Countdown to the first day of school

The earlier you start preparing, the less crazy your household will be as the first day of school approaches.

By GreatSchools Staff

Who wants to think about school in the middle of summer? It may be tough but the best way to be prepared for a successful school year is to plan well in advance. Getting set for school involves much more than buying supplies — it means being academically prepared, supporting a healthy lifestyle with good nutrition and enough sleep, and making sure your family and your child are organized for the year ahead.

To simplify the process, we've broken it down into easy steps for you. On your mark, get set, go!

Four weeks before school starts: Make time for reading

If your child isn't an avid reader, get her back in the swing of reading at least a month before school starts. It doesn't matter what she reads — it can be books, magazines, comics — but the important thing is to get in the habit of reading daily well before school begins.

Many libraries have summer reading programs, particularly for elementary school students. They provide fun incentives to keep your child engaged in reading.

Kathy Glass, a California middle school teacher, educational consultant and author focusing on curriculum and instruction, suggests "Students and parents can access the American Library Association Web site to find books that have won literary awards like the Caldecott and Newbery, and also a list of notable books to read."

Check out these articles on GreatSchools.org to find ways to encourage reading:

Three weeks before: Get healthy for back to school

With the lazy days of summer, it's easy to let good eating habits and sleep schedules slide. But getting the right nutrition and the right amount of sleep are both important for your budding student.

What should my child eat?

Make sure your child eats plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Health experts at the Harvard School of Public Health recommend eating nine servings (about 4 ½ cups) of fruits and vegetables a day. That means including fruits and vegetables at every meal - and in between, too! Fruit slices and carrot and celery sticks make good snacks and are easy to take along in the car or on summer outings. The health benefits of eating lots of fruits and vegetables include lower blood pressure; reduced risk of heart disease, stroke, and probably some cancers.

Offer plenty of whole grains and low-fat proteins such as fish, poultry and nuts.

Make sure your child is in the habit of eating a good breakfast well before the start of school. Look for breakfast cereals that have little to no sugar and contain whole grains such as oats, bran and whole cornmeal. Choose whole wheat bread for sandwiches and whole wheat pasta for your next spaghetti feed. These healthy eating habits will help prevent heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.

Cut down intake of saturated fats and sugar.

Lemonade, juice and soda are all big sources of sugar and empty calories. It's tempting during the summer to reach for these to quench your child's thirst. In preparation for back to school, promote good health habits by switching to low-fat or nonfat milk and water as healthy alternatives. It's time to cut back on other summer treats like ice cream and French fries, too. Good alternatives are easy-to-make fruit pops, smoothies, and these healthy snacks.

Check the Harvard School of Public Health Nutrition Source for more healthy eating ideas.

How much sleep does my child need?

Children ages 5 to 12 need 10-11 hours of sleep and teens need nine hours, according to the National Sleep Foundation.

Sleep deprivation can affect cognitive skills and academic achievement. A continuing lack of sleep is linked to serious health problems including diabetes, obesity, heart disease, depression and a shortened life span.

It's easy to fall into a relaxed bedtime schedule during the summer but it's a good idea to gradually change the summer routine well before school starts. To avoid bedtime battles as the beginning of school approaches, try moving bedtime earlier by 10 or 15 minutes each week, beginning three weeks before school starts. Encourage your child to start getting up earlier, too.

"Most important in changing the sleep schedule is to get your child up on time. You can be less concerned about getting them to bed on time as research shows getting them up is key to making the shift," says Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University, and author of You and Your Adolescent and The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting.

Learn more about the importance of sleep for school success:

Two weeks before: Back-to-school shopping

What's the best strategy for back-to-school shopping? Get organized, stock up on the basics, look for sales and promotions, but don't buy too much before school starts.

"Typically teachers each send home a list of what they want students to bring to school," says Glass. "I think it's best to wait until the first day or week of school when the list is issued. Otherwise, you might find yourself purchasing items that your children do not need. I sometimes buy binder paper, highlighters, and pencils and keep them for fall. But then what happens is that my child will be fickle about the type of highlighter or pencil he likes. To this point, it's also best to wait to shop with your child and to have the teacher's list in hand."

Check these articles for more back-to-school shopping tips:

One week before: Get organized

The start of school is just around the corner, so now's the time to make sure everything is in order at your house — initial back-to-school supplies are on hand, after-school activities and care are arranged, and you've established a quiet, orderly place in your home for your student to keep school papers and study.

Fill out the necessary forms well in advance.

Does your school send emergency and informational forms for you to fill out? Don't wait until the night before school starts to get these ready.

Establish expectations and routines for the school year ahead.

"Have a night-time routine and stick to it," says Glass. "Begin it in August so kids are accustomed to it when school starts." Her suggestions include: no television Sunday to Thursday nights, instant message only after homework is done, no texting or instant messaging after a certain hour, read for at least 20 minutes before bed. Glass does acknowledge that many students are able to instant message, do their homework and achieve good grades. "If they can keep up good grades, allow them to go back and forth," she says. "It's the way of the world now. When I work, I go back and forth from writing to checking my email and I still get my job done. Keep this in mind when enforcing that students do not text or instant message while doing their homework. Know your child. Some are able to multitask and some are not."

"A week or so before school starts, talk through with your kids what they envision their schedule will be like," advises Steinberg. "For younger children, explain the schedule and how the days will be organized. For secondary school children, ask them to explain what their schedule will be like what classes they are taking, what extracurricular activities, work schedule, etc. Help them think ahead as to how to handle their responsibilities. When will they block out time for homework? When will they block out time to practice? Help them make sure the schedule is 'realistic.'"

Talk about school changes with your child.

"If your child is changing schools or going to a new school for the first time, remember that it can be very anxiety provoking," says Steinberg. "This anxiety can manifest itself in several ways. Watch for it and be supportive."

Parents need to prepare for school and getting involved, too.

"Parent involvement in schools matters," adds Steinberg. "Parents should think about the level of involvement they can commit to for the year. Whether one field trip or volunteering weekly, figure out the level of involvement you can commit to and stick with it." For more tips on getting organized for the academic year ahead, check these articles: