Hack Your Home for a Smarter School Year
These tips and tricks can streamline your home for back-to-school season.
A few tweaks to your living space can help your child manage many more tasks on his own. The key is to stop thinking of doing things for your kid as a form of caretaking, says Julie Morgenstern, author of Time to Parent: Organizing Your Life to Bring Out the Best in Your Child and You.“We feel guilty burdening our kids—or want to avoid battles—so we think, ‘I’ll just do it myself.’” But according to Anita Hanks, founder of a Montessori school in Frisco, Texas, we’re not giving them enough credit. “When parents see what their kids can do on their own in class, they’re in awe,” she says. Read on to install the can-do spirit in your home.
The Morning Routine
Time a dry run before Day 1.
“With no judgment, find out how long it takes them to do everything in the morning mostly on their own, from waking up to being ready to walk out the door,” Morgenstern says. Then you’ll know exactly how much time you need. (Don’t despair. They’ll get quicker eventually.) Certain tasks, like doing buttons and tying laces, may require some extra practice. If distractions are what’s slowing them down (“Oh, look, my Lego bricks ...”), get that timer back out. It’s really helpful for kids to see the minutes counting down.
Make clothing easily accessible.
Keep clothes at their height level and in one area to help them dress themselves, a task they should be able to do by about age 4. “If half their clothes are in the closet and the other half are in a dresser across the room, that’s a huge disconnect for a kid,” Morgenstern says. Relocate the dresser inside the closet, or install low hooks or a small hanging rack alongside the dresser. Group garments by type in drawers or cubbies, and add labels to the outsides (with or without pictures). Be prepared to accept the finished product—in all its mismatched glory. However, it’s okay to set guidelines about dressing appropriately for the weather. (Limit potential whammies by weeding out summer items like shorts at the end of the season.
Set up a launchpad.
Consolidate all your last-minute getting-out-the-door gear in a single area like a mudroom, a front hallway, or even a child’s bedroom. Outfit it with a small bench where the kids can sit down to pull on shoes. Nearby, hang a row of low hooks for coats, accessories, and backpacks so your children can grab these easily.
Plan to get ready every evening.
Ask yourself which daytime tasks can be done the night before, like having backpacks packed up and picking out clothes, says family physician Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a youth-development expert and founder of AskDrG.com.
Determine where schoolwork actually happens.
Set up the homework station there (instead of where you wish it happened). If it’s a communal area, like the kitchen counter or the dining-room table, carve outa storage space nearby for extra paper, clipboards (for mobile and on-the-floor workers), and other supplies. This might mean clearing out a lower kitchen cabinet or a dining-room bookcase shelf.
Stock up on supplies.
At the beginning of the school year, load a container with pencils, pens, markers, rulers, and glue, says Becky Rapinchuk, author of Clean Mama’s Guide to a Healthy Home. Rapinchuk uses a large cutlery caddie (Williston Forge Flatware Caddy, $48; wayfair.com). Include some quiet-time activities for younger siblings too. “There are six years between my kids. We always had Play-Doh and color-with-water books at the homework station so they could sit quietly together,” Rapinchuk says.
Provide the setup, then give your kids space.
“You should be playing the role of study-hall monitor at most,” Dr. Gilboa says. “You’re there to make sure the music isn’t too loud and they’re staying in their seats. If there’s something they don’t understand or a further resource they need, it’s fine to offer guidance, but if you put pen to their paper, you’ve done too much.
Get the homework back to school.
From preschool onward, your kids will be bombarded with So. Much. Paper. To help them keep track of it, Morgenstern arms kids with a two-pocket homework folder:“One side is labeled ‘To do,’ the other ‘To hand in.’” (As kids get older, they can use a different folder for each subject.)
Work first, party later.
It probably goes without saying, but you need a policy that privileges like screen time don’t kick in until the homework is finished.
Mealtime and Snacks
Create snack zones.
Rather than having them hunt and peck their way through the fridge and pantry—or place orders with you—create designated areas and stock them with pre-approved foods. Morgenstern recommends filling acrylic Fridge Binz containers with lunch and snack items like string cheese, yogurt, hard-boiled eggs, and sandwich fixings.
Put food within their reach.
Arrange snacks on a shelf low enough to be handy, or keep a step stool nearby. For drinks, reserve a section of the refrigerator for water bottles or preloaded sippy cups.Find kid-size pitchers, utensils, and other items with child-friendly proportions atForSmallHands.com.
Give them access to tableware.
Make it convenient for kids to find by setting up a low cupboard or other area for one-stop shopping. “We use a child-size dish cart that’s loaded with every thing they need for mealtime: plates, bowls, cups, napkins, and a flatware divider,” Hanks says. “If they want to set the table or make themselves something, they can.” (On the lower level, there’s even a small dustpan and brush, plus a spray bottle of water and towels for crumbs and spills.)
Practice skills together.
Be aware that even the simplest preparations—cream cheese on a bagel, cereal and milk—might require multiple how-to lessons. “Before leaving kids to do it on their own, make sure they are comfortable with the instructions you have provided,” says Hanks.
Borrow the kindergarten model.
When you walk into any 5-year-old’s classroom, you’ll notice that it’s been divided into activity zones—art, music, blocks, dress-up, reading—and all the related materials are kept (and put away) at the point of use. The same principle applies in your kids’ domain, says Morgenstern, down to how items are sorted. Like goes with like: toy cars, board games, Magna-Tiles, stuffed animals, and so on.
Group toys in labeled, nonlidded baskets, bins, and containers.
They can be kept on shelves or in the closet, but don’t stack them on top of each other.“This is a system for retrieval, not for storage,” Morgenstern stresses. “The whole point of putting something away is so that you can get it back out.”
Nothing is “miscellaneous.”
If you’re stumped about where a toy should go—does a wand belong in the magic or the Harry Potter section?—consider your child’s relationship to the item. How does she use it? When she wants to play with it, where will she look? (Psst: Ask her and she’ll tell you!) Bringing your kid into the process ensures that you create a system with staying power—and she’ll be more likely to use it herself if it follows her logic.
Contain the chaos.
Before your child dumps out the contents of a toy bin—especially one that contains a zillion tiny pieces—lay out a flat or fitted sheet underneath, says Rapinchuk. That way, when it’s time for cleanup, you only have to come in once to help your kiddo pour everything back in.
Allow for works in progress.
For longer-term play projects—like a (gulp) 6,000-piece Lego set—give your kid a folding card table that can be moved out of the way at the end of the day.
Bedtime Wind Down
Create a checklist.
Post a chart or a to-do list that prompts them through their full routine—take shower, put on jammies, brush teeth. For prereaders, include a picture of the activity next to each item. “Visual cues keep you from constantly having to nag,” says Rapinchuk. (P.S. You may want a chart for the morning too.)
Beware the time suck of overflowing medicine cabinets and drawers! To streamline bathroom routines, give each of your kids a dedicated caddie for supplies—toothbrush and paste, dental floss, and a comb—and store them where your children can reach them. If space is an issue, get caddies with handles that can be moved to a shelf or under the sink between uses.
Try solo quiet time before lights-out.
“I keep a basket full of books on the floor beside my kids’ beds—Richard Scarry’s are a hit because they have lots of images,” Rapinchuk says. “It gives them a couple of minutes to calm themselves down at night.”
Prepare kids to stay in bed.
Keep a few overnight necessities within reach of your child’s bed—like a clip-on reading lamp that she can turn on by herself and a no-spill water bottle—to prevent bedtime stalling or middle-of-the-night requests