The countdown begins now

I often find it tempting to delay back-to-school preparations, in a futile attempt to savor the fleeting days of summer. “Earlier bedtimes? It’s still so light outside!” my kids will complain. Or, “You want me to try on these jeans now? It’s too hot!”

So, I asked Minnesota’s 2009 Teacher of the Year, Amber Damm, and her predecessors, Derek Olson (2008) and Mike Smart (2007), for advice on getting the school year off to a great start.

Damm, who teaches 7th- and 8th-grade language arts at Clara Barton Open School in Minneapolis, says it’s important for tweens and teens to gradually adjust to their school routine, starting at least a few weeks before the first day. For 12- to 14-year-olds, that means nine hours of sleep and three healthy meals a day (no skipping breakfast). She’s noticed that her students who transition abruptly are more likely to feel lethargic and anxious when school begins.

“By mid-August, you want to get kids’ schedules as close to what they’ll be in September as possible,” she says. “Have some conversations about how their schedules are going to shift. Kids need about two weeks of routine to get back into it.’

Olson, a sixth-grade teacher at Afton-Lakeland Elementary School in Stillwater, says parents can smooth the transition by ensuring that their kids have the proper school supplies and clothes that fit and that they’ve completed any assigned summer homework — all before Labor Day weekend.

“Nothing eases back-to-school stress like preparation,” Olson says.

Organize for success

Parents of students making a big change — to a middle school or a high school — should be especially sensitive to the stress their children may be experiencing, Damm says. They might not talk about it, or they might act out, when underneath they’re scared and need reassurance. All three teachers say that if parents start the year with clear expectations and routines, make an effort to communicate with teachers, and remain involved and attuned to their children’s needs, tweens and teens are much more likely to succeed in school.

Mike Smart, who has taught Japanese at Robbinsdale Armstrong High School for many years, says students have different abilities and needs when it comes to organizing their schoolwork. Some need to build on their own skills instead of relying upon him or their parents. “There’s not one answer to how involved a parent has to be. Some kids have great organization skills right off the bat, and great study skills, and parental involvement might mess that up a little bit. Other kids really need that,” Smart says. “What seems to work, from my experience in the classroom, is that somehow you both have to be on the same side.”

Olson agrees, noting that parents can become frustrated with children because they think they just aren’t trying, or aren’t following directions, when they haven’t yet developed the skill. “Our goal as parents is to move children to the point where they can organize themselves. That comes with maturity; it comes with time,” she says. “In the meantime, we as parents and teachers must teach those skills. For many kids, those are not innate abilities.”

Damm recommends parents of younger teens help their children learn to keep track of important forms and assignments by going through their backpacks together at least once a week. Parents also should encourage their teens to use a school planner to track not just homework, but also lessons, practices, and family events.

“You’re teaching your daughter to know her schedule as well as you do,” Damm says. “You don’t want to be the only one with the information.”

Smart says that by showing their own interest in learning, parents can influence how their children feel about school. He encourages parents of his students to take community education classes for that very reason.

“If you want children to be curious and lifelong learners, modeling that is as important as staying on top of children’s activities,” he says. “Be a learner as a parent, so your children can see how important it is, and that we’re all in this together.”

Joy Riggs dedicates this column to her favorite teachers, William Riggs and Anne Falvey Riggs.

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