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Countdown to School: A Timeline for Getting Ready for the Big Day

Visit the grounds. Ideally, you and your child had a chance to tour his future school last spring. Now is another good time to visit. "Being familiar with the school is the key to a successful first day," says Allana Elovson, Ph.D., author of The Kindergarten Survival Handbook. Walk around inside the building, if you're allowed. Peer at the classrooms, check out the bathrooms, and have him try out the playground. Also, make sure to show your child where you'll pick him up at the end of the day.

Have a little class. To help her son, Nathan, get used to the idea of school and homework, Julie Baron, of Arlington Heights, Illinois, held mock classes in the summer. "We'd take turns being the teacher and student," Baron says. At the end of each week, Nathan received a reward, such as getting to pick out a video at the library or going to the pool.

Buy-and try-a nap mat. Check to see whether your school has a scheduled rest period and how long it lasts, says Rafael Pelayo, M.D., head of pediatric services at Stanford University's Sleep Disorders Clinic. Settle your kid down at that hour each day at home so she gets used to the idea. Also find out what kinds of quiet activities teachers provide for kids who aren't sleepy, like looking at books or assembling puzzles, and do some of those too. (On the other hand, if your child takes a daily nap and her new school doesn't have naptime, get her used to doing without it.)

Take your child for a checkup. Be sure to book your appointment right away. "There's often a huge backup in late August and early September," warns Judy Walker, R.N., of Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. If your child will be entering preschool or kindergarten, he must be up-to-date on his immunizations.

Visit the pediatrician. Kids entering preschool or kindergarten need to be up-to-date on immunizations. So schedule a visit as early as possible.

Make some memories. Celebrate the end of summer now by helping your kid craft a scrapbook of her favorite summertime memories and experiences.

Stage a sneak peek. Play school together. Keep it light, but this is a great way for a newbie to practice raising his hand to share or sitting for circle time.

Connect with classmates. Shortly before her twin daughters started kindergarten, Patty Eckman, of Greenwood, Indiana, hosted a class party, complete with a bus cake and school-related crafts. In University City, Missouri, Cindy Thierry organizes a summer picnic sponsored by the school's parent-teacher groups. "We especially try to include new students and their parents," she says. You can also invite one of your child's future classmates for a playdate. (Check to see whether a contact list is available.)

Start your shopping. Nothing builds excitement like a new pair of shoes, a fresh outfit, or cool supplies. Even if you're determined to save the bulk of your bargain hunting for later, when the big clearance sales start, you can still splurge on a colorful pencil case and a notebook.

Take a fun field trip. A great way to get your child into the learning spirit is to visit a place that's both entertaining and intellectually challenging, says Kenneth Haller, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. Try your local children's museum, science center, zoo, or historical society.

Practice school skills. Forget academics -- we're talking about the little tasks that make the day easier. Your child should know how to:

Mark the days. Make a paper chain out of construction paper, and remove one link each day leading up to the start of school. Kids need time to get back into class mode.

  • Fasten and unfasten his knapsack and open his lunch box.
  • Undo his clothes so he can go to the bathroom.
  • Hang his coat on a hook.
  • Unscrew his thermos or any other container you pack food in.
  • Spell his full name, and recite his telephone number. Of course, knowing the alphabet and how to count to ten or 20 doesn't hurt either!

Attend orientation. When you do, look all around-not just at your child's classroom, but also at the bathrooms, the playground, and the rooms for art, music, phys ed, and more. Point out special materials and equipment you don't have at home, such as a neat set of finger-paints or a big sandbox, so he has some specific activities to look forward to trying, says Stacy DeBroff, author of the upcoming The Mom Book Goes to School.

Come up with a list of favorite lunches. Work with your child to decide what she wants-and start shopping for the ingredients you'll need. (For great snack recipes, click here.)

Hop on the bus. Some kindergartens provide bus-safety instruction and practice rides as part of their orientation. If your school or preschool doesn't and your child will be bused, try taking a few trips on a public bus so she gets used to the idea.

Run through your routine. Explain what's involved in getting ready for school, including when your child will wake up, how much time he'll have for breakfast, and what he'll need to gather before leaving. Hold several rehearsals.

Get your child's sleep in sync with his school schedule. If your child has been staying up late and snoozing all morning, next week's new rules will come as a big shock. Luckily, young kids adapt quickly. Instead of tucking your child in earlier-he'll just toss and turn, Dr. Pelayo says-focus on a consistent wake-up time and get him out of bed no matter what. Discourage long naps (except for the one that corresponds to school naptime). In a few days, his internal clock will reset itself.

Pre-pack your child's knapsack. Doing it the night before will cut down on the morning rush. Also designate a special corner or basket where your child should always leave her knapsack when she returns home so it never gets misplaced.

Choose a first-day outfit. Don't forget about socks, undies, and shoes. And leave nothing to chance: Check the forecast, and pick an alternate outfit, in case the weather turns.

Get his lunch ready. Many parents do this as they make dinner so there's only one cleanup. Leave the lunch box open so you don't forget to add refrigerated items (like sandwiches and milk) in the morning. Pack a drawing of a smiley face too-it'll make your child's day. Click here for Parents.com's free lunchbox love notes to print and personalize.

Keep the evening calm. Avoid noisy games and TV-but don't force your child to turn in early. In fact, if anything, send her to bed 15 minutes later than usual, Dr. Pelayo says. She'll fall asleep more easily and won't wake up cranky.

Set the mood. Read a story about the joys of school. Some great choices for small kids: The Kissing Hand, I Love You All Day Long, and If You Take a Mouse to School.

Rise and shine. Get up 30 minutes before your child so you can shower and have your coffee before he wakes; you'll be cheerful, even if he isn't!

Make it feel like a celebration. Show your child how happy you are that she's reached this major milestone. Serve a favorite breakfast and give her a surprise, like a colorful eraser or a funky pencil, that she can take with her.

Budget time to take pictures. Years from now, you and your child will be glad you've captured this magic moment. Pick one special spot for photos, like the front porch or steps, and take a new shot at the start of each school year.

Arrive early. Most kids like having a few moments to get settled into their new classroom, and if your child is on the shy side, it's less intimidating to walk in before the room is packed with other nervous new students. Plan to show up at least ten minutes before the bell rings.

Welcome your hero home. At the end of the day, serve a special snack and ask how everything went. Plan to have dinner together as a family, if possible, and talk about it some more. Going over the highlights of the day -- plus encouraging your child to talk about his hopes and fears -- makes a terrific start to the year.

We don't have to describe the frenzy that surrounds the start to your weekdays: the mad scramble to get breakfast on the table, pry the kids away from Blue's Clues, find a stray shoe-you name it. Want to stop the chaos? The key is to stay focused-and organized, says Julie Morgenstern, author of Organizing From the Inside Out.

Be the first one up. "How can you expect your children to be organized in the morning if you aren't?" says Morgenstern. Set your alarm to go off before your child's, and shower and drink your coffee before she wakes up.

Begin with a grin. It sounds corny, but kids are influenced by a positive attitude. So start your a.m. by reassuring your little one that you love him and by providing an exciting preview of the day's upcoming events.

Schedule in some extra time. Instead of hoping that your 5-year-old won't insist on picking out a different outfit or refuse to brush her teeth, assume that she will, and build extra time into your day. Nicole Faghin, a mother of two in Edmonds, Washington, figured out how long it takes to get her girls fed and dressed-then added an extra 15 minutes on top of that.

Limit distractions. Tell him he can't watch any morning TV or play with his toys until he's eaten breakfast, dressed, and brushed his teeth.

Rely on a routine. Having kids get ready in a particular order-wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush their teeth-is a great idea. "When children do things in the same order every day, they develop a sense of how much time they can spend on each task," says Kimberley Shanahan, a mom from Newtown Square, Pennsylvania.

Reward your child with your undivided attention. When she gets ready a few minutes early, treat her to some precious mommy time by coloring together, playing a card game, or reading a story. You'll both benefit from a little bonding and a cuddle before the day starts full force. -Hillary Quinn

Also, try our free Happy Morning Calendar to help your little one start the day off right!

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Nothing's handier than a well-packed knapsack-or more of a pain in the neck (literally!) for your child than an overstuffed one. Go with these guidelines.

Tuck it in

  • A small, laminated photo of your family
  • A pack of tissues
  • A change of clothes, including socks (your child can probably leave these in his cubby)
  • A travel-size antibacterial hand sanitizer
  • A sturdy plastic folder for notes sent home from school
  • A piece of material lightly sprayed with Mom or Dad's cologne
  • An inexpensive pair of UV sunglasses and a baseball cap
  • Lip balm
  • Sunscreen (if your child's classroom doesn't have it)

Chuck it out

  • Bottled water (that's why schools have water fountains!)
  • Stuffed animals and other toys (the other kids may get jealous)
  • Medications (give these directly to the school nurse)
  • Candy
  • Anything else you or your child can't afford, financially or emotionally, to lose

Sources: Claudia Weger, executive director, Ossining Children's Center, Ossining, New York; Carmella Van Vleet, author of Yikes! It's Due Tomorrow?: How to Handle School Snafus.

Originally published in the September 2010 issue of Parents magazine.

All content on this Web site, including medical opinion and any other health-related information, is for informational purposes only and should not be considered to be a specific diagnosis or treatment plan for any individual situation. Use of this site and the information contained herein does not create a doctor-patient relationship. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.