20 Smart Back-to-School Tips and Ideas

Get your students off to a smart start with these clever and completely doable strategies for every part of their busy day.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Happier Homework

    1. Set up a mobile supply station. Put basics on a wheeled cart and kids can work wherever they're most comfortable while keeping all their tools in easy reach. When study hour is over, store the cart in an out-of-the-way spot. Go-cart Three-shelf Table, $129, cb2.com

    2. Time it right. A kitchen timer works as a brilliant motivational tool. Let kids do homework in 20-minute blocks, with 5-minute breaks for snacks, dance-offs, or running around the yard. Right side of cart: Pie Timer, $15, josephjoseph.com

    3. Provide a paper collection bin. All those graded worksheets and old handouts can quickly overwhelm a household. Toss it all in a roomy bin, then sort through it at the end of each month and recycle what's not needed. Bottom shelf of cart: Lab Report Notebook Cube Bin, $17.95, landofnod.com

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    4. Play to their strengths. In Debra Carter's family in Parkville, Missouri, the three kids, who have very different work styles, have different homework schedules. "We have a morning person, so he gets up first thing to do his work," explains Debra. "Our daughter likes to finish assignments as soon as she gets off the school bus. Our youngest works best with some adult guidance, so he studies in the kitchen while dinner is being made." Letting her kids choose their work time gives them a sense of ownership over their efforts, she says.

    5. Add some action. To make spelling practice more fun, "we grab couch cushions and let the kids use their best karate chop or kick for each letter in each word," reports Gretchen Hawkins of Tooele, Utah. The physical activity lets the kids blow off a little steam at the end of the day. "Plus it gets them laughing," she says.

    6. Set a goal for fun. If the three Pearlman kids of Goleta, California, finish their homework and get ready for bed by 7:30, they earn their "fun time": a half hour for watching TV or playing a game as a family. "Sometimes all I need to do is say, 'it's 7:14,' to get them moving," says mom Melanie. "Sure, it took a couple of heartbreaking evenings when someone didn't finish brushing teeth until 7:33, but by holding firm to the limit, we now have kids who can motivate themselves."

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Use Study Tools That Rule

    7. First on the list of essential supplies: plenty of writing utensils of all kinds. This sleek metal container holds a ton. Perfect Pitch Caddy, $15.95, landofnod.com

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Use Study Tools That Rule

    8. Ideal for kids who find it hard to sit still, this bouncy chair features a rubber ball covered with fabric and stabilized by a metal base. Jellyfish Chair, starting at $99, thinkgeek.com

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Use Study Tools That Rule

    9. Stow flash cards and sticky notes in paper sorters; add fun with supercute gadgets, such as these rulers. Edison Letter Bin, $22, urbangirl.com; Wild Wood Rulers, $3.30, karmakiss.net

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Use Study Tools That Rule

    10. Magnetic hooks are handy for hanging items from scissors to backpacks. Spot-On! Mini Magnet Hooks, $9 for a set of four, threebythree.com

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Manageable Mornings

    11. Brush up your routine. Sometimes small adjustments can make a huge difference in the a.m. rush. For example, Hopkinton, Massachusetts, mom Jessica Whitehead set up a first-floor toothbrushing station, eliminating what she called a "black hole" of morning-time stress. Upstairs, her daughters had gotten "distracted by each other, the dog, or whatever else piqued their interest," says Jessica. "Having them within close range freed everyone up from conflicts around their being late for school."

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Manageable Mornings

    12. Watch the clock. An old-school analog timekeeper helps Penny Williams of Laguna Niguel, California, teach her two sons to tell time and manage it. "I also set all our clocks in our house five minutes ahead -- my secret! That buffer is usually all we need to get out of the door on time." Elephant Clock, $39, modmoose.com

    13. Show your colors. For keeping track of all those little essentials of a modern child's life, try color-coding. When everyone has a designated hue for her backpack, water bottle, phone case, key chain, and so on, mix-ups will be minimized. Labeled for each kid, in-out trays serve as charging stations and collection spots for important papers -- and love notes from Mom.

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Prep Easy Make-Ahead Breakfasts

    14. Wrap it. Breakfast tacos are tops for eating on the run. To make them ahead, fill small tortillas with scrambled eggs, chopped bacon, and cheese. Wrap them in parchment paper and freeze. To serve a taco, microwave it for 1 minute, then let it cool slightly.

    15. Jar it. For hearty oats anytime, divide a batch of cooked steel-cut oatmeal into half-pint canning jars, layered with dried fruit, nuts, and brown sugar. Refrigerate for up to a week. To serve, microwave the jar (with lid removed) for 1 minute, then stir.

    16. Blend it. For speedy smoothies, freeze vanilla yogurt in cubes. For each serving, place 3 yogurt cubes and a cup of sliced fruit in a ziplock bag. On school mornings, just let the chunks soften in the blender for 5 minutes, add juice or milk, and puree.

    17. Dish it out. It turns out color-coding (see tip 13) works wonders in the kitchen, too. Suzy Martyn of Cypress, California, uses plates and cups in different shades for each of her three kids. "The system not only keeps them from sharing germs, but it also shows me who left breakfast dishes to be cleared!"

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Crafty Take-Alongs

    18. Gather after-school gear. To make the day go more smoothly, craft a simple grab-and-go bag to hold each activity's necessities. On ballet day, for example, the dance bag can be tucked into a backpack or thrown in the car for use later on. With freezer-paper stenciling for identification and bags that cost just a few dollars each, it's easy to make one for each extracurricular.

    How It's Done: To create a stencil, draw a design (or trace ours, available below) onto the non-shiny side of a large sheet of freezer paper. Cut along your lines with a craft knife. On the cotton setting, iron the stencil, shiny side down, onto a plain drawstring backpack (we found ours on eBay). Use a foam brush to apply fabric paint, brushing from the paper toward the stencil's center. Peel off the paper.

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.

  • Photograph by Laura Moss

    Crafty Take-Alongs

    19. Boost safety in style. These bright backpack add-ons will make your kid's pack stand out in a crowd -- and your child easier to spot in the crosswalk. They're crafted out of reflective tape and washi tape and can be cut in any shape desired. Serious Solid Backpack, $54.12, wayfair.com; Mini MASTE Washi Tape, $10 for 8 rolls, cutetape.com

    How It's Done: Cut pairs of stars or other shapes from thin cardboard or card stock. Stack two shapes with one end of a 12-inch length of twine or coated wire sandwiched between them (secure it by taping it to one of the stars). Cover both sides with strips of reflective tape (available at hardware stores), duct tape, and decorative tape. Thread beads onto the twine. Tie a few stars to a key ring, then attach it to the backpack.

    20. Customize their kicks. For back-to-school cool, let kids embellish white shoelaces with fabric-marker stripes in their choice of colors. Use them on their sneakers or other lace-up footwear. Shoes will be easier to spot in the entryway pileup, and they'll look totally two-of-a-kind.

    Originally published in the September 2014 issue of FamilyFun magazine.