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The Insider's Guide to School

What to Pack for Preschool
Collage of school items

Avery Powell

By Sarah Schmelling, mom of a kindergartner and a preschooler; Rockville, Maryland

1. A love of new things. He'll probably bring a lunch box for the first time and go on field trips to the post office or library. He may make his first best friends. Let's hope he passes along a love of novelty to his parents, who will experience things like their first school fund-raiser.

2. A box of tissues. For your child's teacher. Seriously. She probably spends a small fortune on wiping kids' noses, and she'll be grateful you recognize that.

3. Readiness to play. You will hear "sensory table," "dramatic play area," and "center time" from the preschool director, but your child will think "gigantic bin of rice and toys," "let's dress up as firemen princesses," and "time to build the hugest ninja block castle ever." Although it may appear he's "just playing," he's learning how to navigate the real world.

4. A family photo. Preferably, pick one that children won't find distracting to have staring back at them from the classroom wall for the rest of the year.

5. A change of clothes. Stow them in his cubby. The clothes should be seasonally appropriate and CLEARLY MARKED with your child's NAME!!! (Related: Get used to receiving ALL-CAPPED instructions and updates from school with many exclamation points!!!!!)

6. Not much else. Friends, the media, and strangers may say that by the end of this year, your child should be able to write his name, cut in a straight line, and possibly conduct a symphony and do your taxes. Turns out, his teacher will work with him so that he's ready for kindergarten and then some. Of course, whether or not you're ready is another story.

mother hugging child who is leaving for school

Stephanie Rausser

Dear kindergarten parents,

Take a deep breath. I swear, you won't get a call every day informing you that your child has run out of the classroom screaming "Mooooommy!" Even if you get this call just once, like I did, it will make you feel like a bad parent for not adequately preparing your offspring for the rigors of school. Don't fret: The transition to kindergarten can be tough on everyone. To get through, you may need to do some very hot yoga. Your child? She probably just needs a good midday snack. So pack good snacks.

If you ever forget to pack a snack, you will never hear the end of it. Ever.

From here on out, in this age of über-efficient technology, your most significant communication with your child's school will probably happen in a two-pocket folder that your 5-year-old brings home each day. When there is a note for you in the folder -- a permission slip, a reminder to send in box tops, a request to man the Pick-a-Pop booth during the pumpkin fair -- fill it out right away. Touch paper only once.

Keep in mind that some kids will start kindergarten not knowing how to read a single word while others will be reading chapter books. Kids typically level out in second grade, so stop Googling "reading tutors." Seriously. Step away from the computer. Now.

Assume that everything you say or do at home may be repeated to the kindergarten teacher. If not spoken, it can most definitely be drawn, and when the teacher offers to help write a caption for the picture, your child may say, "Mommy's Wine With Olives."

Whether or not you work outside the home, do not feel guilty if you can't attend all of the many daytime events you'll be invited to, such as "The 100th Day of School Party" or "Dr. Seuss's Birthday Party" or the four-minute Halloween parade. Yes, it's special for your child when you are there. But if you're always there, it could stop seeming special. Be involved as much as you can -- it keeps you in touch with your child's activities, and it's good for you. You'll meet the other parents whom you will likely be seeing at Back-to-School night for the next 13 years. You will make friends. Good friends. So bring a batch of brownies to the next PTA meeting and be nice.

Prepare yourself. This year, your child may come home from school with a wad of tissue in her hand, and when you open it up you'll find a teeny baby tooth inside. You will realize, maybe for the first time, that your child now has a life that you will not always be a part of. And you will feel very sad about this, and also very happy, all at the same time. So do what I did: Take another deep breath, pour a "wine with olives," and whisper to yourself, over and over: "Give her wings."

All best,
Vicki Glembocki, mom of a toddler, a first-grader and a third-grader; Westmont, New Jersey

First graders

Stephanie Rausser

By Meagan Francis, mom of a preschooler, a second-grader, a fourth-grader, an eighth-grader, and a tenth-grader; Saint Joseph, Michigan

Don't Stress Over:

Friends When my son Isaac was in first grade, he nonchalantly (but repeatedly) told me he had no friends. Then I visited his classroom and found that he was swarmed by buddies. The lesson I learned: First-graders are still figuring out what friendship means. When my fourth child, Owen, was a first-grader, I noticed his "best" pals changed from week to week, and I was wise enough to keep to the sidelines.

Missed days We'd planned an exciting trip two years in advance for the one week that our extended family could all go together. I felt sheepish about pulling Owen out of school for it, but his teacher reassured me that family comes first. (Having older children, I can also tell you it's a whole lot easier to make up missed lessons in first grade than it is in fifth grade.)

Chapter books Owen learned fast in first grade, but I knew better than to feel smug. Despite all the flash cards and phonics worksheets I forced on my older son Jacob, now 15, Jacob didn't read well until he was 8, at which point he became a voracious reader.

But Do Consider:

The party-invite tsunami Big birthday celebrations at bowling alleys and laser-tag centers are a Huge Deal to 6-year-olds. I should've stocked a closet with inexpensive gifts. I also would have been wise to tell Owen early on that it's okay to sometimes say, "No thank you." Now, when Owen receives a party invitation from a child he's never mentioned, I know that the event probably isn't important enough to disrupt our weekend family time.

Team sports If your kid has a strong desire to play, it's smart to get him started in soccer, hockey, baseball, or lacrosse now. This is especially true if you live in a sports-minded community. Owen is our most athletic child, so he is trying out a variety of organized sports.

An evening routine With three older kids, I should have known better, but I didn't carve out time for Owen to read his "book bag" books and complete worksheets until October, when unfinished reading logs and missed assignments had piled up. I'm making a note to remember to do so starting from Day 1 when my youngest child enters first grade.

Child sitting at desk doing homework

Tara Donne

EACH DAY:
Read a book of your choice for at least 15 minutes and log your reading.
Study your spelling words and math facts.

Monday:
Homework Assignment: Math workbook, page 14

  • What Parents Need to Know: Your child needs to know her addition and subtraction facts inside and out by the end of second grade. If you slack at the beginning, you'll both pay.

Tuesday:
Homework Assignment: Write a page in your journal about a character in your library book.

  • What Parents Need to Know: Encourage your kid to use descriptive words in her journal, even if she can't spell them correctly. Someday, she'll get a kick from reading her mistakes.

Wednesday:
Homework Assignment: Math worksheet

  • What Parents Need to Know: You don't "carry" and "borrow" anymore; you "regroup." Your child will demand your head on a platter if you say otherwise. Those parent workshops your school hosts to explain the math curriculum? Try to attend one, or ask for the information.

Thursday:
Homework Assignment: Complete the outline for your animal research project.

  • What Parents Need to Know: The teacher wants: a topic sentence and three supporting details. Your child wants: to transcribe verbatim any fact she can dig up on the computer. Guide her with questions (What does your animal eat? Where does it live?) or she'll be "researching" for weeks.

Friday:
Homework Assignment: Spelling test; Math quiz

  • What Parents Need to Know: If your formerly school-loving kid suddenly declares she's through, chalk it up to the year's tougher expectations. Take the pressure off by praising her efforts, not her grades each week.

COMING UP:
Songfest next week!

  • What Parents Need to Know: Charge the camera batteries. Find your child a nice outfit in the designated class color. Plan an easy, early dinner. Be prepared to be overwhelmed by cuteness!

school kids crossing street

Stephanie Rausser

By Mary Pols, mom of a fourth-grader; Brunswick, Maine

1. Just quit with the nagging about the coat, the gloves, and the lunch box. This is the year your big kid will finally wise up to not wanting to be cold or hungry all day and bring them home. Rejoice!

2. The math homework and spelling list? They're your new coat and lunch box. Be prepared to dole out some nagging to make sure your child's completed work departs in his backpack in the morning and makes it to the teacher's desk when he arrives.

3. Brush up on your U.S. geography. This saves you terrible embarrassment when your child asks you for help naming those pesky Great Lakes. Thanks to that popular Stack the States app, you too can be secure on the location of the Midwestern M states: Michigan vs. Missouri vs. Minnesota.

4. Remember last year, when you could still be vague and even possibly misleading about certain things, like saying you were pretty sure Disney World was closed over spring break anyway? You know what kids get really good at doing in third grade? Research. Sharpen up, keep your facts straight, and be prepared for hard questioning.

5. Consider letting your child walk or ride a bike to school by himself if doing so is encouraged in your school community. Foster independence. And yes, of course you can follow in the car, but maybe throw on a wig and sunglasses.

6. Tune in to the social hierarchies that can be very fluid in third grade. Old friends get dumped in favor of new. Recess can become a misery; the lunchroom is suddenly brutal. Your kid may be heartbroken, and you may feel nearly as crushed. But don't let him see you cry; your job is to remind him to stay true to himself and instill confidence in him that this too shall pass. Your rock-solid belief in him will help him get over any social disaster faster.

7. You created all the childhood magic in your house, but eight years into this parenting business, you may find yourself becoming a smidge blasé about Santa?s arrival or the magic of the Tooth Fairy. Don't. Your child's body and brain may be developing by leaps and bounds at this age, but you know what needs to keep growing? His heart. Guard your child's sweet beliefs until he is ready to let go of them himself.

toga

Avery Powell

By Catherine Newman, mom of a fifth-grader and an eighth-grader; Amherst, Massachusetts

She attempts the recorder.
All hail the beginner woodwind! Just be sure to put in your earplugs and apologize to your neighbors for that particularly abrasive session of "When the Saints Go Marching In." But give praise that music and the arts haven't been cut entirely from your school's curriculum -- unless they have, and then count your one blessing: recorder-free living.

Her newly discovered ethics one-up yours.
Prepare to be humbled by your fourth-grader's rigorous positions. She might, for example, 1) stop eating meat, 2) scowl when she hears you gossiping about her uncle, and 3) counsel, "Lying really isn't kind" when she overhears you explaining that you'd volunteer for the bake sale if you weren't laid up with a migraine. "I do kind of have a headache," you'll say, and she'll sigh and shake her head before rumpling your hair patronizingly.

There is suddenly much more homework.
A common fourth-grade curriculum objective is to "read and write whole numbers up to 1,000,000,000." That's a lot of zeros! However, your child will not be literally writing out numbers to a billion. Although in the time it takes her to complain about her reams of math homework, she could probably get pretty close.

Her lovey has lots of free time.
Fourth-graders are bursting with busyness. They're learning the scientific method. Playing Chinese checkers. Programming Lego robots. Writing poems about global warming. You're happy for your child with her rich-to-bursting life. You are. You don't wish she were still a chubby-cheeked preschooler, not really -- but then you'll look at the wistful smile of that ratty old stuffed monkey on her bed, and your eyes will fill with tears.

Your old bed sheet goes missing.
First, it must be wrapped and tied to make a classic Greek toga and then, with a little tinkering and the addition of an Egyptian-inspired necklace, an ancient kalasiris. Later, it will be fringed for the Native American unit and then, finally, cut and tied into a "mob cap" (picture a shower cap made for Colonial people -- as if they had showers). With your own flattering mob cap on, you will attend the grade-wide Colonial Village Day.

Pins That Pop

Photograph by Ed Judice, Idea by Nicole Blum

By Gail O'Connor, mom of a sixth-grader, a third-grader, and a toddler; a senior editor at Parents, she lives in Westfield, New Jersey.

This is the year it's going to hit you, with the weight of an orthodontist's bill, that your kid has become a big kid. It might happen like this (as it did to me): You are standing one afternoon in the drugstore aisle with a multipack box of Scooby-Doo Valentines in your hand, mulling, "Do you guys still do these in fifth grade?" And the next minute your fifth-grader casually says, "I already made a valentine for someone." At this point, you'll have to squelch every shocked impulse in your body ("What?! Who?") and try to play it cool. You'll wonder how it's possible that this child of yours has a crush.

From the start of the year, you will get warning signs that adolescence is around the corner. You know it when you find the flyer sent home in his backpack about a tween dance hosted by the rec department. Or when the nurse sends an e-mail politely informing fifth-grade parents that they may want to introduce their child to deodorant if they haven't done so already. Or when your child comes home more confused than ever after the first installment of fifth-grade sex education. (Note: Do. Not. Laugh. When your child asks you to clarify who "the Sea Men" are.)

Suddenly, after years of checking the school folder and packing a lunch box, you're not needed so much anymore. He can make his own lunch. He bikes to school with his friends. He gets things off the top shelf without your help. The only things he seems to want from you now are your Apple password and product for his hair. (Where did he learn the word product?)

And even though you'd gotten tired of the monotony of the school pickup and drop-off routine, a small part of you misses it now that your kiddo walks or bikes there. You almost live for a rainy day when he wants you to take him. If an "I love you, honey!" accidentally escapes your lips as he bounds out of the minivan, don't be hurt when he shoots back an "Are you insane?" death stare. They all do that now.

Fifth grade is the start of "the long goodbye" between childhood and the tumultuous teen years. Everything will take on the bittersweet significance of "last." But you'll know he still does need you, especially when you kiss him good night and he asks if you would lie next to him for a little while. So you curl up beside him and Brown Bear, under the planets hanging from the ceiling, casting their glow on the music posters beginning to paper the walls. You know your child's growing up and away. It's your job to help him get there. But for now you can press your nose to his head, breathe in his product, and think, "Not yet. Not yet."

Originally published in the September 2013 issue of Parents magazine.