HomeBack to SchoolBack-to-School Prep

What not to do on the first day of school

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By Missie Mayhem

There wasn't enough cereal for breakfast, so I announced a special treat: an Egg McMuffin morning! On the way to school, the boys were supposed to brush their hair, but Sammy spilled his orange juice on the brush, and Jacob retaliated by "accidentally" dropping his milk on Sammy's backpack. It was inevitable both boys would arrive on their first day smelling and looking like they'd crawled out of a compost heap. By the time Jacob realized he'd forgotten his math homework and Sammy informed me that he would be requesting that the principal fail him retroactively so he could go back to fifth grade, I began wondering where I had gone wrong.

When I finally double-parked in front of their new school, swarming with 2,000-plus kids, the boys just stared out the window like they were being pushed out of a shuttle over the moon. Again, I tried to calm their fears. “Look at these thousands of nice kids. Think about all your great classes — like trigonometry.”

“That’s high school math, Mom,” said Jacob.

“You know what I mean. Now have a great day!”

As I pulled away, I realized their lunches were still in the back seat — kids these days.

Avoiding back-to-school disasters

Don't want to follow in the Mayhem family's footsteps? Child and education experts weigh in on how to prep kids for a drama-free first day:

  • “Talk positively about the pending school experience. Parents’ emotions are easily read by children who pick up on parental fears, sadness about separation, or concerns about their child’s adjustment. Drive by or visit the school to build familiarity. Shop together for school supplies or clothes. Treat going to school as a wonderful new adventure. — Kay Neff, founder of the Dearborn Heights Montessori Center in Michigan
  • “Start getting them back on their school-time schedule slowly — about a week ahead of the first day. For example, put them to bed 10 minutes earlier and wake them up 10 minutes earlier.” — Heidi Waterfield, educational consultant
  • “The night before, prepare lunches and snacks and set out clothes and backpacks. If you're unsure of the school's snack policy, send extra food with your child just in case.” — Julie Rebboah, president of Lightning Bug Learning Corporation
  • “Many parents like to accompany their child to school on the first day, but that is not always possible. If this is a big issue for you and your child, you could certainly slip a note in a lunch box or backpack or in with some new school supplies. It's a little way of being there without being there.” — Aviva Pflock, coauthor of Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most, and Raise Happier Kids
  • “If you have allowed screen time privileges to increase over the summer, begin to curtail them (at least two weeks) prior to the start of school. Establish TV, video, and computer use rules before the first day of school, and stick to them." — Connie Hammer, certified parent coach
  • “Do not drop off your child and leave. Your job is to make sure all the child's concerns have been addressed before you leave them anywhere! No matter how ridiculous you think the concern is, pay attention to it and walk them through it.” — Doris Jeanette, child psychologist
  • “If your child is anxious about going to school, don’t freak out if your child’s anxiety escalates into screaming and crying, ‘I won’t go!’ Remain calm, cool, and collected. Your steadiness will calm your child. Don't say, ‘You have to handle it alone.’ Anxiety makes kids feel frightened and isolated. Instead, tell your child that you are a team. Say, ‘You're not alone, and together we're going to solve this problem and help you feel better.’” — Diane Peters Mayer, author of Overcoming School Anxiety

Missie Mayhem lives on a cul-de-sac of the American dream with her devoted husband and two tween boys. She never reads GreatSchools articles but occasionally contributes her parental torments and traumas to make the rest of us feel better.

Comments from readers

"intersting article but i would have made my kids where matching outfite the middle schools let them have some indivuality "
"I am a veteran teacher having seen 20 back-to-schools. My heart goes for those students coming to school TIRED. In our busy world, we adults want to stretch time awake to get it all accomplished. This cannot be for our children. Sleep is so important for health and well-being. Children who have late bedtimes and too early risings suffer academically. Back 'in-the-day', our parents gave us the structure of adequate sleep schedules. Don't let modern parenting fool you- Elementary-aged children need 10-11 hours; middle-school; 9-10 hours a night. "
"For those of you that are criticizing the parents with their eating choices and 'bribe' techniques, I would say to you: Get over your better-than-you attitude. We as parents faulter on occasion. We are human, not everything goes as planned... My daughter just started 6th grade this Monday. She is a very confident girl that doesn't get freaked out by much. As I approached the stop sign right around the corner from her school, she turned to me with fear and tears in her eyes and said 'Mommy, I'm not too sure about this.' I couldn't help but to tear up myself, but held it together enough to calm her down and put her at ease. The funny thing about it is that when I picked her up, she told me that her day was boring!! We all go through some sort of anxiety before we start something we haven't done before. This story was humorous to me..."
"I just read the various comments appended to this article. People!! Have you never heard of satire? The number of respondents who seemed to think this was a true account was incredible. The article was to make you think (and smile) by showing bad examples, in a humorous tone. The writing is quite cute, a welcome relief at this time of year."
"I enjoyed reading the story and I empathize with parents today. It is not easy disciplining kids today when so much revolves around them. We are bombarded with technology from every direction and parents are so stressed out with most households where both parents have to work to scrape by or with single parents. Then to top it off everybody is analyzing everybody elses parenting style. I think parents are so lenient because they are "
"We actually visit Disneyland the last day before school starts because we've completed the rat race early. Since our school year starts so late, the park is empty, and the kids never had time to fret about the small stuff. A nice, long, pleasant day wears them out, and they end up crashing in the car--far earlier than they ever would have if they'd bounced out of bed 10 times with 'I can't sleep--I'm too excited.' It might not work for everyone, but it's been a lifesaver for us. With the school year starting on a different date this year, it won't work, so we'll look for something else to distract them the day before school starts--maybe the Science Center."
"This seemed a little nuts. A child should not be terrified to start the sixth grade. It's one thing to be nervous... but not down-right terrified. As for the advice... It always worked well for my family to just jump into the first day of school. You get tired enough that you get right back onto your original school plan. Last year, we came back from Disney World at 3 AM on the first day of school. We encountered a house full of flees. (No fun!) But everything ended up working perfectly and there were no issues. The first day really isn't that important. Teachers give out small amounts of homework... but it's usually get-to-know-you stuff or see-what-you-know work. The best advice is to find out what works best for your family when it comes to the back-to-school routine. For mine, it's jump-in. For others, they like to plan ahead."
"This story was anxiety provoking and demonstrated poor planning, poor judgement and lack of limits on the parents part. WHen ya plan a vacation, never come back the night before start of school--and then let the kids stay up soooo late, gosh, ya set yerself up for potential problems without much reserve. There are reasonable ways to have a good balance between fun and discipline/responsibility, so you do not have to resort to giving in to your kids to counter the stressed you have caused from not planning well. That being said, sometimes unexpected things happen even with good planning and then need to regroup and do what is best, not always what is easiest for all."
"Parents stop trying to be so... perfect. Just relax and laugh a little. This story is only one example of what many parent do go through at one point. Although many parents wont EVER admit to it. We all sometimes loose sight of being parents and act more as friends to our kids. Which is only a normal stage. This parent seems to be a dedicated, FUN , LOVING. i bet she is also strict when needed. this story shoulD serve as a lesson to all parents. Start sharing out of control moments. We all have them. "
"Very funny great story. Makes me feel well prepared. I have twins entering Kindergarten. It is stressful the story brings me some relief!"
"I hope this isn't a real story, because this family is nuts! No wonder the kids are so spoiled...a 20 day vacay and a new ipod if the kid will just agree to go back to school! Someone call Children's Services!"
"If the mom promises an iPod for the boy for just agreeing to go back to school, is it any wonder they are spolied?"
"Maybe Missie should be reading GreatSchools articles. Do parents really act like that? Please give us something more realistic not an example of parents who give into their child's every whim because they have stressed their child out."
"Parents have back to school night to meet with teacher and other parents. Should the kids have some type of back to school night before the school even starts? This will help to ease some pain. Can’t remember how I felt when I was going to middle school, but certainly didn’t complaint to my parents. It is privilege to have education provided. There are millions of kids in other part of the world have to travel several miles, every single day, with their bare feet, to go to school. I am a bit concerned that we, parents and society, even allow that to happen. If the kids are feared of going to school and get educated, I can’t imagine the future of this country. "
"Try to avoid frozen pizzas and fast food as well."
"Okay, the advice on this page wasn't good---at all. The only thing that was a little helpful, was starting the routine a little early, that's all. One of the worst things that i've heard that's escalating between ignorant parents was probably the whole 'Notes in the Lunchbag' thing. Kids hate that. They don't want to hear from you while they're hanging with their friends in school. You would be ruining one of the best things about school for us kids. I know, I have personal experience. And they're not worried about not making friends or anything. But they use being afraid to be alone as an excuse for almost not going because they don't want to go. Duh people. Kids like me and the rest of my peers are progressing. And getting sneakier and more manipulative."
"Glad my boys don't cry like these kids. Must be difficult."
"I loved it--very funny."