Get Set for School

Your child's first day will be here before you know it. Here are 90 smart tips from experts, moms, and teachers to help you plan ahead for a stress-free, successful year.

Get Set for School

It's natural for kids to feel nervous at first in a new classroom -- and it's often even more agonizing for parents to let go. Take these steps to help your child say goodbye with a smile.

  • Come and go. For a few weeks, leave your child with grandparents or a babysitter more often than usual, and show him that you'll come back when you say you will. Choose a goodbye ritual -- a secret handshake, high five, or special kiss -- and start using it now.
  • Visit over the summer. When you're driving by the school, casually point it out to your child, suggests Parents adviser Kathleen McCartney, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education. And make sure to play in the school playground a couple of times this month. If your school is open before the term starts, take your child to visit her classroom, meet the teacher, and tour the building so it will seem more familiar on the first day.
  • Don't overhype school. Keep the "Are you excited about starting school?" questions to a minimum. And try not to make promises about things you don't have control over, such as "You'll make lots of new friends." If your child's initial experience doesn't match his expectations, school may already seem scary, not exciting.
  • Shop for supplies together. Your child will have fun picking them out, and she'll associate that positive feeling with school, Dr. McCartney says. Have a picnic in your living room, and let her practice eating out of her new lunch box.
  • Find familiar faces. Get a class list, and set up a couple of playdates before school starts. Find out whether an older neighborhood kid whom your child likes will sit with him on the bus on the first day. (Also, see whether your town has practice bus rides or whether you might be able to arrange one.)
  • Be positive. Your child will take her cues from you, so be calm and confident that everything will go well. Don't let her see that you're nervous or overhear you saying things like "I can't believe my baby's going to kindergarten!" Play up the fun activities she'll do at school so she knows she won't just be sitting and listening all day.
  • Get a head start with art. Encourage your child to draw a picture to give the teacher on the first day. It'll be a good icebreaker, and he'll love seeing his artwork displayed right away.
  • Create a first-day-of-school tradition. Make the day more exciting every year by taking a picture in the same spot, baking a special cake, or getting up early and going out for breakfast together, suggests Rhonda Martin, a mother of two in Richton Park, Illinois.
  • Share your own experiences. If your child tells you she's worried about school or has butterflies in her tummy, reassure her with your own school stories ("When I started kindergarten, I was afraid too, but by the second day I'd made new friends and couldn't wait to get on the bus").
  • Send a reminder of home. One way to do it: Put a snapshot of your family in a photo key chain attached to your child's backpack."I gave my son Sam a smooth, polished rock that he could keep in his pocket and rub whenever he felt anxious," says Renee Sprengeler, of Lincoln, Nebraska.
  • Be on time. If you get to school late in the morning, it'll make your child feel anxious. It's equally important for you to be five minutes early for pickup (but don't let your child see you before dismissal). It's very hard for a child to be the last one left after everyone else has gone home.
  • Never sneak out. When you drop your child off, help get her involved in an activity that she likes, and then say a cheerful goodbye. If she doesn't see you leave and then realizes that you've disappeared, she will probably be more apprehensive the next day.
  • Learn his classmates' names. If you can say to your child, "Look, Daniel is playing in the block corner already," when you arrive in the morning, it will make school seem more familiar and safe.
  • Have patience. Some children will get used to school after a day, while others take several weeks to feel at home. Keep in mind, though, that if your child starts crying when he sees you at pickup time, it probably means that he's just happy to see you -- not that he had a terrible day.

    Teacher Tips

    • Read The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn. It's sure to help put a child who's nervous about school at ease. On the first day of school, Mrs. Raccoon kisses her son's hand, and when he misses her, he holds his kissed hand to his heart.
      - Belinda Truax, Mary Blair Elementary School, Loveland, Colorado
    • When you drop your child off in the morning, don't linger. It can make him more anxious. Set yourself a time limit -- say three to five minutes -- or tell your child you can only stay for a story or a puzzle.
      - Gloria Nightingale, The Cottage Road Neighborhood School, South Portland, Maine
    • Ask specific questions about fun things in your child's day, such as "What did you have for snack?" or "What songs did you sing?" and use her answers to talk to her about school the next morning.
      - Carin Stone, Twin Oaks Country Day School, Freeport, New York

      Preparing for the First Day of School

        Skills Kids Need

        With a classroom full of students, teachers don't have enough hands to help all of the children get their coat on or open their lunch box. Here are ways to help your child be more independent.

        The Jacket Flip

        1. Lay the unzipped jacket on its back on the floor with sleeves spread out a bit. Have your child stand behind the top of the jacket.
        2. Show her how to bend or kneel down and put her hands in the armholes.
        3. Have her lift her arms straight up over her head, and they'll naturally slip down into the sleeves -- and the jacket will be on.

          Tying Shoelaces

          Time it right. Thanks to Velcro, there's no reason to push your child to wear sneakers with laces until she's ready and eager to learn how to tie them. Most kids don't have the necessary fine motor skills until they're 4 or 5. If your child still grasps a crayon with her whole fist rather than using the first three fingers, she's not ready.

          Choose the best technique. There are two methods of tying shoes -- the traditional one-loop technique and the two-loop (or "bunny ears") method. How to tell which one your child is ready for? Play "Simon says." If he can follow different directions for each hand -- putting his right hand in the air and his left hand behind his back, for instance -- he can handle the one-loop method. In general, though, it's best to teach a method that you're comfortable with and stick to it.

          Extra tips.

            • Use a real shoe with thick, sturdy laces, or try the book Red Lace, Yellow Lace, by Mike Casey and Judith Herbst. You can also make your own practice set of laces using a piece of cardboard: Punch two holes in the cardboard. Cut two different colored laces in half, knot them together behind the cardboard, and thread them through the holes.
            • Before you teach your child how to tie a bow, show her how to make a knot, and let her practice that.
            • When you demonstrate to your child, sit next to her, rather than across from her, so she can see exactly what to do.
            • Break the process down into small steps, and use simple instructions, like "Crisscross the laces and bring one under the bridge" and "Make a loop but keep a long tail."
            • See whether your child wants to practice using the sash of a bathrobe. Some kids find the larger size easier.
            • If your child is left-handed but neither you nor your spouse is, try to recruit a left-handed adult to help teach her.


              • When you're shopping for a lunch box, be sure your child can master the clasp.
              • Choose plastic containers that are simple to open. Zippered plastic bags may be a better choice (although they're tough for little kids to close).
              • Make sure your child knows how to wash his hands with soap all by himself. Kids clean up many times during the day.

                Zippers, Buttons, and Snaps

                • Don't buy school clothes just because they're cute; opt for ones your child can put on and take off. Elastic-waist pants are still best for young children.
                • Look for zippers with large pulls. You can attach a store-bought zipper-pull or a piece of ribbon to make it easier to zip.
                • If your child is having trouble getting a zipper started, encourage him to lean one arm against a wall for stability.
                • Buy clothes with large, smooth buttons and holes that are not tight. Make sure the buttons are in front, not on the side or in back.
                • If a jacket has snaps, let your child try them out before you buy it.
                • Help your child practice by finding dress-up clothes with zippers, snaps, buttons, and hooks. He'll be more interested in learning if he's putting on something he really wants to wear.

                  14 Ways to Boost School Success

                  Whether your child is starting preschool or third grade, these little strategies can make a huge difference.

                  1. Insist on a good night's sleep. If your child has been staying up later during the summer, start enforcing an earlier bedtime two weeks before school starts. Kids need their rest in order to concentrate and follow the rules at school.
                  2. Check the backpack. Track down all the notes and permission slips that come home from the teacher, rather than relying on your child to give them to you. It can be embarrassing for your little one if he is the only student who didn't bring in a special snack or wear a certain outfit planned for the day.
                  3. Teach your child to ask for what he needs. It's essential for students to be able to tell the teacher, "I don't understand," says Parents adviser Sharon L. Ramey, Ph.D., director of the Georgetown University Center on Health and Education, in Washington, D.C. One way to teach this lesson: Slip in some more-sophisticated words when you're reading a book to your child, and say, "When we read tonight, I'm going to use some new words and I want you to stop and ask me if you want to know about a word." Let your child know that teachers like to have children ask them questions about new words too.
                  4. Always go to open-school night. If you have older kids, don't assume it's not important this time around because you already know what first grade is like, Dr. Ramey says. You may miss out on key information, including how the teacher likes to be contacted. Your child (and the teacher) may also feel hurt that you skipped it.
                  5. Focus on manners and social skills. Expect your child to say "please," "thank you," and "excuse me." If he's a first-time student, help him practice sharing, taking turns, and standing in line. You might role-play and say, "What if you and another student both want to play with the same blocks. What could you do?"
                  6. Know the daily routine. Ask for a weekly schedule of gym, science, music, and art classes. You'll be able to help your child prepare for the day and ask more specific questions about what happened at school.
                  7. Go on family adventures. Before school starts and on weekends, visit museums, libraries, and other interesting places and encourage exploration. Occasionally, while you're there, you might say, "Let's pretend I'm the teacher and you're the student," Dr. Ramey suggests. Later, you might ask, "What was something really interesting that you learned?"
                  8. Play board games. Not only are they fun, but they help your child get used to following specific rules. Before you start, read the rules out loud and ask your child to repeat them. If you're not sure whether something is allowed, go back and double-check. "My 7-year-old daughter, Connor, has always loved playing hangman, and it's a great way for her to practice reading and spelling," says Darcie Shinberger, of Macomb, Illinois. If you keep a pad of paper in your purse, you can play anywhere.
                  9. Get organized. Find a specific place to put scissors, paper, crayons, and other supplies your child uses, and help her get in the habit of putting them back where they belong???the way she'll have to do in her classroom. The same goes for shoes and jackets; when you can't find them in the morning, the day quickly gets off to a bad start.
                  10. Talk to other parents. Because it's sometimes hard to know whether your child's perception of what's happening in the classroom is accurate, it's helpful to have a few parents whom you can always call to touch base.
                  11. Rehearse at home. "My son, Jack, has a tough time speaking to a group, so we sometimes practice show-and-tell at home. I pretend I'm his teacher, and his twin sister pretends she's another kid in the class, and he goes to the front of the room and does his presentation," says Leslie Lido, of Merrick, New York.
                  12. Volunteer whenever you can. "Even though I work full-time, I go on field trips, help with class parties, and read to the class twice a month," Shinberger says. "Fortunately, I am blessed with a great boss."
                  13. Read together. Kids benefit enormously when their parents continue to read with them at home every day. They also like it when their parents read the same book they're reading in school, Dr. Ramey says. You might say, "Let me know when there's a good book you're reading, because I'd like to read it too."
                  14. Show you care. No matter how busy you are, let your child know that you're interested in what he's learning.

                    Teacher Tips

                    • Look over the work your child brings home, and ask him to explain what he did. This will help reinforce the concepts he learned.
                      - Penny Zaniewski, Lit'l Scholar Academy, Las Vegas, Nevada
                    • Help your child find age-appropriate books about the topic that he's most interested in, whether it's sports, dinosaurs, or dogs.
                      - Greg Lawler, Scholls Heights School, Beaverton, Oregon
                    • Celebrate your child's successes, but don't overdo it -- or else your child will want to do well just to earn praise, rather than for the personal feeling of accomplishment. Try to start compliments with, "You should be so proud of yourself because ..." or "You must be so happy that you could ..."
                      - Marge Harvan, Weaver Child Development Center and Christian Primary School, Canton, Ohio

                      Teachers' Pet Peeves

                      It's easier than you think to get labeled an annoying parent. Teachers say they're irked when parents:

                      • Criticize or disagree with the teacher in front of the kids.
                      • Speak to the teacher in the same way they speak to their children.
                      • Send their child to school sick.
                      • Frequently take their child to school late or pick him up early.
                      • Send sugary snacks despite requests not to.
                      • Don't read memos from the teacher or sign permission slips.
                      • Call the teacher at home when it's not an emergency.
                      • Send their child to school without requested supplies.
                      • Help too much with homework.
                      • Forget to send lunch or lunch money.
                      • Try to have a quick conference with the teacher at the beginning of the day.
                      • Ask the teacher how their child compares with other kids in the class.
                      • Go to the principal with a problem rather than discussing it with the teacher first.