Where do you fit into your child’s education?

Sending your child off to school can be a traumatic experience.

During a child’s earlier years, parents often have — for better or for worse — complete control over every day.

But when you drop your child off at that first day of preschool or watch him or her drive away to high school on their own, you’re reminded that a lot of control dissipates with the shut of the car door: We don’t pick the school curriculum, and we no longer dictate their daily schedules.

So what do we do, and what is our role in their education?

Paula Erbisch, a school counselor at Minnetonka Middle School West in Excelsior, believes academic achievement is built with a multi-faceted support system: “The student, the parents and the school form the three legs of the stool that supports a child’s education,” she said. “Working together, we form a strong foundation for an excellent education and for a child to discover their best self.”

Although we don’t choose the books they study in school, we do model our attitudes about the privilege of going to school, striving for greatness — and the benefit of respect and accepting other people.

We can support our children from home, let them know we’re still there for them and, in process, prepare them for their next stages. Here are a few tips to try to be proactively involved in your child’s school life — at any stage.


Preschool / Early Elementary

Don’t linger: I was one of those parents that lingered at the door — at preschool, in kindergarten, even first grade. It’s sort of funny now, but, fortunately, I had some very gracious teachers along the way, who chatted with me when they didn’t have the time and gave me that affirming nod when my daughter wouldn’t let go of my hand.

But I made it! And you know what? Both my kids manage to get to and from the bus stop just fine on their own now.

When you confidently walk away from your child, you’re instilling confidence.

They can do it on their own.

Bring snacks/party supplies so the teachers don’t have to: This is ideal for those special days like 100s day or cowboy day: Just be sure to ask the teachers exactly what they need. Your kids will love seeing you in their class through your donations. They’ll know you chose things special just to provide a memorable day, and seeing the things you handpicked at school is like a quick, “I love you.”

Cut and copy: Teachers of younger grades have so much prep work. This simple task can be done with younger siblings at home or after a day of work with a glass of wine on the couch. This really helps your teacher accomplish other things and doesn’t take an obscene amount of extra time from your already-busy schedule. Your child will be excited to know you had your hands on something she’s working on.

Sort out all that stuff: Set up an area in your home for the papers, artwork, library books, weekly readers and more.

In our house, we have what we call the “homework basket.” It’s not just for homework, it also serves as the spot for any school-related communication like permission slips and field-trip reminders.

Encourage organization: Ask your children to empty their papers from the day in the afternoon and you can look through it to see if there’s anything that needs to be signed. Let them refill their bags in the morning to create a habit. If they do misplace their library book, (and they will) you’ll have just one pile to look through in a single, designated spot.


Older Elementary

Let them walk: Yes, they can walk home from school, from the bus or to a neighbor’s for a playdate. Give them a key and independence!

If you’re a stay-at-home or work-from-home parent, lock the doors, resist walking to the bus stop and let them practice letting themselves in with you inside.

Graduate this by running a quick errand to the grocery store or coffee shop at the time they’d be coming home. Have them practice calling a trusted neighbor for help.

Let them do their homework: Let your student demonstrate his school skills to you by setting up a designated quiet area for work. You don’t have to be at his side, but be around. Let him show you what he’s working on and ask him questions that make him describe it to you. This shows you’re supportive and interested. And don’t forget to give kudos!

If they can’t figure out their homework — and if you can’t either — show them how to get help. Have them star questions they’re unsure about and ask their teacher for clarification. They’ll see it’s OK not to know every answer.

Donate an hour of in-class time: Our family has had the benefit of living in a few states, which has exposed us to different school districts. Every one of them has had volunteer opportunities that working/non-working parents can sign up for. Consider being a reading coach or a mentor in the classroom once a month. Volunteer to work that beloved fishing booth at the school carnival. You’ll benefit by meeting other parents and getting to see who your child’s spending time with at recess.


Middle School / High School

Make them eat and sleep: I know it sounds simple, but this is essential for your growing child. Despite what they think, they’re still children — large, growing ones that need bedtimes and structure.

Most days of the my teen tells me he’s not tired, he crashes within 10 minutes. Their bodies need a lot to sustain that growth. You can’t see every time they hit the vending machine at school, but you can give them their veggies at night. Remind them that this will make them the athlete, rock star or whoever they’re working so hard to become.

Teach them how to advocate for themselves: Although nagging at home may be my first way of asking them about a missing assignment or poor grade, I have learned that this isn’t as effective as I intend it to be.

Teach them how to communicate for themselves, write a respectful email and talk to their teachers and counselors. This skill will carry long into college and the workplace, when they earn a questionable grade on a test or want to ask for a raise.

Be creative about encouraging studying: Find out when their tests are and quiz them. Most school districts are moving toward online grades and communication programs. Look at these sites regularly and teach your child to do the same to keep on top of projects and test dates. Host study dates for your kids and their friends — with food — and they’ll come running.

Let them be social: It’s their job right now. They’re no long learning how to put sentences together: They’re learning how to deepen relationships and depend on others.

We have a big job as parents, and lots to think about to get them through their formative school years. But with your role modeling, support and communication, they’ll graduate into adulthood with confidence.

Jennifer Wizbowski is Minnesota Parent’s new Teens and Tweens columnist. She’s a freelance writer who — if she isn't driving her kids around — is likely reading a book, walking her dog or out on her paddleboard. She lives in Excelsior with her husband, daughter and son, ages 11 and 13. Send comments, questions and story ideas to jwizbowski@mnparent.com.