Monday, August 11, 2008

Back to School tips

Though the moment is still at least 2 weeks away, we're getting to the point where "back-to-school" is more than the latest merchandising season. Particularly "school-phobic" kids are going to worry about heading back already, and there is a blizzard of advice out there. I thought I'd offer some teacher's-view tips on preparing for what the Québécois breezingly label "la rentrée".

Gather information. The best weapon against fear is knowledge. Knowledge is either half (GI Joe) or most of (Sun Tzu) the battle, after all. As soon as a student learns who will be their upcoming teachers, get the scoop, and go deeper than the vague labels of "nice" or "mean," "easy" or "hard". You and your child can get a kid's-eye view: talk to neighbors, siblings, churchgoers, teammates, etc., about their discipline style. What rules are bendable, which are sacrosanct? What is something that is worth anticipating? Who cares about spelling, who doesn't? What is the hardest project? Keep in mind the parent or child telling you this information. "He cares too much about handwriting" can often be parent-ese for "he cares more than I do about handwriting".

If your child is entering a new building, take advantage of any type of open house/ committee meeting/ sporting event held in the new building. The chance to just walk the building will give the kid a leg up on everyone else. Where are the lockers, the gym, cafe, auditorium...bathrooms? If entering middle school, buy a combination padlock and practice solving it; lockers are the number one source of school fear for incoming middle schoolers.

Routine? What routine?. A lot of articles recommend getting students into a "school-day" bedtime/wake-up schedule about a week in advance. Personally, I think that's ridiculous. No matter what circadian strategies you employ, any decent kid and teacher is almost guaranteed to toss and turn the night before the first day. So you've robbed the last late nights of summer vacation in return for...another late night. Why not enjoy the last few nights of freedom since you're not going to sleep the night before, anyway?

Shop light. You know those lists of "school supplies" at the entrance to Staples, Office Max, etc.? Those aren't supplied by the district or the teacher...those are supplied by the companies hoping to sell you everything on the list. Teachers can get particular about needed supplies, so no sense in buying the "wrong" notebook. Also, I've seen parents work out organizational schemes with binders and folders, and thrust them on the child...only to be surprised that the scheme doesn't work. Organization has to be created by the person using it, and it may take 1 or 2 weeks of class before a student knows what works best for them.

However, I do recommend obtaining the following supplies:

Lots of pens/pencils. Hold at least half in reserve as others get lost during the year.
White-out and/or erasers. Trust me.
Colored pencils. You'd be surprised how often they come up.
A roll of quarters. After school soda machine time.
Extra t-shirts. Those gym clothes aren't coming back anytime soon.
Poster board. Get it now, or the Sunday night before the Monday due date.
Extra printing cartridge. Same deal.

Bonus materials:
Mini staplers. No waiting for the class stapler to come around. As cheap as 25 cents per.
Scissors. Ditto.
Eyeglass repair kit, for the spectaclly-enabled.
Those Tide detergent pens and safety pins, for the fashion conscious.

Set goals and targets: Many children are ready to sink or swim on the first term, and that approach may work for them. Others, though, need some guidance in setting goals (long-term) and targets (short-term). For sophomores and younger, the more specific, the better. Telling him/her to "do your best" is hilariously useless. "Doing as well as you can" is the dream goal of a child and a politician: it's undefinable, arguable, and best judged by the subject who has a vital stake in that judgment's result.

More important than goals are targets. Saying "make the honor roll" is a distant goal, and the intermediate steps may be much more realizable. Concrete least 1 test in September with a 90 or above. Staying after school for help at least twice in September. An 85 or higher on the summer project. Small concrete targets are steps on the staircase to a goal.

Make sure to emphasize that targets are not do-or-die. Hitting 4 of 5 targets makes for a good month. There is strong division on the subject of rewards linked to academic performance. I personally think cash rewards are deleterious in the long run; I perfer more intangible rewards, closely linked to real results. Straight A's and B's indicate that stuff is getting done; extend bedtime by 30 minutes. Allow school-night socializing, etc.

Go into it with another family. Contact the family of your child's best friend and sound them out. If you can sync up approaches and/or incentives, that gives your child an in-school support system for good times and bad. Don't go for a cookie cutter approach between your children, but knowing that Mr&Mrs. Smith care as much as your parents doubles the motivation.

Relax. Nothing that happens in the first week of class will determine your child's success for that year. Finishing the week is often an accomplishment. Plan something for the first weekend, just to have something you can anticipate. As Dr. Spock so well said, "relax. You know more than you think you do."

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