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Just for Parents: A Refresher Course on Surviving the School Year

By , Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt, Ph.D
A new school year is under way.  Like many of you, I have been consumed by it for the past few weeks.  School supplies, new sneakers, "back-to-school" night, homework, after-school activities, new teachers, and uniforms have all played some part in the return of school.  These topics have been discussed regularly with friends, family, colleagues, and anyone else I have seen in passing (my dentist, employees at my gym, the girl who prepares my morning chai…).  The great balancing act has begun!

For me, the opening of the school year is usually a seamless transition from summer.  But, for some reason, this year is different.  Third grade feels unlike any other.  There is an anxiety about it that I’ve not felt before (not even when I was in third grade!)  Last week, back-to-school night was outright intimidating!  I watched the third grade teachers’ Power Point presentation and I felt overwhelmed.  I simply couldn’t absorb it all: the dreaded dioramas from my own childhood; an overnight trip of almost 60 kids and only four adults (yikes); something about building machines out of household materials; and the list went on for about 45 minutes.

To be perfectly honest, I think I am writing about this topic because I need a refresher course on the ins and outs of surviving parenthood during the school year.   And, to be even more honest, it wouldn’t hurt to commiserate, find hope, or laugh along with many of you out there whose kids also just started a new school year.  Here, I will remind myself (and you, perhaps) of some important topics:


Kids do better with routines.  It begins early in life.  Infants with a stable, consistent, predictable (and warm) environment fare better than those without.  They are more secure, more trusting of their environments, and more independent.   An organized world with rules is conducive to healthy development. 

It is helpful to develop an after-school routine.  It’s better to create the routine as soon as possible for it to be most effective.  It’s harder to change habits that are already developed.  Perhaps start with a little down time when the kids get home…a snack and a conversation about the day go a long way.  Then, think about how to balance homework with playtime with activities with other commitments.  Think about your dinner plans from a "we are a family" perspective and from a healthy lifestyle perspective.  Where does it fit into your evening routine?
Develop a list (formal or not) of expectations for what happens after school.  Discuss the list as a family.  These practices can eliminate or reduce arguments and negotiations for many families.  And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, you must follow the routine that you lay out!

After-school activities

People have written and spoken fairly extensively about the "over-scheduled" child.  There is an increasing number of activities in which kids can be enrolled… sports, art classes, music lessons, scouting, religious education, language lessons.  When choosing activities, count how many hours your child has available between getting home from school and preparing for bedtime.  For some families, particularly those in which the parents work, that can be as little as an hour or two. 

Depending on your family’s available time, prioritize activities while considering your child’s temperament, his or her interest in the various activities, amount of homework time required, and even travel time to and from various practices/lessons.  Not all kids can focus in school, be on the go all afternoon, and also stay on task with homework.  And don’t forget dinner plans!  There is research citing the importance of sitting down for family dinners.  There are numerous developmental and health benefits.   Having a hard time doing a sit-down dinner together?  Planning ahead can help.  I’ve made a good friend in my crockpot!  Also, someone I know prepares and sometimes cooks the week’s meals on Sundays and has them ready to go for each weekday (something I aspire to).  (Read more about meal planning.)


Different schools, teachers, grades, and parents have different expectations, philosophies, and practices when it comes to homework.  That being said, there are some good practices that are nearly universal.

Have a designated homework space.  It should be free of distractions, have all necessary supplies, and be large enough to hold books and papers that are required. 

Don’t rush through it!  Some kids (and parents) just want to get homework done.  A parent recently told me that her child was finishing the required 45 minutes of homework in half the time.  She looked at it and, in fact, the work was complete.  It was, however, messy and had some mistakes.  She then explained to her son that there was a reason it was supposed to take 45 minutes.  So, "once and done" is likely not the best way to go.  Put a timer on and stress that it should take the amount of time that you put on the timer.  It can help them from rushing through. 

Work within the teacher’s homework guidelines.  Check with your teacher on how to handle checking homework.  I was in the habit of helping my son correct errors on his homework, but the teachers said that seeing the errors allow them to gear their lessons to the children’s needs.  Someone used the phrase, "be a coach not a crutch."  Aside from making the "s" a little more thoroughly rounded, I am now hands-off!

Schedule homework time.  Consider if your child would do better with homework right after school versus after activities or playtime.  Some kids need to decompress and other kids need to plow through and get all the "business" of the day behind them.   Remember, your style may not be optimal for them.

Be positive about homework.   If you moan about it, so will they!  From the earliest grades, view homework as an opportunity to practice.  Sit down next to your child and work on something during homework time.  Model discipline and focus and let them know that you will both take time to do your work.

Parent-Teacher Interaction

It is easy for us to have high expectations for teachers.  Nowadays, teachers are viewed as teachers, counselors, parents, disciplinarians/psychologists.  The reality is, although many do a great job at meeting the needs of the whole child, it is often unrealistic (and unfair) to expect the teacher to take on all of the jobs of raising the child. 

As with most things, parents must find a balance. 
  • Do get involved…but do not try to take over. 
  • Do communicate with the teacher…but do not demand too much of the teacher. 
  • Do hold your teacher accountable…but do not expect that your child is the only one in the class. 
  • Do listen to your child when they relay a story about school…but do not forget that there are always two sides to any story.  We are a culture of "defenders."  Try to keep an open mind until you have all the facts!

With all of that said, I wish you and your children a wonderful school year.  Cheer, when appropriate.  Take deep breaths, when necessary.  I will make it through the year, and so will you!

What challenges or relief do you have when the school year begins?  Do you have problems balancing it all?  How much thought do you put into the "plan" for the weekdays?  Do you have habits or practices that you find especially effective that others might benefit from hearing about?

Michelle Stroffolino Schmidt is Chairperson of the Department of Psychology at Moravian College in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on social and emotional development in childhood and adolescence. She has published research on parent-child attachment, friendship, peer relations, bullying, and mentoring. She has also done consulting work with schools as part of their bullying prevention and intervention programs. Michelle recently published the book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence (Guilford Press), which explores the significance of friendship from toddlerhood through adolescence. The book examines factors that contribute to positive friendships, how positive friendships influence children’s lives, and interventions for those who have friendship difficulties. Michelle is the mother of a 7-year-old son, William, and a 2-year-old bulldog named Eve. She enjoys yoga, kayaking, writing, and cooking.