Stepping Through School Days

Advice to guide your child through the stages and phases of education

By Dwain Hebda

Chase Bailey and Family

From the clean-slate promise of new school supplies to the wide grins of first-day photos and the anticipation leading up to that first bell, heading back to school is a landmark event no matter how many times you go through it.

Getting your children through the various stages of their education doesn't get any easier, the challenges simply change at each level. Savvy reached out to Beth McAlpine, parent education coordinator at Centers for Youth and Families in Little Rock, for some advice on how to manage the controlled chaos of your children's school years. 

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In a lot of ways, elementary school is the easiest phase because schools tend to be the most proactive in keeping parents in the loop. You can't very well rely on a second-grader to relay school announcements and scheduling notes, so much of the needed information is funneled directly through to parents. However, parents shouldn't think that the primary education years are a one-way street.   

"Parents need to be partners with the teacher at every level," McAlpine said. "Any concerns you have, let the teacher know. For instance, say, 'We've had a lot of anxiety about coming back to school today; just wanted to let you know that they might be a little bit upset.' The more information the teacher has, the better they are going to be able to deal with the student if she starts to cry."

Children of all ages and abilities can feel some anxiety about school, particularly if it’s a landmark year, such as the first day of preschool or the first year to be attending school all day. Simply changing teachers or wings of the building can all cause initial uneasiness, something that can be eased by activities to help kids get used to what's coming.

"Start early," McAlpine said. "Three weeks beforehand, have them go to bed earlier at night; you don’t want to start that the night before the first day, that’s going to be a disaster. 

"Talk about it. 'Hey how many more days?' Get a calendar and start crossing things off, 'School starts in six more days.' 'Oh, look, here's you teacher let's draw her a picture and send her something tomorrow, what do you want to do?'"

McAlpine said the elementary level is all about giving children a measure of control with what's happening, something as simple as allowing them to pick out the first-day outfit or the contents of their lunch. That also extends to the first-day goodbye, which is generally as tough on parents as it is on kids.

"As for goodbyes, you can practice that if you think it's going to be a big deal," McAlpine said "Are we going to have a special hug, a special goodbye or make it short and sweet. Talk about if they want you to walk them in or drop them off. Give them choices."

SAVVY August 2018 41.jpg
SAVVY August 2018 41.jpg

Middle school is tricky business. Schools get larger, academic expectations get tougher, and activities are more numerous. In addition, students' physical changes and emerging social constructs kick in, making the middle years very complicated for many students to navigate. 

"The first thing is just being in a totally different building," McAlpine said. "Maybe they're coming from a very small class where they’ve been in school with a lot of these kids for a very long time. Now they're going to be mixed up in groups where they're meeting a lot of new people."

Certain variables can make middle school more difficult for some students than others. For instance, kids who are changing schools, who are stepping into a larger system or who haven't had an older sibling to observe can have a tougher time than other peers without these challenges. 

"Coming from a small school setting is an adjustment," McAlpine said. "You have to change your expectations about what teachers are going to do, how they're going to respond. If you come from a class of 30 and now you have a class of 200, that’s very different, and it's going to look and feel different."

Parents should be particularly active during the middle school years, McAlpine said. Not only are kids asked to do more and have more activities, but expectations generally start to shift from automatically communicating with parents to putting more accountability on the kids. Thus, it takes more proactive effort for parents to stay connected. 

"Find out the best way to communicate with teachers and other parents," McAlpine said. "Besides going to orientation, get on their email lists, sign up for the e-blast, check out the website, get on the Facebook page, follow them on Twitter and Instagram. There are so many ways that you can stay informed."

It's also a good idea to keep an eye on the number of extra-curricular activities kids are in during this phase. The stress of trying to juggle everything—including more demanding homework—is more than a lot of kids can handle. 

"It's OK to take a break from a sport if it's affecting school work and attitude and the family, because those are the most important things," McAlpine said. "Another thing is, let's say they are opting to take algebra in 8th grade rather than waiting for 9th grade. And they are stressed out, they don’t get it, and you're doing three hours of homework, getting nowhere and now you're having to hire a tutor. It's OK to say, you know what, this is not for you right now. We'll do it another year."

SAVVY August 2018 41.jpg
SAVVY August 2018 41.jpg

Many parents find today's educational system blurs the hard line that used to exist between middle school and high school, but that hasn't entirely erased the stress that comes with making the transition. And, as McAlpine pointed out, it's certainly fraught with challenges for parents, too.    

"Some of these schools are so big and you meet a lot of different people and its harder to monitor," she said. "You don’t know these families like you did in elementary and middle school; you don’t know where they're coming from, where they live, what kind of rules or expectations they have."

High schoolers are generally less communicative about struggling socially or academically. You can keep track of the latter through homework tracking tools that many schools make available these days, but other issues are often harder to detect. 

"[Teens are] generally going to be more argumentative, 'It doesn’t matter,' kind of thing," McAlpine said. "That’s what you're gonna get when they're stressed out. Some kids will withdraw and want to play more video games or sleep or be more on social media, or not be on social media, depending on what's going on. Other kids will go the other direction and be really social; they’ve got this social circle that they've engineered so that they can avoid everything else. That’s their escape."


High schoolers generally crave independence, so providing them with appropriate latitude is key to their developing good decision-making skills. McAlpine said talking kids through real-world issues while they still live at home is critical.

"Part of this is making our homes look exactly like the real world as much as we can," McAlpine said. "Give them chores and jobs and a lot of that responsibility, within reason. Saying to your high school senior, for instance, 'I know you want to go out with your friends tonight, what time do you think you need to be home? What time do you have to get up in the morning to do what's expected of you?'"

"Especially as you start bridging that gap to college, you need to start talking about what's going to happen in one short year or three short months or whatever it is. 'OK, you're going to be living on your own, how much money do you think you'll need every week? Where are you going to go to the grocery store? You’ve got a 9 o'clock class, what time do you think you need to get out of bed?' They start seeing that cause and effect, cause and effect."