Building a back-to-school routine
We’ve all settled into the new school year, but it wasn’t an easy transition.
The kids had no trouble. I have a teeny problem with change, especially the back-to-school kind.
Our family quickly adapts to summer mode in May, staying up later, going to midweek movies or hosting cookouts without worrying about waking up at the crack of dawn to hustle out the door. In the morning, I have time to water flowers, go for an hour-long walk with a friend, sort through email, whatever.
I hate surrendering to early bedtimes and the morning routine of lunch making, planner signing and sock hunting.
To top it off, Champaign-Urbana schools started with a full day this year, instead of giving us that half-day warm-up. I fumbled around the first morning, trying to remember what my kids like in their lunch and exactly what time the first bell rings. I actually had to consult the handbook.
My brain refused to let go of summer. I know there are those who welcome the routine, the structure, the free child care that school provides. We do, too. But life in the fall just gets more complicated, as we all know.
So this week, I’ve asked some superorganized parents for their best advice on maintaining control even after the soccer-fall ball-PTA-band-homework craziness kicks in — and somehow hold onto that summertime vibe.
Who better to ask than teachers? They not only manage their own children but 25 other people’s kids, too.
They did not disappoint. I’m a slacker by comparison.
Lisa Roundtree, a Champaign teacher, has four children under age 5 and is always the picture of calm. She and her husband Jaime, a principal in Champaign, try to make the most of their limited family time together. Sue Anderson is a mom, former nurse, marathoner and Champaign teacher. And Monticello teacher Katie Fulton, a mom of two, gives new meaning to the word “organized.”
Here are some of their tips on saving time — and preserving your sanity:
— Plan, plan, plan. This may sound like the opposite of summer spontaneity, but it’s essential to carving out time for family, your partner and yourself, our experts say. Fulton and her husband sit down every Sunday and plan the week ahead, talking to their kids about what’s coming up so they can prepare, too. I have found a master calendar (paper or digital) is essential.
— Set limits. You’ve heard this before, but it’s hard to do: Don’t overschedule the kids. Too many children wind up tired and stressed, Anderson says, and she worries that they don’t have enough time to “just play and be kids.”
“Sometimes I notice kids lacking confidence in being silly or creative, especially in writing stories, creating skits, etc. I wonder if their lives have been so structured and managed that they maybe haven’t had opportunities to ‘try out’ being silly or imaginative,” Anderson says.
Parents should model that behavior, too, Fulton says. They’ve tried to limit any outside activities to three nights a week, but even that is tough, she says.
— Pick an “us” night: Whether it’s a fancy dinner out or just a beer on the front porch, carve out a time for you and your partner, Fulton says. Children should know you need time together to be good parents.
— Make time for yourself: Always easier said than done, but getting up early helps. Fulton and her husband decided to make fitness a priority and rise at 4 a.m. to exercise, and catch up on Facebook, email, home projects, laundry, or even reading or watching “Sports Center.”
— Protect family time: Have your family take a walk every night after dinner, rotating the role of navigator by allowing a different person to choose the route. The Roundtrees alternate between walks and trips to parks and playgrounds around Champaign-Urbana.
If time is short, just snuggle with your kids. No matter how old or how cool they are, kids still like physical contact, whether it’s hugs or just sitting together to read a magazine for five minutes, Fulton says.
— Multitask school and home: Parents forget how easy it is to work in learning with everyday activities, Roundtree says. She suggests reading to your children while they’re in the bathtub, or if they read independently, discuss their favorite parts of the book. You can point out patterns or letters on their clothes as you lay them out the night before, count the steps in your house or talk about the animals they see on a walk.
Or create a family book club, she says. Each member of the family reads independently — kids can count the reading for their daily school reading log — then meet to discuss the book over pizza and fun drinks (customize as you wish).
— Have a meal plan (and not just for dinner). This is not my strength, but everyone swears by it. Do it before you grocery shop on the weekend so you don’t need last-minute trips to the store or waste time figuring out what to cook for dinner. The Roundtrees plan several meals that they can eat for two nights, so leftovers are available on evenings when they have meetings or other events.
They also have a weekly meal plan for lunches, too, so their children have the same lunch every Monday. Older children can be part of the menu planning and help with the grocery shopping. The Roundtrees divide and conquer, splitting up the kids and the list into two carts, which cuts shopping time in half — and teaches kids about foods and prices (multitasking!).
— Make it fun. Only have a few minutes for a sit-down meal? Make the most of it. The Fulton Family Dinner Box has slips of paper filled with silly things to do or questions to ask each person. Even if you have time for only one, it’s more memorable than reminding kids to eat their vegetables. I’ve found family dinners are the best time to find out what’s going on at school — or in your kids’ heads.
— Life is a picnic. Keep a blanket in your trunk for impromptu picnics, which can be just as fast as going to the drive-through when time is short. Make PB&J sandwiches and throw apples and drinks in a cooler and picnic in your driveway, the park, your church parking lot, wherever you have to go, Fulton says.
— Share the love (and chores): My son asked me recently how to do the laundry (!) and I jumped at the chance. At the Fultons, no one leaves the kitchen until it’s cleaned up after dinner. Teach the kids how to load the dishwasher or take out the trash. Turn on some loud music to make it fun.
— Adopt a “7-minute rule.” When the toys and paper clutter get out of hand, the Fulton family works together to clean up for seven “focused” minutes (five is too short, 10 is too long for younger children, she says). No talking is allowed unless it’s encouragement, no one barks orders (would we do that?), no one is allowed to have an empty hand. It’s incredible, she says, what you can get done. (In our house, adding a little competitive wager might also help.)
— Do a “smile minute.” A concept Fulton borrowed from Oprah, smiling for a full minute is a surefire way to soothe a grumpy child (or mom). Endorphins kick in, the body responds and you feel better, she says.
And if you’re feeling overwhelmed? Slow down, Fulton says.
“Look at your babies. Realize that even if their eyes aren’t on you, they are watching. They can feel your mood. ... Do what brings you joy. If possible, do it with your family watching,” she says.
The laundry will still be there tomorrow, and your troubles will look completely different after a good night’s rest — or a huge bowl of ice cream, she says.
Champaign teacher Sue Anderson has some practical tips for keeping schoolwork under control:
— Give your kids a consistent place to do homework — away from the television.
— If an assignment isn’t due until the end of the week or later, plan to do small bits each night. Write every step on the calendar so the work isn’t left until the last minute.
— Create a homework folder (many teachers already send one home with their students). Put the work back in the folder and into the backpack as soon as it’s done “so it doesn’t go AWOL by the next morning.”
— Make your children responsible for their homework. Have them do as much of the hands-on organizing as possible, with supervision. “So many students say, ‘My mom didn’t put it in my backpack!’” she says.
— Give them a break. “Many kids who try to do homework right away when they get home fail ... they need a mind and stomach break!”
Photo: Fourth-graders at the new Carrie Busey Elementary School in Savoy raise their hands to answer a question on the first day of school last week. Photo by John Dixon/The News-Gazette