Parental Guidance

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a guide to helping your child make the most of the school year

by ashley troost, elisabeth frankel reed and tanisia morris

summer vacation is coming to a close and the kids have a closetful of freshly purchased fall clothes, but is your family really ready to head back to school? we talked to several experts to find out what steps parents can take to set their children up for a successful school year.

organize, organize, organize

every parent knows that beginning the school year with an organized home is one thing, while keeping it that way is quite another. we spoke with nyc-based personal organizer maeve richmond, who offers the following tips for devising and maintaining an organizational system that will carry you through the school year:

don't look for a solution in a store. "no beautiful box is going to manage your clutter," richmond warns. before shopping for ready-made organizational systems, richmond suggests families take a close look at their family's schedule, home life and needs in order to devise a system that works for them.

get the kids involved. richmond encourages parents to harness what she calls "kid power" by including them in the process and letting them make decisions about how and where things are kept.

create a desk space and a cubby space. create a desk space where your child can complete homework and store writing, artwork and other assignments he or she brings home. richmond also suggests including a cubby space in your home where kids can store incoming and outgoing items.

have a family meeting. sit down as a family to discuss the new system and come up with a realistic plan for maintaining it. richmond suggests setting a common goal, such as going on a family vacation, to encourage children (and parents, too) to keep their spaces organized.

set up a functional homework area. keep the homework space stocked with a few basic items: pencils, pens, paper. most importantly, richmond says, make sure the space you create is quiet, with as few distractions as possible.


create a family routine

children encounter a host of new experiences and stresses during the school year, so being able to count on a family routine at home-one that is "predictable, reliable and guides your way," is invaluable, says michelle asher dunn, parent coordinator and specialist in child and adolescent development. dunn offers these tips for creating a healthy home routine:

when creating a routine, take your child's age into account. in other words, children grow from having a routine created for them to understanding and owning it. "from kindergarten through 3rd grade, the routine has to be based on practical matters that are decided by mom and dad," dunn explains.

keep your child's entire day in mind. remember that children need unstructured time to play, relax and decompress. sports, music, art classes and other extracurricular activities can be great additions to your child's weekly schedule, but try not to overload them.

provide guidance for children under 13. "a 10-year-old cannot retain the rhythm of the routine by themselves, therefore the parents have to help them," dunn says. she suggests parents have regular conversations with their children to go over their schedule and responsibilities for the week.

display the family schedule on a large whiteboard. having a visual aid will help children feel more in control over their routine. dunn suggests parents color-code the schedule to make it easy for children to read and comprehend.


set realistic goals-and communicate themto your kids

before the first day of school, think strategically about areas in which you'd like to help your child grow-not just academically but behaviorally and socially as well. here's what dunn suggests to parents looking to set manageable goals and help their children achieve them:

set short, concrete goals. "the longer the goal, the bigger the failure rate," dunn says, especially with young children. instead, set weekly goals, such as making their own bed each morning or getting their backpack ready each evening.

the goal is never the grade. telling your child to get all a's is never a good idea, dunn says. instead, ask them to study for 20 minutes or read a book to you. "the goal is not the grade, but how your child gets there," she says.

help your child be successful from the beginning. from september until thanksgiving, dunn maintains, parents should focus on making their kids feel successful by encouraging them to meet short-term goals. when they've worked hard to achieve their goals, share their successes with friends and relatives, as a feeling of accomplishment is a huge motivator for children.

never offer a child a present for completing their goal. "bribing your child to do the ordinary is a road to perdition, because money and gifts don't help a child develop inner self-esteem," dunn says.


get involved at school

many parents want to be involved at their children's school-both to improve the school and to stay in the know when it comes to their child's education-but feel they are too busy to be involved in any meaningful way. but mary dipalermo, an upper west side mom of three and co-president of the pta at the center school, says even the busiest of parents can play an important part in the life of their child's school.

"help is always welcome," dipalermo says. "every parent has a skill they can bring to the table." while volunteering in the local parent teacher association (pta) is the classic avenue for parental involvement, it is also a good place to start when looking for other ways to help out, like writing for the school newsletter or maintaining the pta website. parents can contact their pta executive board or school office to find out more about their school's needs.


work with your child's teacher

in order to ensure success throughout the school year, parents need to establish an open, positive relationship with their child's teacher, and make it a priority to work with their child at home to reinforce the work being done in the classroom. we asked local educators nancy arcieri, lynn bernstein, caroline gaynor, jon goldman and david lebson to share their thoughts on how parents can work with teachers to best support their kids.

remember that you're a team. "i believe that a child's education rests on a tripod of teacher, child and parent," says lebson. "if any one of those legs is missing, it's going to be a challenge. if two are gone, the kid's not going to succeed. it'll be a miracle."

recognize your role. often parents assume, incorrectly, that helping their child learn is solely the job of the teacher. "a perfect example is summer curricula-parents say, 'what can you do to make sure that my child reads over the summer?'" says goldman. "i'm very straightforward; the answer is 'nothing.' it is completely up to you."

use technology as a tool. "i have kids for whom technology means gameboys, wiis-pacifiers, stuff to keep the kids out of their parents' hair," bernstein says. "other parents set up the computer for play, research and games. that's technology as a tool, not a pacifier."

it's ok not to make all a's. "it's ok to be average at some things," goldman says. "some kids earn predominantly a's and b's, and then there's that one c. the parent comments that this is unacceptable, why hasn't the teacher noticed that my child is at risk? i say, at risk of what, of being on grade level? because that's what a c means." arcieri agrees. "parents need to see reality for what it is and to not focus on the negative," she says. "when a kid's report card has eight a's and then a c+, for a parent to look at the c+ and say, 'what is going on here?' is just devastating."

give authentic praise. praise "needs to be honest, tied to achievement, and not hyperbolic or false," says bernstein. goldman agrees, adding, "when a child shows you a piece of artwork or a story, rather than saying, 'oh, that's beautiful!' ask him questions: 'i see you used a lot of green. tell me why?' it's really almost magical."

appreciate your child's teacher. after all, teachers spend most of their students' waking hours with them, and they play an important part in shaping your child. "teachers grow to love your child," arcieri says. "we are in the position of raising children-it's just in a different space. and we care deeply about them." and, adds gaynor, when it comes to parental involvement, teachers can use all the help they can get. "i like working with parents," she says. "it makes my job not just easier, it makes it better. parents have a wealth of knowledge that i don't have."

adapted from "what parents can learn from teachers," by helen zelon and laura zingmond, new york family, august 2008.

help your children handle their homework

homework is a perennial source of frustration for children and parents alike, but it doesn't have to be, maintains jeanne shay schumm, ph.d. and author of how to help your child with homework: the complete guide to encouraging good study habits and ending the homework wars.

"i like to think of it as scaffolding, like when you're building a building," schumm says. "you initially start out with a lot of support, but then gradually take the support away so that they can work on their own."

first, decide on some basic homework guidelines, such as where and when homework is done.

while there is no concrete rule concerning how much homework is appropriate, schumm says that generally, a student should receive about 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. in other words, parents can expect a first grader to get about 10 minutes, a second grader about 20 minutes, a third grader to get about 30 minutes and so forth.

when it comes time to hit the books, ask your child what assignments he can do independently and what he will need your help with. provide guidance and encouragement, but not the answers.


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