done? Breakfast? Three kids dressed, one long teenage shower, or four? One adult workout? Do you have a child who lags behind, dawdles? What time exactly does Mom and Dad have to wake up to be able to assist the kids with getting their needs met? Some suggestions are for Mom or Dad or both to shower and get dressed before waking kids. Children thrive on predictability, so they should know how to start their day and that is up to you. You are the boss. It may sound silly to write it down, but, we cram a ton into that first hour or two of our day, and it is important that kids are going to school happy and refreshed, not agitated and rushed. It has become more of a norm for kids to have a breakfast bar in the car everyday, after they just watched an hour of T.V.! Take the time back and give it to your kids before you let them go for the day.

Communicate with your children’s teachers. At the first Open House, find out how the teacher prefers to communicate and do it on her terms. For example, does she like to read emails at night, or get calls on the school phone? You don’t want to be overbearing, making the teacher feel as if they are not doing their job, however, the teacher needs to know that you are there to support her role. Also don’t let a small thing, get too big. For example, you find a science quiz with a 62% in your son’s bag. He says, “It’s no big deal.” If it is a big deal to you, it probably is! Trust your gut, and contact the teacher right away. Teachers want to know that you are on their side. Also, remember to stick to your word. At the end of a teacher meeting, summarize what you have discussed and follow through. If you said you were going to check in with math homework, check the math homework. If you said, you were going to bring your daughter to the eye doctor, bring her! This holds true for the teacher, if he said he was going to start a behavior plan, for example, follow- up to make sure he did. One meeting is sometimes, not enough, always plan a follow-up in a month or six weeks to re-connect and assess if your plan is working.  Remember, don’t wait, communicate!
It’s never to early or too late to talk to our kids about the future. The reason they are in school is to prepare them for future success in the workforce.  So begin the conversation now. What do you want to be when you grow up? How come? What is your favorite class? Why? This is a great opportunity to talk to them about your experience, both good and bad. Kids need to understand that learning can be hard and that school and school success plays a large part in their future success in college and beyond.

Give kids some play time, down time. We all are well aware that we over-schedule our kids. For example, my third grader will be participate in two hours of dance on Saturday and also Irish Step on Tuesdays, multiple soccer games throughout the weekend, swim practice and of course, drama throughout the week! In addition, our children have grown up with technology and screens constantly in reach. This increase in technology has caused many  of our kids to have a tough time “just playing.” With that said, kids need more time to just do whatever, and this does not include, video games. They can go play down the park with a soccer ball or Whiffle ball bat, use their imagination and come up with a game in their room. I used to choreograph dance routines with my friends for hours and I know plenty of kids who would just go “shoot around” for fun. Academics has been and is one of the most important parts of my life, but kids need time to socialize and have fun without a supervised, “certified” adult. This is the time when imagination and problem solving grow. After the downtime, kids are more refreshed to begin their homework in a more structured approach. So if you hear my three angels screaming at each other from our backyard, please know, I am allowing them to just have some unstructured time and allowing them to solve conflicts on their own. I might suggest closing your windows!

Homework help–After letting them run wild, make sure they have a quiet, orderly place for homework. A reluctant student needs tasks broken down for her. For example, start with something easy and then guide her when she is working on more challenging. Ask questions, clarify for the child any thing you think she might sincerely need help with, then give them space. Homework is meant to be independent work. If the tasks just seem way too hard for your child, tell the teacher immediately. Bring the work and come prepared. Keep an open mind, remembering that at each grade level the range of learners is very broad, so not every night’s assignment is going to perfectly fit your child. The same goes if things seem way too easy, please let your child’s teacher know right away. There is always more! Your child will surely thank you for that phone call. Also, a beginning step to time management is a timer. You can use a kitchen timer. Have a brief discussion. For example, for about how long will it take to do these ten math problems? 20 minutes? Set timer and let them know that you are just in the other room, if they need help. This technique is also good for the child who needs constant approval, even when they know the material. Once the time lapses, give them a quick snack or stretch or bathroom break. Please, congratulate them for their hard work! Remind them that hard work does pay off.

For older students, clean out their book bag with them one night per week. Sunday nights are great way to start the week. This can reveal a ton. You never know what you might find. Then ask them questions: where does this paper go? Are you still learning about this? Create a workable system that the student can use.  Try to remain neutral and not demeaning or else the child will never allow your help again and it should be a weekly check. Adolescents may not show that they want your guidance, but they do. Cleaning out the book bag can begin some great discussions.

Praising your child about their academic success is crucial. Hanging up quizzes, telling their Nana or Auntie about a recent book report shows you care and that school is important. Don’t just wait until report card time. If you noticed an accomplishment in her folder or heard from her teacher, that she learned something new, tell her how proud you are of them. It should not be set up as a pay scale, for example, “I’ll give you $25 for each ‘A’ you receive.” It’s more of a sincere noticing of a child’s effort. It’s from Classroom Management 101. You might hear me say, “Wow! I remember back in September, you didn’t even know what a simile was, now you put it in your poem, that’s amazing! You are so much smarter now!”  We use this technique all the time at my school. Everyone wants to be noticed.

Reading is the link to success in all school subjects. (I may be biased here, as I was a Literacy Coach for many years.) You can never have too much reading! Start early. Little kids need to be read to and told a whole bunch of stories. Fairy tales, made up tales, just silly tales about things that have happened to you or family members. Sharing language is how we learn. Talk to your kids about the books he likes, dislikes. Read the same book as your kid. There are excellent young adult books out there right now! Go to the local library, you can’t beat the price or your local bookstore. There is a book out there for everyone. Even the reluctant reader can do books on tape or downloaded from iTunes, although it does not substitute for true “in the head” reading. Bigger kids might seem “too old” for read alouds. However, kids will surprise you. For example, it doesn’t have to be a novel. It can be a biography of a famous sports star or wrestler. Reading aloud to them will inspire them to read, as we are our kids’ greatest role models. It is the best gift you can ever give them. Readers are always the most successful in school. I have to remind myself to get off my iPhone and go read to my kids. Strong family reading behaviors must be intentional to lead to strong reading habits.

Hope these tips help. I know that this is my favorite time of year. It feels so good to start fresh every year. It is a time of renewal and hope. As a teacher and now principal, it feels so great to be able to do my job again, “knowing what I know now, that I didn’t know before.” Hopefully, as a mother I can keep the same positive attitude, even when my four year old insists on wearing his sandals in December and I was supposed to be at work a half hour earlier. Good luck! And remember, there’s always, next year!

Courtney Sheppeck is the proud principal of the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School, a mother of three active children, loves everything about school, including “back to school” season. 

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