Staying Sane this School Year

Stay Sane During School Year

A new school year means a return to busy schedules and the daily homework grind, which can send parents into panic mode. Local experts offer six important steps families can take to create school-year routines that are easier to manage and more enjoyable for the whole family.

Get Organized

At school, students know exactly where to put backpacks and completed homework. Home should be no different, says professional organizer Perri Kersh, owner of Neat Freak in Chapel Hill and mother of two. She suggests creating a landing pad for not only backpacks and shoes, but for all school-related items your children bring home on a daily basis.

"Establish a place for your child to store assignments, schedules and notices from that 'black hole' of papers that emerges from their backpacks every day," says Kersh, who prefers magazine sorters, three-ring binders and wall-mounted vertical paper organizers for kid-friendly storage.

Paperwork sent home in backpacks should be sorted daily, she says. "You can help your child prioritize assignments and manage a schedule for completing them if you're aware of what they're working on and when it's due. Papers that need to be signed or responded to should be kept in a designated area for parents or guardians to check regularly.

"Designate a home for sports equipment in the garage or mudroom," she adds, "and find a home for musical instruments in the child's room or a family room."

Being organized includes having school supplies on hand for homework. Kersh advises her clients to create a "homework zone" where school books are stored along with an inventory of supplies your child frequently uses, from paper and pencils to report covers and index cards. "When your kids are working, they'll be able to focus on the task at hand and won't have an excuse to jump up every five minutes looking for something they need," she says.

Closets and kitchen pantries can also be organized to help streamline the family routine during the school year. Clean out bedroom closets and dressers so clothes are easy to find. Kersh also suggests organizing pantries into sections of "lunch" or "snack" foods to help streamline the lunch-making process.

Communicate with Teachers

The start of a school year is the perfect time to make individual contact with teachers and exchange expectations for the school year.

Hylkema urges parents to attend back-to-school nights. "Let the teachers know that you are interested in getting regular feedback on how and what your child is doing in school," she advises.

Starting in middle school, teachers rely more on students for everyday communication, but they often have updated class websites with helpful information. "Conferences are more difficult to schedule, there is less parent involvement, and most communications are through e-mails," Mote says, but she encourages parents to communicate special needs to teachers at the beginning of the year.

Helping children communicate with their teachers can also help alleviate potential stress during the school year. It is important for students to feel comfortable approaching teachers to ask questions or communicate needs, especially when they reach upper grades with a more-independent classroom experience. Including shy or intimidated students in an early conference can improve their comfort level and make for a more productive and enjoyable school year.

Sync Your Schedules

Another source of school-year stress comes from trying to stay on top of all of the family's school, work and social calendars. Keeping a family in sync requires a team effort. Kersh urges parents to establish a weekly family meeting, asking both kids and parents to come to the table (or couch) with their own list of upcoming activities and important due dates. "I call it 'calendar download time,'" she says. "Without the communication piece, things get missed or someone forgets to pick up the kids."

Regular communication helps families prepare for especially busy times. Kersh suggests planning ahead by stocking the freezer with prepared soups or minimizing volunteer responsibilities during those times to subdue the chaos.

To stay in sync, some families are using new online organization tools like Google Calendar and, but don't underestimate the effectiveness of a centrally located and frequently updated family calendar printed on good old-fashioned paper. "Effective communication is what it's all about," Kersh says.

Commit Carefully

While volunteer roles are vital to the success of schools and other community groups, parents need to be thoughtful in selecting opportunities that fit well with their existing commitments. An updated family calendar can help parents stay realistic about the amount of "extra" time they have to offer.

"Doing everything about half-way sets you up for a feeling of failure," Kersh says. "If parents burn out, we're not staying true to the ultimate goal of family life — fun, enjoyment and fostering a love of learning."

Volunteer responsibilities can fluctuate significantly throughout the school year depending on the number of other available volunteers. Prevent unexpected over-commitment by taking on volunteer jobs with a "qualified yes," letting the organization know that you're happy to help, but only available for specific tasks.

Children can become overcommitted just as easily as parents.

With many activities to choose from, kids can have a difficult time pacing their involvement, and it can be hard for parents to know when to say, "when."

Mote offers this advice for parents of highly involved students: "Look at what time your child is getting to bed after homework. As long as they are getting everything done and not exhausted, you are probably good with the schedule." She cautions, "If grades start to slip and they have missing assignments, then it's time to re-evaluate."

(For more tips about balancing extracurricular activities and free time, see the feature, Not Time to Play? Avoiding burnout in after-school activities by Carolyn Campbell.)

Involve the Kids

Sharing responsibilities can be a real sanity-saver for parents during the school year. Learning to manage new and bigger tasks is part of the maturing process, so parents who expect kids to pitch in are really doing them a favor.

Take a look at your family's anticipated day-to-day routine during the school year and identify responsibilities that kids can manage to lighten the load on mom and dad.

Putting kids to work the night before can alleviate manic mornings, according to Mote. "Parents can start with simple things like allowing a young elementary child to make their own peanut butter and jelly sandwich and making food choices."

Children can also participate in laying out clothes the night before to expedite the morning routine, Kersh says. "By kindergarten, children can start to take on more responsibilities for clothes," she says, "not just selecting clothes and getting dressed by themselves, but remembering to put them in the dirty clothes hamper, too."

Assigning household chores is another way to delegate responsibility and foster independence. "Taking the garbage out, emptying the dishwasher, cleaning their rooms and walking the dog are all part of family responsibilities," Mote says.

With effective communication at school and at home, families can create a balance of responsibilities that will help parents and kids experience a more productive and enjoyable school experience. Schedule that family meeting and get the whole family on board for a great year.

Mary Parry is a freelance writer and mother of three who lives in Chapel Hill.

What can Kids do to Help?

Encouraging children to be responsible for age-appropriate daily tasks helps them become more independent while easing the load on parents. Perri Kersh, a professional organizer in Chapel Hill, suggests the following school-related chores for kids at home.

By Age:    Parents Can Expect Kids To:

Age 3:    Hang up coats and take lunch boxes to the kitchen

Age 5:    Put away folded laundry and lay out the
next day's clothes

Age 7: Empty backpacks and sort through their papers

Age 8: Assemble parent-approved lunches and snacks

Age 10:    Try managing their first calendar and learn time-management skills

Categories: Back to School, Family Health, Fit Family Challenge, Health, Lifestyle, Nutrition, School, Work-Life, Work-Life Balance