Back-to-school season is once again upon us, and excited as your child might be about sharpened No. 2 pencils and markers that smell like marshmallows (and eager as you are for them to be occupied with worthy pursuits for six hours a day), it’s not always easy to navigate this big annual transition. Good news: Even though each child is unique and every school its own particular ecosystem, there are scores of parents out there who have been there and done that. And they can share the wisdom they’ve gleaned.
From navigating bullies and frenemies to having a teacher who (gasp) doesn’t like your kid, there are plenty of scenarios where knowing how someone else handled the situation can be immensely helpful. Let these tips from seasoned classroom moms and dads inform how you navigate the trickiest social and academic situations; streamline hectic mornings; and remind you not to sweat the small stuff.
Remember: grades aren’t everything.
“Yes, grades are important, but does it really matter if your 4-year-old makes an upside-down W? Not really. My child would get so stressed before an assessment that she would have stomach aches, so in our house, we made sure that our kids knew we prioritized happiness over perfection. To this day, my college-age son still makes wonky W’s.” — Julie, mom to a 19-year-old, 18-year-old, and a 16-year-old
“I found that it’s better to say, ‘You must be so proud of yourself’ when my kid would come home from school with a happy face or a gold star on his schoolwork. That way my son would try to do well on his own instead of trying to please me and my partner.” — Maggie, mom to a 23-year-old
“My then kindergarten-age daughter had a teacher who would actually pit kids against each other when they were doing assignments in class. It set up some really unhealthy competition. I told the other parents and together we spoke with the principal. As far as I knew, she never did that again. Sometimes, there’s strength in numbers.” — Ellie, mom to a 17-year-old, 15-year-old, and 11-year-old
Just roll with the morning chaos — it’s inevitable.
“You never want to wing it when it comes to school mornings. I know it’s tough when you’re so tired at night, and the last thing you want to do is sort socks. I’m guilty of it, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent my kid into school wearing the same pants or a really wrinkled t-shirt because everything else was so dirty.” — Adina, mom of a 15-year-old
“I don’t think I ever had a morning where everything went smoothly. With three kids, we always forgot something: homework, a book they needed for class, lunchboxes — you name it. One time, we did morning drop off and I saw (too late) that my then 5-year-old child forgot to put his shoes on and was walking completely barefoot towards his teacher. My advice would be: Always make sure that your child is fully dressed before leaving the house.” — Trina, mom of a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and a 16-year-old
“It’s OK to eat cookies for breakfast. Not every day, but once in a while. No one has to know, it gives you a break, and your kids will love you for it.” — Juana, mom of a 22-year-old and a 20-year-old
Don’t put pressure on yourself to make an Instagram-worthy lunch every day... or any day.
“When my daughter was about to go into kindergarten, I got her the cutest lunchbox. I imagined all those beautiful bento-like lunches I’d send her to school with. But it turns out I can barely slap together a ham and cheese sammie. If you don’t make it a big deal, your kid could care less if their lunch doesn’t look like it came out of a magazine. They’ll just end up eating the cookies anyway.” — Carla, mom of a 17-year-old and a 12-year-old
“I used to think that buying all those prepackaged bags of chips was such a waste of money. ‘Buy a bigger bag of chips and portion it out each morning’ was my motto…until I had to do it every day. I would either run out of sandwich baggies (and have to ‘wrap’ the chips in a napkin), or I’d reach for those cheddar and sour cream chips and only find dust at the bottom of the bag. Make your life easier and accept that those packaged chips are a total timesaver.” — Shaquila, mom of twin 14-year-olds
“Always, always, always check your child’s lunchbox when they come home from school on Friday. A bologna sandwich that’s been stuck inside your child’s lunchbox all weekend is something you don’t want to deal with on a Monday morning. Blech.” — Crystal, mom to a 23-year-old and a 19-year-old
It’s easier to go from bad cop to good cop than vice versa.
“It’s a lot easier to loosen up on the rules than it is to get stricter. Whether it’s making sure your backpack is packed the night before, or lights out at a certain time, or getting your homework done before watching any TV, set your expectations and then stick with them until they become a pattern. You can always be more relaxed as the school year progresses.” — Liz, mom of a 14-year-old and an 11-year-old
Always be prepared for a major assignment or event to pop up at the last minute.
“Add poster board and a couple of white t-shirts to your BTS shopping list. Just trust me. One day, you are going to find yourself in need of one or both of these items ‘for tomorrow,’ but it is going to be midnight and everything will be closed.” — April, mom of a 20-year-old
You’ll feel more comfortable about your child’s safety the more familiar you are with the school’s layout, staff, and routines.
“Drive behind the school bus for the first few days of school. It works for a couple of reasons: one, in case your kid freaks out being on the bus alone, you can get them into your car and drive them to school. Second, you get to know the route and the bus driver.” — Suzanne, mom of an 18-year-old and a 14-year-old
“Don’t worry about looking like a maniac when it comes to school safety. This is your baby, so you have every right to find out about the school’s safety policy if it’s not posted online, and asking how the teacher can keep the kids safe in case of an emergency.” — Belinda, mom to a 17-year-old and an 8-year-old
Your child can experience anxiety at any point during the school year, so expect the unexpected.
“My son was so looking forward to starting pre-K. I was honestly shocked at how excited he was because this was his first time being away from me. Then, on the first day of school, I got a call to pick him up because he was sobbing uncontrollably in class. Luckily, he had a great teacher who let me spend some mornings in the back of the class and, eventually, he got better. So if your child is having separation anxiety, I would ask the teacher or staff how you can all work together to make school less stressful. Sometimes they can bend the rules a bit to accommodate your child’s needs.” — Agnes, mom of a 22-year-old and a 19-year-old
“Expect the unexpected. Your kid might be fine taking the bus in the beginning of the school year and then suddenly refuse to take it, which was our case. Or they might want hot lunch like their friends instead of cold lunch — which you’ll be ever so thankful for later on. Trust me.” — Bettina, mom to a 26-year-old and a 23-year-old
“Whenever I would pick up my little guy from school, he was a total chatterbox. He told me all about his day, what he ate, and if the kid in his pre-K class licked the floor again. (Yes, there was a floor licker in his class.) I was called in to meet the teacher, and he told me that while my child was sweet, he was also silent in class — for months. Working with the school psychologist was a godsend, and my chatty boy started talking in class. Addressing the anxiety and building his courage helped reduce the stress he was feeling about raising his hand.” — Dana, mom to a 28-year-old, a 24-year-old, and a 22-year-old
Make a habit of checking in with teachers, even when everything seems fine and dandy.
“Check in with the teacher two to three weeks after school starts. You might discover something you didn’t know — like that your child has had homework for the past two weeks of school and never told you about it!” — Lucy, mom to a 25-year-old, 24-year-old, and a 20-year-old
“Voice your concerns about your child’s progress. I felt that my child wasn’t understanding some of the schoolwork, and the teacher didn’t really seem to care. I spoke to the teacher, and she actually apologized to me for not being more on top of my daughter’s work. From there, she brought in a reading assistant to help my kid, and now my daughter is an English lit major in college.” — Melanie, mom to a 22-year-old and 17-year-old triplets
“During a parent/teacher conference, the teacher informed me that while my first grader was doing well academically, he struggled socially. He would sit on the sidelines during recess and not play with anyone. It broke my heart, but had the teacher not told me, I would never have known because my son never said anything about it. I encourage all parents to not just ask about test scores but how their child interacts with their peers, since teachers can offer insight you might not get otherwise.” — Tina, mom to a 20-year-old and a 17-year-old
And don’t shy away from asking your kid uncomfortable questions.
“Unfortunately, both my boys were bullied at school. Your child might not come to you if this is happening because they’re embarrassed about it. Make sure to ask your child about their day but be sure to ask those hard questions, too (like if they’re struggling to make friends, if they’ve found a good group to hang out with, or even if they’re feeling lonely when they’re at school), because you might hear things that’ll break your heart.” — Diana, mom to a 19-year-old and a 17-year-old
Don’t be shy about being a friend matchmaker.
“My daughter had a hard time making friends during kindergarten, especially because we had moved over the summer, and she had a best friend back home where we lived. After months of me asking if she liked anyone in class (and not getting much of a response), I went ahead and sent in a note to the teacher asking who the nice kids were in the class who might be good friend material for my daughter. She responded, and we met up with a little girl from her class and her mom at the playground. They’ve been best friends for the past decade.” — Laura, mom to a 15-year-old and an 11-year-old
“You always hear about other kids being the bully, but when it’s your own child, well, it’s shocking. Apparently, my kid would taunt this one boy in his class, and it wasn’t until their teacher called me in that I learned about it. His dad and I were separating at the time, and I think he couldn’t handle the impact it was having on our family. I got us all into therapy, and it made a big difference. The lesson: never assume it’s the other kid who’s the problem. Find out all the facts before you make a judgment and work with the administrators to find solutions.” — Loretta, mom to a 24-year-old and a 13-year-old
Sometimes you’ll have to nurse a broken heart.
“I learned the hard way that school friendships aren’t forever. My child had a best friend since pre-K. They were absolutely inseparable. But by first grade, a new girl came along and for lack of a better word, the bestie dumped my kid. So be prepared for healing broken hearts early.” — Nancy, mom to 26-year-old twins
“I have to admit that I didn’t know the rules of school-aged playdates until my first child started kindergarten. I automatically assumed that when a mom would invite us over after school that it meant I could bring my child’s younger brother, too. Well, the icy reception that we got when we showed up (and my kid’s friend who blatantly said, ‘I don’t want him here’) enlightened me that when a school friend asks for a playdate, it’s not always an open invite for the siblings, too.” — Gretchen, mom to an 18-year-old and a 16-year-old
“Thought that cliques only happen in high school? Nope, they start a lot earlier. And it’s painful when your child is on the outside of one, especially when they just want to fit in with the cool kids. It made me so sad (especially since I never really fit in, either). I had to check my own emotions, but what I did do was make sure to socialize my child so that she wouldn’t feel that she was being left out. She wound up making friends with the kids from her gymnastics class.” — Tonia, mom to a 26-year-old and a 21-year-old
Navigate teacher relationships with your child’s best interest at heart.
“I never imagined not liking my child’s teacher, but it happened to me. To this day, I don’t know what it was, but she just rubbed me the wrong way. The crazy thing was that she was really nice to my child, who just loved her and was doing great in her class. So I just held my tongue until the end of the school year. I learned it wasn’t about my own feelings but instead how well my kid was doing that really mattered.” — Zoe, mom to an 18-year-old, 14-year-old, and a 12-year-old
“One year, my child had a teacher who just didn’t like my kid. She wouldn’t call on him in class, even if he had his hand up. She would sometimes make a snarky comment if he got an answer wrong, and I mean, this was first grade. Eventually, I got him switched to another class, but in hindsight, I wish I had done it sooner. Make sure to ask your child how they like their teacher and if it’s not working, you have every right to switch them to another class. My son’s new teacher was amazing, and he excelled.” — Liz, mom to an 18-year-old and 14-year-old
“In my experience, I’ve found that getting on the good side of your child’s teacher is never a bad thing. I let them know that I’m not one of ‘those’ parents who think that their child can do no wrong, and they’re often happy to hear it, since they deal with parents who think that their children are perfect. It creates a good bond from the start.” — Rose, mom to an 18-year-old, 16-year-old, and a 7-year-old
Don’t be *that* mom with the school administration.
“Dealing with the school administration can intimidate some parents, but it doesn’t have to. In my experience, I think that sending an email first is the way to go if you have an issue that needs to be discussed. I knew one mom who would just barge into the office without an appointment anytime there was an issue with her kid, which happened a lot. You can imagine that she wasn’t too popular with the assistant principal, and not surprisingly, he was never available when she came in. I know; I used to work there.” — Analisa, mom of a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old
Be a joiner.
“Join the PTO if possible. I found that being at the school sometimes, whether it was to help in my kid’s classroom or to participate in the book fair, allowed me to see all the people who my child was in contact with, which was so important to me. So when my kid would talk about their P.E. teacher or a para, I knew exactly who it was — and they damn well knew me, too.” — Alyssa, mom to a 23-year-old and a 20-year-old
“My advice: always go to the open house. You get to meet your child’s teacher and familiarize yourself with where everything is. For my son, who took a lot longer to potty train, it was crucial in learning where the bathroom was so he wouldn’t have an accident in class.” — Ruth, mom to a 21-year-old
“Because I’m a wannabe baker, it was a no-brainer to sign up for the bake sale at my child’s school. Of everything that the PTA does, I think this was one of the easier events to be a part of. If you want to get involved in school activities, get in touch with the PTO and they can put you on a volunteer list for events that match your skill set and that you’ll actually enjoy doing.” — Desiree, mom of a 17-year-old and 12-year-old twins
“I joined the PTA thinking that it would be fun. I’d help out doing book fairs, or just being in the school at the same time as my child so I could peek in on her and say hi. And sure, there are fun moments, but sometimes the PTA is like having a job that doesn’t ever end and you don’t get paid for! I would suggest to new moms that you ask other parents what their experiences were before making the commitment, or just let the PTA’s president know how much effort you can really contribute — because they will hold you to it!” — Evelyn, mom of a 21-year-old and an 18-year-old