Educational experts weigh in on how parents can help their kids get ready for the new academic year ahead whether they're in elementary, middle, or high school.

By Rebecca Macatee
Updated July 22, 2019
Photo illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (8); Adobe Stock (1); Courtesy of the College Board (test)

Going back to school is exciting, but it can also be overwhelming and stressful for kids. Fortunately, there are some practical things parents can do to help students prepare.

Since no one knows how to get ready for a new school year better than a teacher, we asked some who teach K-12, as well as counselors and principals, how to start the new school year off right. They share a handful of helpful grade-by-grade tips for elementary, middle, and high school.

Elementary School Prep

Going into kindergarten looks a lot different than the start of fifth grade, but make no mistake about it: These formative years are all important. The biggest thing parents can do to prepare their elementary school-aged kids for the new year is simpler than you thank you might think...

"Let them have summer," says Kayla Marston, an elementary school counselor who runs a blog called The School Counselor Kind. "It's a built-in break to recharge and rest up before another year of hard work. Whether that means attending a summer camp, hanging with family, or just staying home, allow time for some pressure-free fun."

Then reestablish a routine at least a week before the first day of school. "If your child is used to going to sleep at 11 p.m. during the summer but needs to go to bed at 7:30 p.m. [to wake up for school], not resetting for school could be problematic," says Mary Amoson, a kindergarten teacher and founder of Sharing Kindergarten, a resourceful site for educators.

  • Related: I'm a Mom and a Teacher: Here's What I Want You to Know About Back To School

Sending kids out the door with a healthy, nutritious snack is key to helping them stay full and focused in class. "I think applesauce pouches are especially are great because they're hands-free," says Klara Knezevic RD, LD, CLT, a registered dietitian with Rebecca Bitzer and Associates. We like Mott's Applesauce Pouches with no sugar added—they are clear so you know exactly what's in there. "You don't have to worry about a spoon or the mess that comes with it."

Beyond that, here are some specific pointers for K-5.

Kindergarten

Starting kindergarten is a major milestone so it can seem a little scary. Amoson, who has been teaching kindergarten for the past ten years, recommends parents talk to their kids about what to expect before the first day of school.

"You can also read many first day of school books with your little learner," she says. "And because children love their parents, throw in some fun first day of school stories of your own."

Most schools offer rising kindergarteners a chance to meet the teacher before the first day of class. "This is a great time to see the school, the classroom, the teacher, and even check out to see if a friend or neighbor is going to be a fellow classmate," says Amoson.

She also recommends making a habit of "reading to and with your child every night." Ask them open-ended questions, take time to explain any "big words" they don't understand and work with your child on sitting and waiting. As Amoson says, "Just being able to sit and wait for a few minutes without having a task or something to occupy them is a skill!"

First Grade

"Rising first graders should continue to read over the summer," says Erica Bohrer, a first-grade teacher and founder of Erica's Ed-ventures, a blog for teachers. "Flashcards for sight words and math facts are also a great way to stay prepared...You can make your own flashcards or search for smartphone/tablet apps that drill math facts, such as XtraMath."

Second Grade

By this age, many kids are able to read independently. Don't just load them up with books you think will help improve their comprehension, though: Help them find books that are fun to read!

"These can be different for every child," says Danny Brassell, Ph.D., a former teacher and educational adviser who specializes in reading. "But the little boy who reads 'Captain Underpants' is going to be a better reader than the little boy that's not reading anything.'"

Third Grade

Although a lot of kids play online when they're much younger, many parents wait until their children are around this age to really introduce them to the internet. Matt Renwick, an elementary principal in Wisconsin, urges parents to be proactive when it comes to discussing online safety with kids.

"They should start having conversations as soon as their child becomes acquainted with any type of screen," says Renwick, who runs an educational blog called Reading by Example. "As kids get older, come up with agreed upon terms for how to use these tools."

Fourth grade

Every school district is different, but some teachers begin assigning over-the-summer coursework to kids starting at this age. If students are struggling to find the motivation to complete this coursework, parents may want to implement a plan.

"I'd suggest finding a balance between doing a little work, and doing something of the child's choosing," says Marston, a school counselor. "I've seen some parents implement a chart that outlines a few activities their child needs to do before playing video games/having screen time. Summer coursework could easily be included in that."

Fifth grade

According to countless teachers we talked to, this is the age many kids get their own cell phones. Cynthia Morton, a licensed professional counselor, says it's important "for parents to establish rules and limits for kids smartphone use" from the beginning. If there are rules or limits set during the summer, it will be easier to keep them in place once the school year starts.

Parents also need to be vigilant about monitoring their kids' online activity and teaching them how to stay safe. Many schools offer digital citizenship courses, says Morton, and Common Sense Media is a great resource for parents and teachers alike.

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Middle School Prep

For most kids, middle school is the first time they go from having one main teacher to several. "It's a huge transition," says Heather Marshall, a sixth grade English, history, and media studies teacher who runs the blog Middle School Mind. "Managing dynamics in different classrooms with different classmates and different teachers is really challenging. Plus on top of that, kids are emotionally and physically going through a lot of changes."

Many schools offer an orientation, which is a great opportunity for students to familiarize themselves with the facilities. Just knowing the layout of the school and where their classes will be can help kids feel more confident about going into middle school.

And at every stage, parents should continue to educate their kids on internet safety and monitor their use of cell phones and even place limits or bans after dark. "[Otherwise] kids might 'go to bed,' but they're in their room on their phones not getting any sleep," says Marshall.

Sixth grade

Going from one main teacher to five or six leaves kids with a lot more coursework to manage. "It can be difficult to keep track of when assignments are due for each class," says Megan Forbes, an English and history teacher who runs a YouTube channel called Too Cool for Middle School. "Make sure your child has a planner (either paper or digital) to organize their busy schedules and workloads."

Seventh grade

"Keep them reading over the summer," says Kristy A., a middle school teacher who writes about her classroom experience on 2PeasandaDog.com. "And believe it or not, quiz them on their multiplication timetables. So many sixth, seventh, and eighth graders don't have them memorized, and it really impacts their learning as math gets harder in each grade."

Eighth grade

Continue to set limits on screen time and monitor your child's online activity. Morton says the summer before eighth grade is a good opportunity for kids to "clean up their social media accounts and change their email addresses to something more mature."

"Have them take down any [questionable] photos," she urges. "This is the time to have a conversation about your reputation and how [what you post on] social media never really goes away."

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High School Prep

High schoolers are more independent than younger kids, but that doesn't mean they should be left to their own devices. "I would say parents need to be involved more in the high school years," says Morton. "This is not the time to take your hands off."

Your high schooler might start packing his or her own lunch and even buying from the cafeteria or local restaurants if they are allowed off campus. Now's the time to teach them that their food is fuel. Getting in the habit of eating a nutritious breakfast is something you can start doing over the summer. "[If you skip breakfast] and the first meal of the day is lunch, you've gone half a school day, basically, without having the fuel your body needs to run itself," says Knezevic.

Knezevic recommends trying to "hit most of the major food groups" with every meal. "[That means] having some kind of grain or starch, definitely having a protein, including some fruits and veggies and maybe a snack," she says.

Ninth Grade

Freshman year can be a shock to the system, and many students are uneasy about the transition. When this is the case, Morton recommends students take a high school course over the summer before they start ninth grade.

"It's usually seven to ten weeks, and they can concentrate solely on that one class," she says. "It builds their confidence up, and it also can open their schedule."

She also encourages students to meet with their school guidance counselors during freshman year. "Get to know them and form a relationship," she says. "Don't wait until your junior year [when you're applying to college] to go see the counselor!"

Tenth grade

Sophomore year is typically when students take the PSAT, and in many states, it's when they start driver's education classes. Many teachers assign extensive coursework to be completed over the summer, but that's not the only type of reading that's recommended.

"As far as academic work over the summer, I'm a big advocate for having teens read for fun," says Elizabeth C., a high school English teacher who writes a blog called Sam and Scout. "Reading is the best thing kids can do to keep their minds working. It's been shown to improve performance on standardized tests (like the SAT/ACT), too."

Eleventh grade

The summer before your junior year is the perfect time to take a course preparing for the SAT/ACT. "There are lots of good ones out there," says Morton. For affordable options, she recommends parents look at Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization.

Twelfth grade

For rising seniors, "adulting" is just around the corner. Encourage your student to continue researching schools and post-graduation opportunities.

"If college is on your horizon, I think the summer is a great time to fill out applications, start writing essays, and organizing transcripts," says Elizabeth, who teaches at a specialty high school in Virginia. "If you have a good relationship with a teacher, reaching out about a letter of recommendation over the summer might be a good idea, too, since they usually get hit with lots of requests in the fall."

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