A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

19 Back-to-School Secrets Only Parents of “A” Students Know

Prevent back-to-school meltdowns (yours and theirs) with these simple pro tips. For starters, add printer ink and foam board to your supply list now—you'll thank us later!

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Cute boy doing homework, coloring pages, writing and painting. Children paint. Kids draw. Preschooler with books at home. Preschoolers learn to write and read. Creative boy.

Designate a “homework spot”

“As both a teacher and parent, I find a homework area is key,” says Jenn Tullis, of Layton, Utah. It doesn’t mean you have to give your kid their own study or buy a fancy desk setup; any quiet, organized, comfortable, and distraction-free space with somewhere to sit and a clean surface to write on will work. “Students can’t be expected to focus on doing their homework if they are trying to do it in front of the TV or squeezed in at the dinner table,” she adds.

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Tired kid boy at home making homework writing letters with colorful pens

Set a homework schedule based on your kid’s personality

Being too rigid with rules can make homework a battle instead of a cooperative effort, so to avoid math meltdowns and reading riots, figure out what works best with your child’s personality. “I’ve found that some kids need decompression time after school and should do homework after some play time, while other kids need to get their homework done right away and then have the rest of the day for free time,” Tullis says.

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Children playing with hoops in the park
Robert Kneschke/Shutterstock

Allow plenty of play time

Speaking of free time, every child needs some unstructured time to run around and think their own thoughts every day, Tullis says. This doesn’t mean zoning out on video games, watching hours of television, attending a kid’s cooking class, or playing an organized sport. Those things aren’t bad, but you need to make space where your kid can be creative and move around all on their own, preferably outdoors. You know how sometimes you come up with the answer to your work problem while taking a walk around the block? Kids can figure out that math concept they’ve been stumped on while they play.

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Make a list of your goals and rules before kids go back to school

Going from the freedom of summer to a strict homework-dinner-bedtime schedule on the first day of school can be a rude shock—for both of you! This is why it’s important to set the rules before school begins and make sure your child understands your expectations, Tullis says. Write it down and post it in an area where everyone can see it at least a couple of weeks before the big day.

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Let your child (help) make the rules

As a parent, it’s tempting to say “my way or the highway” when it comes to grades, but your child’s feelings, fears, and preferences are important too. Ask your kid for their input on when, where, and how to do homework and what their academic goals are for the year. “Plus, letting them play a role in decision-making makes the rules easier to stick with,” Tullis says. Don’t miss the things your school principal won’t tell you—but you’ll want to know.

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Little preschool kid boy sleeping in bed with colorful lamp.

Start the school bedtime now

The days are still long and the evenings are still light-filled, so it’s understandable that your kiddos don’t want to hit the sack at 8:30 p.m. But mornings start early when school begins and it’s important to start adjusting your children to their new schedule before they need to actually do it, says Heather Bosworth, of St. Petersburg, Florida. “Start waking them up and putting them to bed at the new times at least two weeks before school starts,” she says. Good sleep is one of our 15 tips for beating back to school stress.

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African-american boy and his friend eating an apple during break at school

Plan out some healthy grab-n-go breakfasts

Breakfast is essential to keep little ones’ minds sharp and focused during long school days but it can easily get skipped in the chaos of getting out the door on time. Instead, come up with a list of healthy, easy breakfast items and post it in your kitchen, Bosworth says. You can make breakfast burritos or egg sandwiches in advance and keep them in the freezer or put protein shake ingredients in a bag that only have to be blended with ice. But you don’t have to be fancy. “A banana and some peanut butter on whole-grain toast is healthy and doesn’t make a huge mess in the car,” she suggests.

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Little girl playing dress up game in kids section of public library.
Arina P Habich/Shutterstock

Get an outfit organizer

“Have the kids make their outfits for the week on Sundays—that way you have less to fight about in the mornings and you can leave on time,” Bosworth says. To help keep things neat and together, get a hanging sweater organizer with five shelves, one for each day. We like this hanging shelf organizer as you can put socks, hair bows, or other accessories in the mesh pockets on the side.

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Two adorable little sisters playing with a digital tablet at home

Set up a way to control their Internet access

Distractions are the number one enemy when it comes to getting kids to do their homework, and the Internet is the primary source of those distractions. To keep kids focused, unplug literally and figuratively—from tech gadgets like tablets, smartphones, TVs, and laptops, suggests Natacha Stocia, of Denver, Colorado. If your kid still needs to type their book report you can install an app that controls your router, so they can use the computer while still blocking the Internet until you turn it back on. You can even set it to turn off the Internet for set periods every day. “Parents often think their kid needs the Internet to do their homework and that may be true for certain assignments, but the vast majority of work can be done offline,” she says.

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pensive young parents doing homework with kids
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Create a sorting system for papers

The daily mountain of paperwork schools send home makes it all too easy to miss important things, like permission slips, math packets, or the notice that someone in your kid’s class has lice (eek!). “I set up a file sorting system on a side counter with a basket for papers that need a parent’s immediate attention, one for homework assignments, and one for everything else—that way I know exactly what needs to get done, and nothing gets lost,” says Charlotte Andersen, of Denver, Colorado. “It is the first thing my kids do when they get home.”

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Smart child doing homework at a desk with support of a tutor

Have a handy homework basket

There’s nothing more frustrating than finally getting your kid to sit down to do their homework, only to discover they need a protractor for math and you don’t own one. Solve this problem by keeping a basket full of homework supplies—think lined and graph paper, note cards, highlighters, rulers, markers, scissors, tape, pencils and sharpener, and glue sticks—and they’ll never have an excuse not to do their homework again, Andersen says.

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Mother And Daughter Meeting With Male Teacher
Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Meet the teacher and introduce yourself

Parents walk a fine line between being a helicopter and a cruise ship, especially when it comes to school. “I’ve found it really helpful to introduce myself to my children’s teachers at back-to-school night and then send them a follow-up email about a week later to check in,” Andersen says. “Building that rapport is important as they are the one in the best position to know what’s really going on with my kid.” Offering to help out or offering some spontaneous thanks and praise also go a long way—you don’t want the only times your child’s teacher hears from you to be when something is wrong, she adds.

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Young children having fun during art lesson in school

Buy extra poster board and stash it

There comes a time in all parents’ lives when their child shows up at their bedside at 11:30 p.m. and says, “I forgot, I have a huge project due tomorrow.” Avert this inevitable crisis by buying project supplies in advance, Andersen says. “I always keep poster board, tri-fold foam boards, stick-on letters, glitter glue, permanent markers, sticker frames, and colored paper on a shelf,” she says.

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Little school kid boy with glasses playing game and surfing internet on computer. Child having fun with learning on pc. Education concept.

Keep your printer working and the ink filled

Even though much of our world is digital, many teachers still require hard copies of reports, permission slips, and other important papers, Andersen says. There’s nothing more frustrating than having it ready to go and not being able to print it out. “Before kids, I didn’t even own a printer; now we have one and keep extra ink on hand,” she says. “It also works in a pinch for when you remember at the last minute that they are supposed to bring in a baby picture or a snap of their family from their last vacation.” Don’t have a printer? Check these back-to-school deals on Amazon.

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Tired kid boy at home making homework writing letters with colorful pens

Brush up on the basics

The “summer slump”—the phenomenon where kids forget a lot of what they learned the previous year during the long summer months—is very real and it’s a problem. Counteract this by doing a little refresher course on math and reading before heading back to school. “This has helped us keep our kids consistently at or above grade level,” says Kacy Moller, of Lehi, Utah.

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Mother and cute little daughter sitting at table and doing homework together at home, homework help concept
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

Post your tech support hours

You may think that you’re always available to help your kids with any social or academic concerns they may have, but if they just see you as busy, they may not bring them to you. Set up a specific time to talk before school starts (maybe over ice cream?) and address any worries then so they don’t come spilling out the morning of, Moller says. After that, set aside a specific time each day when you’ll be available to help them with any problems—and stick to it as much as possible.

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Family spending time together

Keep chores consistent

Giving your child reasonable daily tasks and responsibilities doesn’t take away from homework time; rather, it helps them by teaching them a good work ethic, focus, and how to accomplish things, Moller says. “We keep their morning chore routine consistent throughout the year, even when school starts back,” she adds.

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Happy family. Cheerful young man talking to his children and offering them omelet while they eating breakfast
Dmytro Zinkevych/Shutterstock

Make back-to-school a special event

Back-to-school fills many kids with dread and frustration. Even kids who are typically high achievers may start to feel anxiety and pressure. Help them relax by making going back to school a happy event with some fun family traditions, says Julianne Pohl, of Honolulu, Hawaii. Her family’s favorite? Waking up at “school time” the day before school starts and going out to breakfast together. Here are more ways to make the first day of school extra special.

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Black girl doing homework at home

Let them correct their own mistakes

What parent hasn’t been tempted to fill in a math problem or rewrite a paragraph (or invent a science project) just to make things move along faster? Resist that urge, suggests Jason Roberts of Minneapolis, Minnesota. “I’ve learned the hard way that my kids do better when I help them find the errors in their work and let them correct them themselves,” he says. Don’t miss these secrets of A+ students.

Charlotte Hilton Andersen
Charlotte Hilton Andersen is a health, lifestyle and fitness expert and teacher. She covers all things wellness for Reader’s Digest and The Healthy. With dual masters degrees in information technology and education, she has been a journalist for 17 years and is the author of The Great Fitness Experiment. She lives in Denver with her husband, five kids and three pets.