This upcoming school year, I have a little more confidence and a little less insecurity about all things back-to-school. With two kids in school in elementary school, I’ve already navigated chaotic drop-offs, attended numerous classroom parties, made it through last year’s pandemic uncertainty. I even survived a call from the principal’s office during my first year as a school mom to a kindergartner.
To answer some questions you might be asking yourself: yes, one parent should try to attend at least one PTO (Parent Teacher Organization) meeting–or watch the live stream. No, you don’t need to facilitate the most Pinterest-worthy craft at the holiday party, the kids don’t care. And yes, you might get emotional at drop off more than once.
It will be OK.
When your little one is leaving the safe haven of home and headed to preschool, kindergarten, or a new elementary school, it can be hard to keep track of all the things–not to mention managing the emotional toll of knowing another milestone is upon you both.
So to help, we gathered a list of 11 things to know about your kids’ school, from the philosophical to the practical, to help ease the transition back-to-school for you both.
Learning Environment and Philosophy
For a majority of parents, local public schools are the best option for their families, and while your school choice is often limited to the district where you buy or rent your home, it’s still helpful to understand your school’s environment and philosophy. Take a school tour and attend a new parent orientation. Maybe you’re curious about how the school addresses bullying or promotes inclusivity. Don’t hesitate to ask questions that are important to you.
If you chose a Montessori, language immersion, parochial, or private school for your child, you probably felt the school already aligned with your values and parenting philosophies, but orientations are still a great chance to meet other parents, ask questions, and understand more about your child’s day to day.
School and Classroom Calendar
Save both the school and classroom events to your digital calendar and regularly check ahead. You don’t want registration deadlines, holidays, teacher in-service days, or spirit days to sneak up on you—take it from someone who nearly missed basically all of these.
Know which days of the week your child has gym or library, so you help make sure they’re prepared. Plus, field trips, class parties, and other obligations with your child’s individual class will come up, so you’ll always be adding to the calendar.
Birthday Celebration Rituals
Birthday celebrations vary so much school-to-school. Some schools and districts do not allow food-based treats to help address childhood obesity and avoid food allergy issues. Some teachers may have their own rituals, like having the student bring a parent or friend into the classroom to read a story or donate a book to the library.
Find out your school or classroom preference in advance of your little one’s birthday. If your child has a summer birthday, you can also ask the teacher’s preference for celebrating (perhaps on their half birthday?).
Food Restrictions and Lunchroom Rules
How long is the lunch hour? Are adults on site available to help open snacks? What is the hot lunch ordering procedure? How does your child pay? Don’t be like me—I received a bill for a week’s worth of chocolate milk because my daughter thought they were “free.”
It’s also helpful to know whether there are nut-free tables, nut-free lunchrooms, or other food restrictions all parents need to follow. Volunteering in the cafeteria or talking to a veteran mom is helpful to understand the lunchroom rules and dynamic.
How to Report Absences
Our school has an online system to report absences, but some schools prefer email or phone calls to report absences. Know the preferred or required way to report an absence for your child and whether there are limits on the number of days they can be out of school.
Policies for Discipline and Resolving Conflict
Preschool, kindergarten, and elementary school procedures will likely vary since, developmentally, children change so much in those early years. For example, a toddler biting a classmate may only get separation at daycare but would obviously have a more significant consequence in kindergarten.
“Talk, walk, and squawk” is the conflict resolution rule my daughter’s school teaches the kids when it comes to conflict. First, they should try to talk to the classmate, then walk away, and finally, tell a teacher or other adult. Each school likely has a variation of this strategy, and if you agree with it, it can be helpful to reinforce it at home.
Parental Involvement Expectations
Many classrooms still have a class or room parent(s) who help manage class parties, gifts, and other tasks to help the teacher, and, let’s be honest, to help out us other parents. But if you can’t commit to class parent status, most schools have plenty of opportunities for parents to get involved, whether it be coaching, volunteering, driving to field trips, being part of PTO committees, helping with class parties, heading up Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts troops, and more. Many opportunities are also available outside of school hours—like tending the school grounds or typing up newsletters.
While it’s not possible to do everything considering work schedules, other children, and other commitments, consider looking at the calendar with your child and prioritize events together. That way, you can set expectations and help lessen any mom guilt you might feel.
Special Ed Support and Accommodations
Even if your child doesn’t have any particular special needs or an IEP (Individualized Education Program), it’s helpful to know how the school supports students with disabilities so you can answer any questions your child may have.
My daughter had multiple classmates with autism. Within the first few days of kindergarten, she even taught me a few things. She’d tell my husband and I frankly, “My friend has autism, so she learns differently and talks differently.” Or, “she wears headphones at recess because it’s a little too loud for her.” Teachers are wonderful about answering questions and giving age-appropriate responses (amongst being wonderful at so many other things).
Online Systems and School Groups
Are there online systems you need to access for class registration, absence requests, or teacher communication? Is there a parents’ Facebook group? A PTO Facebook page where events and information are posted? Does your child’s teacher provide updates on a private blog? Or use a specific app for update? For the grassroots groups not managed by the school, you may need to ask a veteran mom, but most are eager to help a newbie.
Ongoing COVID Precautions
With rules varying from state-to-state and school district-to-school-district, it’s essential to stay up to date on your own child’s school’s policies and procedures. Policies on mask requirements, quarantines after exposures, classroom support, and more may change throughout the year, so don’t ignore those emails from school administrators.
The Other Hard Stuff
None of us want to think about the nightmare scenarios we watched unfold at Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas or countless other schools, but lockdown/code red drills, adult visitor procedures in school, and emergency preparation are an important part of keeping our children safe. Schools are taking greater safety precautions and it’s imperative to know your child’s school emergency drills and protocols.
Knowing how your school describes these drills to each grade level will also help you be consistent with the language if your child has questions at home. It’s also important to know how your school communicates with parents in an emergency situation (emails, texts, phone trees, etc.) even if you never have to use it.
Additionally, does your child’s school offer lessons about body safety or internet safety that you can supplement at home? When does sex education begin and what does it cover? Resources for parents sent home with my daughter were extremely helpful in having some of those harder conversations.
Starting the school year is an exciting and emotional time for parents and for kids. But preparation, organization, and information can be empowering. This year, you and your kids will learn a lot–enjoy it!
This story was originally published in 2019 and has been updated for timeliness.