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Let’s Get Organized! Tips for Back to School to Help All Year Long

Tips for Back to School For The New School Year

In France, the end of summer vacation is marked by a period of mourning called la rentrée. According to a friend of mine who lived there, “You greet people by saying ‘How is your rentrée going?’ They say ‘Bad, as usual,’ and you say, ‘Mine too.’”

Even if you’ve been counting the seconds until your kids get back on the school bus, this is a challenging time of transitions for your teens: new schedules, reams of paperwork, endless homework, complex routines.

Factor in the uber-transition of being a teenager— on the cusp of adulthood yet still, sometimes, surprisingly dependent—and you’re looking at a perfect back-to-school storm.

Tips for Back to School For Teens

Many parents, counting on increasing teenage independence at home—after all, they’re not babies anymore—take on more responsibility and hours at work during this family stage. At home, and especially at back-to-school time, that likely means every member of the household is heading somewhere different in the morning, and that everyone is busy.

We consulted parenting and organization experts for practical advice on managing a go-go-go household at this time of year, keeping in mind that families with teenagers are transitioning both from summer to school year while simultaneously supporting the bigger transition from dependent child to independent young adult. (Just bear in mind that these are not one-size-fits-all strategies. If something is working for you, go ahead and let it work.)

Yes, They Can!

What happened to those “Do it my own self!” toddlers? They have disappeared inside the teens who want to lie on the carpet while you make their sandwiches. But getting your kids to do more of their own self-organizing will actually free up a lot of your time—while simultaneously fostering independence and teaching crucial life skills.

Lisa Damour, psychologist and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, says to  think about this in terms of handing over the responsibility gradually: first modeling the desired behaviors while you do it for them; then coaching while you do it with them; and, finally, standing by to offer support while they do it, yes, all by their own selves.

Damour breaks it down by back-to-school task, so we can see exactly where we can expect our kids to be moving from dependence to coaching to independence in the tween and teen years.

Back To School Ideas

Waking up.

Up until age 12, parents should be coaching their child to use an alarm clock and get themselves up—reminders to set the alarm, and occasional parent waking, may still be needed. By the teen years, Damour says, it is reasonable to expect independence in this area. Teens are notorious night owls, though, and may tend to sleep in when allowed to do as they wish. Encourage your kids to go to bed on time so they get plenty of sleep. (This may mean putting their tempting devices to sleep, too—in another room.) Your kids may not know that teens need between nine and nine and a half hours of sleep each night.

Making breakfast.

Your child can achieve do-it-himself status by age 10. If he skips breakfast when it’s left completely up to him, offering a range of easy grab-and-go options (such as yogurt, smoothies, and frozen burritos) can help support the healthy habit of eating breakfast.

Packing lunch.

Damour says that by age 8, we can reasonably expect our kids to pack their own lunches. Even if you didn’t hand over the lunch reins back then, it’s not too late to surrender this task. Dedicating a fridge drawer or shelf to kids’ lunch stuff can streamline the process for teens-in-a-hurry, and also steer them toward the healthy options you want them to choose. As kids get older, “packing” can also include more preparation of the food itself—like cutting vegetables and making sandwiches.

Filling out paperwork.

Who doesn’t want to delegate this tedious task? Damour suggests having your tweens watch you fill out paperwork—try medical or school forms—to learn how it’s done, then transfer primary responsibility for this job to kids age 13 and up. (See our sidebar on paperwork.)

Keeping track of schedules.

Tweens and teens should know what activities happen on which days; Damour suggests that kids can do this by age 12. Post each family member’s schedule in a prominent place, ideally near the calendar, and let the teen add her items. (See our sidebar on managing schedules.)

Taking charge of what they need to bring to school.

It may sound simple, but packing a backpack is a moving target, with the necessary contents changing each day. Is it a band practice day? Does he need his sneakers? Did that report need to be printed out? Coach kids closely on this task through about age 11, says Damour, and then transition the 12-and-up crowd to do it alone. When handing over this responsibility, encourage them to pack their bags the night before, and ask them the questions about what they need for the next day until they can do it themselves.

Getting homework done on time.

Managing daily homework loads in a timely way can be a challenge for some teens. Damour expects independence a bit later here—at age 14 and up—with parents more closely monitoring the completion of homework for younger students. To foster independence, have your child use an assignment book, and encourage him to check it at the same time each day—perhaps side-by-side with you if he seems to be neglecting his workload. The goal, though, is to establish a habit that ultimately does not involve the parent, so be ready to step back as he starts to get into a daily routine.

Organizing long-term projects.

This part of the homework load is the trickiest. Kids will usually need lots of coaching, says Damour, on how to break up long-term projects into pieces with interim deadlines. By age 15, your child should be mostly independent in taking a large project and planning how to tackle it bit by bit—and hopefully not pulling panicked all-nighters the night before the due date. Talk to her about how you break down your own large projects.

Communicating with coaches and teachers.

When your kids are in college, you won’t be calling their professors, so now is the time to teach them to handle their own tricky situations with the other adults in their lives. While kids are learning, Damour says, role-play difficult conversations and work together to draft their email communications with adults. You can hand over responsibility for small conversations, like talking to the school librarian about the lost book, but don’t anticipate that your teen will be the primary communicator with coaches and teachers until about age 16.

Re-entry to the school year may never be easy—and certainly no one ever said parenting is. But with these tips from our experts and fellow parents (see our sidebars for more), perhaps it can at least be a bit less chaotic.

Catherine Newman is the author of five books, including the new release How to Be a Person: 65 Hugely Useful, Super-Important Life Skills to Learn Before You’re Grown Up. She edits the non-profit kids’ cooking magazine ChopChop and writes the etiquette column for Real Simple magazine. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with her family.

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