It’s that magical time of year again; the big yellow buses are collecting their precious cargo, the excited and the nervous, and bringing them to school. Parents everywhere are heaving sighs of relief, or pacing nervously as their little ones begin their school journey.
“Sandy” (name changed to protect the innocent) was so excited to see her youngest child get on the school bus for his first day of school. She had packed his lunch with care, picked his outfit out with an eye to both comfort and style, and filled his backpack with all sorts of goodies. Sandy had attended the “meet the teacher” night and was convinced her child was in the best possible care.
“Susie” watched her middle-schooler get on the bus with both happiness and relief. The long summer of trying to entertain a child who didn’t want to be entertained (other than playing on her phone) was over. Sandy had given her daughter lunch money, freshly washed her uniform, and gone over the daily schedule with her daughter.
Both moms had done a great job getting their child ready for the school year. But what do they need to do next? How do you support your child throughout the school year, while allowing them the room to grow? It’s a tricky balance. Here are some tips for parents, gleaned from my years as a school counselor, child & adolescent therapist, and a mom of two.
- Talk to your child! That seems obvious, right? But it’s not as easy as it seems. Just ask any mom whose child just recently started middle school. When you ask what they’ve learned the answer is “nothing”; the same answer is what you get when you ask what happened at school that day. Learn to ask questions that can’t be answered with a single word. Ask questions like: “Which of your friends is in your math class?” “Who did you sit with at lunch today?” “What did your teacher talk about in LA class?” Be persistent when they try to answer with monosyllables. Most particularly important – be interested! Pay attention, let them know that you’re hearing them. Ask questions. Let them know that this time is important to you too.
- Reach out to your child’s teacher(s). Let the teachers know that you’re available whenever you need them. Tell them the best way to contact you (home phone? email?). Let the teachers know anything about your child that would be helpful to them – if your child is scared of speaking in front of the class, loves to be a leader, has a hard time sitting still, etc. Also let them know any strategies that works for your child. Don’t make them learn by trial and error if you already know what works! It’s really refreshing for teachers to have parents contact them and say “My kid is Sally, I’m excited for this year. She has a hard time sitting still, but if you tell her I will be called if she doesn’t that will help. And feel free to call me anytime – I know my kid isn’t an angel, but I love her and I’m here to work with you to make this a great year for you both.”
- Don’t reach out too much though! Remember, your child’s teacher has many other students as well. In middle and high school that teacher probably has around 100 different students. Trust your child’s teacher to have their best interest at heart. Just to be clear – reach out any time you have a concern or question! But, in most cases, your child’s teacher doesn’t need an intense reporting of the child’s home life on a daily basis. Most parents wouldn’t think of doing this, but it’s worth saying.
- Trust your child – but verify! If your child is telling you that “Mr. Smith,” her math teacher, assigned them ten pages of homework to be done tonight, without going over the subject in class, please take a moment and think about it. Contact Mr. Smith – some teachers even check their emails at night (but don’t expect that!) and ask about it. Chances are you will find out that the story is slightly different that what you were told. Sometimes kids get confused and overwhelmed and don’t ask the teacher for clarification. Sometimes kids exaggerate. Sometimes kids outright lie. Sometimes they’re completely accurate. Trust, but verify.
- Invite your kid’s friends over. Organize a “play date” or a movie night (if your child is older). Knowing your child’s circle of friends is very important to keeping them safe. Take the time to get to know their friends. Be a welcoming, friendly parent. Let them know that you care about your child, and them. Maintain boundaries, of course, you’re not their friend. But you can absolutely be a safe, welcoming person in their lives.
- Know your child’s support people. School counselors, school social workers and administration are there to make sure that your child has a great year. If you have concerns that seem to be more intense than a teacher can handle, or are more pervasive than in just one class – reach out. These professionals are there to assist your child and will welcome your call (or email).
- Be involved. Go to school events. Join the PTA. Offer to volunteer in your child’s school if they need volunteers. Chaperone field trips if your schedule permits. Show your child that the school & you are on the same side. Studies have shown that involved parents raise successful kids.
Have a wonderful school year – enjoy every moment of your child being young, as they pass so quickly (even if it doesn’t seem like it some days!). Remember that school personnel are there to be part of a team, a team in which you’re an important member. Reach out to them, get to know them, and surround your child with consistency, caring and strong expectations for success.