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Start the School Year Right: Tips From Our Experts

Whether it's finding more time for family activities or getting better organized for school, the start of a new school year is a good time to rethink and plan ahead.

By GreatSchools Staff

Do you feel like you are always rushing? Is there a lot of yelling going on at your house? Take the opportunity of a new school year to rethink your family's activities.

We asked our consulting advisors who regularly answer our Ask the Experts questions in our grade-by-grade newsletters for their thoughts on how families can start the school year off right for success at home and at school. Here's what they had to say:

Dr. Ron Taffel, a New York-based child and family therapist, and author of Parenting by Heart, Why Parents Disagree, Nurturing Good Children Now, The Second Family, and a guide for child professionals, Getting Through to Difficult Kids and Parents, offers these suggested New Year's resolutions:

Listen without fixing.

Just once during the first two weeks of the new year, resolve to listen to your child's story about something that happened in school without immediately "fixing" the problem, interrupting or teaching a constructive lesson. Concentrate on listening first and then later on, when you and your child are both calmer, give advice or guidance and keep it short, very short!

Make a habit of finding time to talk and listen.

Pay attention to the times of day your child is most naturally open, whether it be during after-school snack, while watching TV, at bath or bed time, and protect those times as very special. In the new year, get in the habit of talking and listening for just a few minutes a day.

Debra Collins, a California-based licensed marriage and family therapist who has worked in both primary and middle schools as a school counselor, suggests the following:

For Parents of Young Children

Try not to overextend.

Make an effort to limit activities for your kids, especially younger kids - one or two activities are enough, especially for parents with more than one child. Otherwise, it causes stress all around.

If you have a child with special needs, he may already be getting extra services at school, such as working with a learning specialist and/or a tutor. If you add on more than one or two extracurricular activities, you'll have overload.

For Parents of Adolescents

Get involved.

Once your child hits middle school, it's harder to stay involved at his school. Your child may not want you around as much and there may be fewer opportunities to volunteer. Make a new year's resolution to get involved with your school's PTA, parent education forums, or start an independent support group with parents of your child's friends. If your school doesn't offer parent education forums, ask your principal about organizing one.

Take small steps toward giving your adolescent independence.

As children want freedom, parents tend to hold on tighter and tighter, which creates conflict. Let your child achieve small successes. For example, start out your teen driver driving short distances and gradually build up to longer trips. Or if your child wants a later curfew, give him a chance to show he is responsible by giving him a slightly later curfew. Tell him you'll extend it after he has met his current curfew for a specified period of time, and also consistently keeps you informed about where he is and who he is with.

Learn to listen to your child with your ears and not your mouth.

Make an effort to remain calm, slow down and listen to find out what your child is really asking before jumping in with an answer.

Dr. Ruth Jacoby, a Florida educator, principal, educational consultant and author, (most recently of Parent Talk!: The Art of Effective Communication With the School and Your Child) had the following suggestions:

Comments from readers

"I didn't see you recommend a FAMILY calendar to have everyone's schedules and special events listed. This has an added benefit of teaching children planning and calendar use plus days, weeks and months. A great one can be found on that includes plenty of room to write stuff and the bonus of fun stickers. P.S. also has a free downloadable student control journal that teaches children routines, how to keep their room neat 5 minutes a day and other valuable life skills. "
" The ideas I read in this article are great. I am going to try them. I have three girls: 8, 10 and 11 year old (entering Middle School this year). Thanks for all the suggestions."
"I love your tips! Even when I have a 6-year old and a 9-month-old, I still read them (for the future.) Keep them coming."
"This advice would have been good advice for parents when I began teaching, forty years ago. I am still involved in another area of education and I agree with the teacher. The other responses here are so fortunate that they don't have to deal with the problems in public schools today but they should know that the teacher who wrote this response is right on track. "
"Wow, these are really great tips...useful for me as my daughter goes through the stages from 6 y/o (I spy, paying attn to times for better heart to hearts) to 10 y/o (Geography game) to teenage years (more listening, more heart to hearts, and curfew ideas). Also, I might add, that another option to extending curfews is still the 'give a little, get a little' policy where if they do something good, like keep chores for example, then you can extend the curfew 10 mins. for every chore that gets done."
"Dear Friends: As a public high school teacher in my tenth year, I was curious to learn what your article would recommend on the subject of getting momentum as the school year starts again (I return to work in two days). However, I am disappointed because this article's advice appears to me to be very much an 'Ozzie and Harriet' version of education now and avoids most of the more serious key issues affecting adolescents in today's society. For example, these concerns include the abuse of alcohol and other drugs (both prescriptioned and non-prescriptioned), teen pregnancy, school violence, drop-out rate, achievement test scores, preparedness for college and for today's job market. In addition, since my students live near the Gulf Coast, and since 96% of their homes and local businesses were flooded during Hurricane Rita, the ongoig recovery and survival of their families, homes, and animals is now the primary concern for most of them. Moreover, with the war still raging in Iraq, and with ! many of my students' family members and neighbors having served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the possibility of a renewed military draft is also a concern of many educators and parents alike. Therefore, thank you for this article's suggestions, but please put more 'meat and rice' (yes, the people here eat more rice than potatoes) into your recommendations instead of so much 'milk toast' because your article is much too simplistic for today's educators, parents, and students. There are tough issues in today's schools, classrooms, and families. Since I am not a regular reader of your articles, perhaps that is not the usual scope of your publication. If I might make a humble suggestion, please offer information to combat the above mentioned crucial problems in education, too. Thank you for offering me an opportunity to express my opinion on your article."
"I liked this article. In spite of what the teacher said in her comments, the contracts are great. Yes, they can be too much, but they are also empowering to both the child and the parent. When my children were teenagers, we had a contract for after school behavior. It stated that if they went to a party and got inebriated, drugs or alcohol, they would call me instead of driving home. My side of that was that the lecture and punishment would wait until the next day (and AFTER the hangover). My kids are now 35.34. and 26 and this contract WORKED. I have 3 responsible adult children who NEVER drink and drive and DO NOT take drugs. We also had a 'chore list' with stars to be put on the chart when they accomplished the chore. I started this when they were pre-schoolers and THEY wanted to continue it up until they moved out on their own. It included things like feeding the cat and dumping the trash and later on it included whos night it was to cook dinner or do dishes. Dusting, vacuuming, and laundry were also included. This way, when my adolescents became adults and moved into their own place, they knew how to do things to keep their home neat and I didn't get many calls 'Mom, how do I...'"
"I enjoyed reading your article and the reader comments. Our large, age-diverse family connects by playing games, singing, dancing goofily in the living room and reading books together. We have a loud, boisterous, and while far from perfect, happy home. My husband and I reevaluated our parenting skills after reading the book 'Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child' by John Gottman, Joan Declaire, and Daniel Goleman. I suggest every person who has the occasion to speak to other people read this book. The California school teacher may glean a few helpful tips.It makes an excellent point that children like adults need people to listen to them, balancing adult authority, a child's feelings, and self esteem. While a child needs to learn to respect those in charge, he or she may become damaged if taught to bow to adult authority unequivocally. This system does not allow children to think for themselves. It will often leave them frustrated with the lingering assumption that thei! r ideas and ultimately their lives do not matter. It also suggests that children be included in the decisions that affect their lives. To this end the contract mentioned in the article is a good idea. However, any contract or any authority administered without love, without listening just becomes another means for separation. Listening and respecting each other, spending time together, and just loving each other beget the best kind of 'authority'."
"I have a daughter that's very involved in extracurriculars and doesn't come home until dinner time or even after! I understand her dedication but I don't want her to get worn out and prioritize wrongly. Time definitely plays a large factor on this. How can I help her? On the other hand, my son (3 years younger) is not doing so well in school. He has the capability but he is not very talkative in school and doesn't like to participate. What can I do to help him? "
"Parents: Know all your childs teachers names,subjects they teach and times they go to that teacher. Know the dress codes and get them clothes that adhere to the code.Dress properly. Get homework hotline. Visit the teachers several times a year. Know the administrators. Pay attention in class and make eye to eye contact with the teachers while they are talking.Be interested or at least ACT interested in what the teachers are saying. Be respectful and say yes mam-no sir etc... Be nice and keep mouths shut when asked to!!!! Learn to take tests(there are tricks to help). Participate in extracurriculars!!!! Teachers have a bigger heart for those helping themselves. I am a 33 yr. veteran teacher/coach in Ga."
"These are great tips. I also ask all my children what was the best thing about your day and what made you feel sad? I have 4 children ages 5,13,17,21 since the ages vary so much I find it difficult to keep all their interest at one time. What is not age appropriate for the youngest seems to be what the oldre one wasnt to talk about. Any ideas would be appreciated."