9. Strategies for Simplifying the School Year – Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less

9

Strategies for Simplifying the School Year

One would think that the kid-free time opened up by school would leave us lounging in our backyard hammocks sipping lemonade. But so many parents we know find themselves even busier once their kids are in school. How does that happen?

Every parent is busy, no matter how you look at it. But it’s worth noting that school comes with its own organizational “overhead.” There are lunches to be packed (the ingredients for which need to be stocked in the pantry), outfits to be washed, schedules to be minded, events, conferences, and days off to note in your calendar, pickups to be arranged, social puzzles to navigate, and (for older kids) assignments to be tracked.

Sending your kids to school takes work. Good work, but work all the same. In this chapter, we share some of our best tips for minimalizing the school year so you can more easily devote some of your newfound energy elsewhere.

Creating School Routines

In chapter 2, we talked about the magic of household “autopilot.” Predictable routines work beautifully to streamline the rhythm of the school day. When your kids get into the habit of following daily and weekly routines, they’ll build a skill that will serve them throughout their school years—especially as workloads and expectations increase.

Think of routines as a long-term fix—they take a while to establish and follow, and they require tweaking along the way. But they’re worth the (minimal) commitment and will pay off in spades once everyone’s settled in.

Routines are also ideal for helping kids transition back into school from summer and holiday breaks.

The Night Before

We’ve found that the best “getting ready for school” routine begins the night before. Think of it as setting up the dominoes before the effortless knockdown in the morning. As your kids get older, hand the elements of the routine over to them.

Lay Out Clothes

Sidestep “what to wear” problems and “we’re out of underwear” laundry fails! If you (or better yet, your kids) lay out an outfit the night before, the morning will go more smoothly.

Detangle Hair

Parents of long-haired kids! You know who you are: the ones struggling with snarls and a grumpy child minutes before it’s time to head off to school. Comb out long hair (braid it, even) the night before to tame morning tangles.

Get a Head Start on Lunch Packing

Bag up the nonperishables so all you have to do in the morning is pack the cold or hot stuff. See chapter 12 for more school lunch tips.

Line Up Backpacks and Lunch Bags

Get lunch boxes and bags, along with backpacks or satchels, ready for filling in the morning.

Run and Empty the Dishwasher

There’s nothing like waking up to a clean kitchen. With the sink and dishwasher empty, everyone can load dirty breakfast dishes and lunch-making supplies so those precious kids-in-school minutes aren’t wasted cleaning up.

Set Out the Breakfast Dishes

We sometimes put the bowls, spoons, cereal, vitamins, and other “breakfast-y” stuff on a tray in the kitchen so it’s ready to set on the table in the morning.

Sign Permission Slips, Gather Milk Money, Etc.

Less running around = good. Also, fewer things forgotten!

Get After-School Necessities Together

If your kid has an activity after school, you’ll thank yourself for getting the sports uniforms and equipment or other supplies and snacks together in a grab-and-go tote. At the very least, keep a list of supplies on your to-do list so you don’t have to remember what to bring along each time.

School Mornings

The keys to a mostly successful morning launch are to have a plan and to stay calm. Getting sucked into the drama and cranky morning moods escalates the bad feelings all around. Try to project cool confidence (pretend if you must)—hopefully, the kids will take your behavior cues.

How the plan actually looks is up to you and your situation. Variables include the presence of other helpful (and awake) adults, the number and ages of your kids, whether or not you’re getting ready for work at the same time, distance to school, and general “morning person” temperaments.

Keep in mind that no routine is perfect out of the gate—routines are meant to be tweaked. No matter how your routine shapes up, the more you model “first we do this, and then we do that,” the sooner your kids will do it themselves.

Wake Up Earlier Than Your Kids

Try to get up at least ten minutes before the kids do. Not only do you deserve some alone time with your coffee, you’ll feel more in control when the action begins.

Encourage Your Kids to Use an Alarm Clock

Get an alarm clock for each of your kids and begin using it, no matter their ages. The sooner kids get used to waking themselves, the easier everyone’s mornings will go.

Susan of emeraldcoastfl.com, via the Minimalist Parenting blog: My first grader was really resistant to getting up, regardless of how many hours of sleep he got. On a random trip to Target, he went gaga over a Darth Vader alarm clock, and our problem was solved. Now, he gets up the minute that clock goes off.

Swap Morning Wake Ups

If your kids have different wake-up times, swap which parent gets up first each morning.

Jon and I have always been big fans of swapping morning wake ups. We started when Laurel was a baby by taking turns getting up with her in the wee hours. It was so much easier to have a restful night of sleep if I knew it was my night off and I didn’t need to keep one ear out for the baby. We now do the same thing with Laurel and Violet. Violet tends to get up about an hour earlier than Laurel so Jon and I swap which parent gets up with her. It’s so nice when the “Vi alarm” goes off and I remember it’s my day to snooze a bit longer.

Say Yes to Breakfast

A good breakfast is a must for a productive school day, and it’s a nice time to connect before everyone goes their separate ways. Even late sleepers and those with tiny morning appetites need to eat, so try to make breakfast a priority. Toast and eggs, oatmeal, cold cereal and milk, fruit, nuts, leftovers from dinner . . . all good. A hit of protein helps keep brains and bodies going through the morning. For those who can’t stomach breakfast first thing in the morning, ask the teacher for permission to send a mid-morning snack.

Preview the Day With Your Kids

Get in the habit of previewing the day with your kids to remind them about upcoming events and tasks, and to get them in the habit of planning ahead.

Hillary via the Minimalist Parenting blog: I make lunch while my kids eat breakfast and we talk about the upcoming day (e.g., remember gymnastics is tonight, so do as much homework as you can at the sitter’s after school).

Set Time “Signposts”

Try to break the morning routine into its natural “shifts”—for example, breakfast, getting dressed, brushing hair and teeth, heading out the door. The shifts will be unique to your specific routine. Next, attach times to each shift, such as “breakfast is finished at 8 a.m.” Kids can better pace themselves when they’re aware of their progress through the routine.

When I was away for a couple of days on a business trip I returned to find one of the chalkboard circles in our kitchen covered with a schedule written by Laurel. Apparently, she decided she wanted to help keep track of the morning schedule, particularly on those days when I was away and Jon had to do both drop-offs. It was rather touching to see this morning ticktock documented:

Wake up and dressed by 7:00

Breakfast eaten, lunch made by 7:30

Pack bags, brush teeth, use bathroom by 7:40

Leave to drop off Vi at 7:45

Finish drop off by 8:00

Arrive at school before 8:35

End on a High Note

No matter how the morning goes down, try to end with a positive send-off. You’re working on building habits, and there will be good days and bad days. In the grand scheme of things, progress counts more than straight-line success. Besides, no one will remember the tardy passes in a few years.

After School

We totally get kids’ urge to throw off the backpacks and revel in the release from school structure. In fact, we encourage it! But a little routine guiding the after-school hours will help your kids take responsibility for their time, and it will also encourage more relaxed evenings together as a family. If you have a sitter bridging the gap between the end of school and the time you get home from work, involve her in the routine to help make sure that the kids do their homework (you can check it when you get home) and take care of any after-school chores.

Empty Backpacks and Lunch Bags

Identify spots in your home for backpacks to hang (perhaps with the coats) and school papers to go.

We’ve got a second-hand coat rack in the entryway and a standing file in the kitchen. When the kids come home, they hang their backpacks and empty them, along with their lunchboxes, and bring everything to the kitchen. Empty containers go into the dishwasher, papers go into the file. When it’s time to do homework and sign permission slips or read announcements, everyone knows where to start. (Reality check: it has taken the kids years to consistently follow this routine, but at least we’re making progress.)

Make Snacks Easy to Grab

Kids are often ravenous when they get home. Instead of getting into the habit of serving your kids snacks—unless that’s a job you enjoy—keep an array of healthy self-serve snacks around for kids to grab as needed.

Have Clear Homework and Chore Expectations

Decide up front whether homework gets done right away, after a snack, or during the evening. Same with chores. These expectations can get more flexible as your kids demonstrate their ability to manage their time.

Prioritize Free Time, Exercise, and Rest

No matter what, let your kids know that rest, relaxation, and time to play are just as important as anything they are learning in school. We leave the first hour after school open for rest and free time. Building balance into kids’ daily routines sets them up for a balanced working life later on.

A word about after-school activities: consider limiting scheduled extracurriculars. Not only do kids need time off the clock to rest, recover, and integrate a full day of learning, they need opportunities for spontaneous playdates and neighborhood pickup games of Capture the Flag. We’ll address extracurriculars more in chapter 10, but keep this in mind as you tweak your family’s schedule.

Handling Homework

The official Minimalist Parenting line on homework is that it ultimately belongs to your kids. When done independently, homework gives kids practice organizing their time and thinking. You’re available to consult and guide (and cheerlead when necessary), but the plan is to gradually remove yourself from the process.

Homework is a mixed bag. Some assignments challenge kids to think creatively, while others might seem like busywork. But no matter what your stance is on the state of homework today, it’s here to stay. Consider the conversations you can have with your kids about the purpose of homework, how it fits into each child’s schedule, and where it stacks up in their priorities. Talk to them about time management, and how focused time spent on homework usually means less time.

Homework is also a great place to begin the conversation about pride in one’s work. Penmanship, neatness, and attention to details such as “name and date in the upper right corner” are all part of the learning process.

Having your ducks in a row where the mechanics are concerned goes a long way toward simplifying the nightly homework ritual.

Have Supplies at the Ready

Homework goes more smoothly when sharp pencils, erasers, blank paper, a ruler, scissors, a calculator, and a timer are within easy reach. You don’t need anything fancy—a basket of supplies sitting on the dining room table or in a closet is fine.

Minimize Distractions

Once homework begins, the snacks, cell phones, toys, and other distractions should be put away. Encourage kids to focus on the task at hand. That said—some kids do better with short bursts of work punctuated by five-minute breaks. The timer can really help here. Do whatever works, but be mindful of how distractions affect the process.

Use Organizational Tools

Consider teaching your kid to use simple organizational tools. Get an inexpensive planner or desk calendar and help your child write his assignments down. Apps can work as well, as long as they don’t pull your child into the distracting orbit of the smartphone. Break down larger assignments into milestones, note due dates, and even build in little rewards for finishing. Some kids find using “grown-up” tools very motivating.

Decide If/How to Monitor Homework

As you help your child establish a rhythm of doing homework, you’ll need to decide how (or if) you want to monitor that the work is getting done. How you approach this will also depend on your child, as some kids are natural self-starters and others will need some nudging. The ultimate goal is to get your kids into the habit of completing their homework independently, and with care.

Laurel is definitely a get-her-assignments-done kind of kid. When she was in first grade, she would do her homework first thing after school and I would check it over to see if there was anything that she needed help with.

During second grade, we gave her more responsibility. We told her that homework gets harder to do the later it gets (due to fatigue) but that it’s up to her to decide when to do it as long as she gets it done before bedtime. We also told her that it’s important to ask for help (from us or a teacher) if she is confused; she doesn’t need to feel embarrassed if she doesn’t know something—that is the point of going to school!

These methods so far have worked really well. Laurel tends to come home, goof off a little, and then do her homework after she has a snack. She’s even done homework with friends during playdates. At the beginning of second grade, she always wanted us to check her work, but by the end of the year, she would only ask us to check her work if she was unsure of a concept.

Maintain a Positive Attitude

Stay upbeat, but also watch for signs of struggle beyond the norm. Even if you’re not wild about the assignment du jour, try to maintain a positive front. Most importantly, keep your eyes open about whether your child’s attitude toward homework is indicative of a deeper struggle.

Jen of jengraybeal.wordpress.com, via the Minimalist Parenting blog: Establishing a homework routine is just like establishing a bedtime routine, and is just as important! They will have thirteen years of homework before starting college—it will be a big part of their life and it’s important to help your kids see it as important. Parent attitude is HUGE here. If you are constantly annoyed that your child has homework, he will develop a bad attitude, too. Keep in mind that sometimes when a kid dreads his homework it is because he can’t do it and knows it will be painful to get through. Discuss problems with your child’s teacher—there could be a misunderstanding of expectations, a need for tutoring, or something else going on.

Set an End Time

Just as adults need to set an end time to their work and household chores (see chapter 2), kids need an end time for homework.

We set an end time to homework—no matter how much gets done, the books close at 8:30 p.m. so we all have time to reconnect before bed and the kids can get a good night’s sleep.

Put Homework Away

When homework time is over, put everything away—supplies and the work itself. This single habit will help kids feel more in control of their homework all week.

Handling School-Related Anxiety

Some kids can’t wait for the independence and social buzz that comes with school. But for others, the transition to school is fraught with anxiety and even outright fear. It’s heart wrenching to push your kids to do something they don’t think they can do. Gentle encouragement toward transition is one of the most difficult conundrums of parenting because it rarely feels good, though it’s often the right thing to do.

Laurel struggled with separation anxiety that started in infant day care and lasted through the end of kindergarten. It was hard. Really hard. In kindergarten, we endured colossal freak-outs at drop-off for about six weeks, both at the beginning and end of the school year. It felt as if we would never make it out of the woods, but we just hung in there and stayed focused on Laurel’s competence, listened to her with empathy, and stood firm in our support of her teachers and classroom. It was a magical moment when she bounced off to first grade with a wave and a smile.

Following are some strategies to try if your child is reluctant to embrace school independence:

At Drop-Off

You’re eager to get the kids off to school and start your morning. But if your child is struggling with anxiety, even five or ten minutes of “transitional assistance” can make all the difference. Plan for extra time during drop off (and schedule your morning meetings to begin 15-30 minutes later than usual) to reduce your own anxiety about getting to work on time.

Remain Calm

Rule number one. When you can manage to stay calm, patient, and supportive, you’re removing fuel from the fire of the situation. It’s so hard not to show your worry or frustration, especially if you’re dealing with daily “I don’t wanna!” tantrums, but deep breathing—and keeping in mind how big a transition this is for your child—helps put things in perspective. If you lose your temper—and you will (we all do)—just get down to your child’s eye level, apologize, give a hug, and start again.

Listen

Sometimes kids just need to air their feelings, know they’re being heard, and understand that what they’re feeling is normal. Really, we all feel better when we can have our feelings and effort acknowledged, right?

Jason via BostonMamas.com: We help our five-year-old find words to express her frustration and feelings. We listen but don’t try to solve her problems. I find that helping my daughter become more adept at these kinds of “thinking about feeling” skills helps her so much more than giving her specific advice about a given situation.

Joan via BostonMamas.com: Tell a story about a time when you started something new (job, project, etc.) and you were scared at first, but you came to love it. It’s comforting for kids to know they aren’t the only (or the first) person to feel as they do.

Affirm Trust

Some kids experience separation anxiety when they don’t yet trust their new set of caretakers. Convey your faith in your child’s teachers, and reassure her that you would never put her in a situation where you didn’t trust the people caring for her.

Given how much we struggled with Laurel’s transition during kindergarten and the disastrous camp attempts the following summer, we laid off camps completely the summer after first grade (instead opting for a babysitter). Given my work commitments, the summer following second grade, I definitely needed to book Laurel in some camps and I wondered how things were going to pan out, particularly given that Laurel’s first week of camp was at a program where she didn’t know anyone else attending—she had simply opted in based on the content (that, by the way, was a huge step for her).

As I took Laurel to her first day, she seemed very calm but I felt I wanted to be explicit about the trust factor . . . it was a mantra we repeated a lot during her challenging transition periods in preschool and kindergarten. I said, “Laurel, the people who run this program have been doing it for a very long time and I have heard really good things. So if you have a question or feel a little nervous or whatever, it’s okay to talk to the grown-ups. They are safe. But, if you feel uncomfortable with anything at all, please talk to Daddy and me right away, okay?” Laurel chuckled a little in the back seat and said, “Of course, Mom, I know you wouldn’t send me somewhere unsafe. Don’t worry!”

As it turned out, on the first day we received the full report from Laurel; she really liked her camp counselor but she thought the drama teacher was “weird.” I probed for a more specific definition of “weird”—Jon and I feel it’s crucial that she feel empowered to speak up (and trust that she’ll be heard) when her gut or experience tells her something is off. It turned out that she didn’t like the drama teacher’s sarcastic demeanor. All of this is to say that it’s important to affirm trust in teachers and it’s important to let your kids know they can and should tell you if something is (or even feels) wrong.

Send a Reminder

Whether it’s a concept (such as kisses from a parent as described in the classic “off to school” book The Kissing Hand) or a physical object (such as the family picture locket Christine got Laurel for kindergarten), little reminders of home and family can help ease the transition to school.

Partner with the Teacher

Let the teacher know ahead of time that your child is wary at drop-off time. Make a specific plan for a positive but quick handoff.

Keep Drop-Off Predictable

Have a mini drop-off routine in place so that your child knows what to expect. She’s probably feeling extremely anxious, so won’t be able to process much else . . . in this situation, autopilot is everyone’s friend. On the way to school, a quiet conversation outlining the order of events can help keep her distracted and calm the “what ifs.” “First we’ll walk in, then we’ll hang up your coat, and then I’ll give you a big hug and goodbye kiss, and then Mrs. Lovely will hold your hand and walk you into class.”

Remind Your Child to Keep Busy

When you’re bored or unhappy, time drags, but when you’re busy, time flies. Remind your child about this, and suggest that if she starts to feel sad, she should ask the teacher for a different activity—something to keep her busy so the time passes more quickly. (A heads-up to the teacher will help here, too.)

Make Goodbyes Short

At the end of your drop-off routine, warmly but firmly say goodbye and deliver your child to the waiting arms of her teacher. Try to maintain a soothing “It’ll be just fine” demeanor (so difficult, we know).

Arrive Early for Pickup

Commit to arriving a few minutes early for school pickup. Your child will gain so much comfort from knowing he can count on seeing your face as soon as he comes out the door.

Trade Roles with Your Partner

If you find yourself locked into a rough drop-off routine with your kid, arrange to swap with your partner for a while. A little distance might be what both you and your child need to start fresh.

After School

Your kid made it to the end of the day! This is a major accomplishment! If you can, try to avoid running errands right after school so you can take time to reconnect and hear about the school day. If someone else is in charge of school pickup, try to keep the after-school routine simple, predictable, and relaxing.

Play High/Low

Boston Mamas contributor Sheri (a teacher) shared this great tip: ask your child to play “high/low” and tell you the best and worst things about the day. This little game will help your child find ways to cope with the hard stuff, but also recognize the positive. Knowing these extremes will also make it easier to give the teacher a heads-up.

Build In Celebrations and Milestones

Whether it’s a small treat, a sticker on a chart, or a five-minute living room dance party, celebrate the end of each school day during the first challenging week or two.

Connect with Friends and Family

Sometimes a phone call to a buddy or an understanding grandparent can work wonders. We’ve both found that our children seem more willing to dig for the positive spin when talking to friends or relatives.

Don’t Dwell

The more you, as the parent, dwell on the negatives, the worse things can get. Try to stay positive and move forward.

Kim via BostonMamas.com: I’ve learned after three kids to not feed into negativity. There is such thing as giving too much of a forum for feelings—believe it or not, sometimes they just want to sound off and don’t need you to make it better. Acknowledge their anxiety but don’t reinforce it by giving it lots of attention. You might say “Sometimes I feel nervous when I go to XYZ, but then I’m so proud when I make it through.” Then change the subject. Feeding into it validates that they should hate it or be worried. Act like it’s the most normal thing in the world and then get on with everyone’s day.

Thank the Teachers

Make a point to express your gratitude to your child’s teachers for their patience and kindness. While most teachers are accustomed to separation anxiety, it still raises the tension level for everyone. Letting them know you appreciate their extra effort makes a huge difference.

Other School-Related Social Challenges

Bullying and other peer-to-peer issues at school are beyond the scope of this book (you’ll find our recommendations for books about bullying in the resources section). However, many of the strategies we suggest for handling school anxiety apply. Here are a few more ideas:

Stay in Touch with the Teacher

When there are issues with other kids in the class, let the teacher know. It’s easy to assume that teachers are aware of everything going on inside the classroom, but realistically it’s impossible to track every interaction. Your input will help the teacher keep a finger on the classroom pulse. Also, when you can keep the teacher abreast of classroom difficulties, he or she can identify learning moments for the kids and also might be able to share some advice on how to help your child handle the situation.

One year, Laurel was bullied by a classmate. Since I never crossed paths with the parents at the schoolyard, I raised the issue with the teacher. She thanked me for letting her know and built in a classroom discussion about personal space and respect later that week. I was so glad I talked to her—having the teacher address the situation in a general way with the entire class not only saved Laurel from being put on the spot, but completely diffused the situation between Laurel and the bully.

Try a Different Medium

Kids won’t always be able to articulate what’s bothering them. Sometimes, they may be too embarrassed to talk about it. Christine and Jon have found that Laurel can often share difficult issues more easily by drawing a picture or writing something down.

Connect with Parents

Problems between classmates can be diffused and addressed more quickly when the parents in the school community are connected. Sometimes it’s tough—for example, if you never see certain parents at drop-off and pickup—but in general, just do your best to get to know the families in your community before problems arise. Over time these touch points will help smooth the inevitable conflicts and awkward moments that happen during the school year.

If you find yourself having to meet a parent for the first time due to a problem between your kids, try to remain open, matter-of-fact, and brief. Apologizing in advance, tiptoeing around the problem, or coming on too strong will only make an awkward situation more difficult. Make it clear that you want to work together to find a solution for both kids.

Getting Connected to the School Community

One of the ironies about the school experience is that, while your laser focus is on your kid, the context is actually collective. Friends, parents, teachers, school administrators, neighbors—this is a team project in a big way, which means there’s a wonderful opportunity for community. But it also means more—more time spent on school-related activities, more people and schedules to track. Isn’t more the problem we’re trying to solve?

Yes. And the way to solve it with respect to school is to recall one of the keys of Minimalist Parenting: we’re in this together. Embracing and strengthening your school community is the key not only to less work, but also to more meaning, connection, and fun.

Drop-Off and Pickup

Ah, the school drop-off and pickup. Sometimes this is the only regular interaction you’ll have with your child’s school. It can be a time to deepen your “feel” for your kid’s experience and maybe even grab a few impromptu minutes with other school parents. Perhaps it’s a quick drive-by. Or perhaps it’s a moot point—you’re at work, so someone else drops off and/or picks up your kids. Whatever your situation, it’s worth taking a moment to think about this moment of transition to see if there’s an opportunity for building community.

Take Notice of the Other Families Along Your Route

They’re prime candidates for pickup and drop-off swaps. Don’t limit yourself to people you and your child already know—look for an opportunity to introduce yourself and your child, and see where it goes.

Walk Your Kid to the Door

If you drive, park and walk to the school door with your child. Even a couple minutes together smoothes the transition into school, and it gives you a chance to connect with other parents.

Hang Around

Some of the best friendships are made in five-to-ten-minute increments, so stick around for a few minutes after you send your child off. Introduce yourself to the school’s office staff. Scan the bulletin boards outside the office. Familiarize yourself with the faces of the school, including the janitorial and the lunch staff.

Arrive Early to Pick Your Child Up

Same idea—you’re opening the door to serendipity. Your next good friend may be standing right next to you.

Get Familiar with Your Child’s Classmates

Get to know the kids your child regularly greets. Learn their names and begin to notice how your child’s classmates tend to “flock” and hang out together so you have some context for your child’s school stories.

Offer to Drop Off or Pick Up Nearby Neighbors

Don’t be afraid to call the parents of your kids’ friends, or to reach out to families who live nearby. You don’t have to commit to a regular setup—Asha has made some good friends (and helped her kids do the same) by offering to be “on call” as a school dropper-offer or picker-upper for families along the route to school. It doesn’t matter that the kids don’t know each other well or hang out together at school—it’s an easy way to help out another parent and to pull the strings of the “village” a little tighter.

Volunteering at School

There’s no quicker way to get a feel for the school, the teacher, and the peer culture than to spend time on campus during school hours. Volunteering will also jump-start your face time with other local families. However, it’s not a foregone conclusion that “good” parents volunteer at their kids’ schools. And sometimes it’s simply not feasible given work schedules. Check in with your inner bus driver on this one. Ask yourself:

• Will your child enjoy having you at school or does he prefer keeping his “turf” separate?

• Will your presence bring out the happy or the clingy in your kid?

• Do you want to volunteer? It’s okay to say no, or to say “yes, but only on field trips” (or whatever). There are many ways to help and get involved with school that don’t involve volunteering during the school day.

If you’ve decided that volunteering is for you, check with the office (or your child’s teacher or classroom coordinator) about the school policy and how to get started. You might choose a weekly time slot in your child’s classroom, or you might work on specific tasks. Perhaps you’re the committee type—if so, look into the school’s PTA. If you’ve got event-planning skills, consider working on a school fundraiser or event, or plan a classroom party.

Liz via the Minimalist Parenting blog: Being a full-time working parent, I lose out on the after-school pickup conversations and connections that happen while the kids run out the school door, throw bags at the moms, and then sprint to the playground. To connect with parents within the school community I volunteer a couple hours a few weekends or some late-afternoon work breaks for “special events” in our school—setting up for a Halloween bash, painting murals, cleaning up. The efforts are appreciated by the organizers and I get to meet parents and teachers I may not meet in my class-specific interactions. Additionally, when my daughter entered kindergarten, I befriended a group of moms and we started getting together every month or so for a “Mom’s Night Out.” It’s a great time for us to all get away for a few hours, talk about our lives, and what’s going on in school and in town.

When Laurel started elementary school I carried a lot of guilt. My parents were always too busy to participate in school events and I wanted nothing else but for my mom to accompany the class on a field trip or help out in the classroom. And Laurel is exactly the same way; if I could come in every day and perch on the corner of her desk she’d be thrilled.

My guilt stemmed from the fact that I work full time (actually, more than full time) yet because I work out of a home office, I felt like I “should” be flexible and volunteer. At some point I told myself that it was time to let that go and simply focus on contributing where I wanted to contribute, whether that was bake sales (because I love baking) or helping to sew a class banner (since I’m really good at sewing rectangular things). It was liberating to realize the judgment was completely in my own head. It also helped to realize that when it comes to parent involvement, truly, every small act is appreciated.

Susan of emeraldcoastfl.com, via the Minimalist Parenting blog: We’re bus people, and have been since kindergarten, so I missed that before-school pickup and drop-off chat with other parents. I generally let my son take the lead. Once he identified some friends, I would reach out directly to parents to set up playdates. I also tried to pop in for lunch once a month or so, and tried to attend most special events. Our teacher was really good about scheduling things first thing in the morning so work-outside-the-home parents could stop in before work.

Whatever you choose, be sure it’s an activity you enjoy. If volunteering starts to feel like a chore, your child will sense your ambivalence and much of the value will be lost. If that happens, it’s best to follow through on your commitment, and then find a different way to support the school.

The logistics and emotional underpinnings of your child’s school year are a huge part of your parenting experience. By applying a little organization, and balancing the support you provide with the independence you’re encouraging, you can participate in your child’s education while still reserving time and mental space for your other priorities.