Calming the Back-to-School CHAOS

In Kiddos, Molly Lancaster by Lola Magazine

Just as my mom used to, each year before the first day of school, I tell my kids that it is going to be the best one yet. They roll their eyes at me and say that I repeat the same thing every year (which is true.) However, with the advent of the most unusual back-to-school situation any of us has ever known, I think the optimism is more warranted this year than ever! This long, strange, unusual year of life/work/school has tested all of your Super-Mom superpowers. It promises to continue to try your patience, sap your energy, and demand your best organizational skills. And you’re left wondering just how to pull it all off.

So, what is the best way to quell the back to school jitters, both for your kids and yourself?

I think a lot of us have gotten used to a slower pace in the past few months. No morning hustle and bustle. No after school meltdowns, because school has been held in our living rooms. No late-night crunch to finish the project you were just told about that day. Exactly how do we ease the transition back to the “new” normal? Whatever it is that YOU do, remember: KISS. Keep it simple, Super-Mom!

There is no right answer on how to do any of this mom stuff, especially when it seems like different schools are making different choices with respect to our children’s educations. For example, our school is doing a hybrid model that combines in-person and at-home learning, which means I’ll be setting an alarm clock for the first time in quite a while. I think I will have to remember what a regular bedtime is! 

When it comes to bedtime, keep it consistent. Shower or bathe the kids the night before school and tuck everyone in on time. Save yourself enough precious time to recap their day, say prayers or thankfuls with them, read a book, or talk about what tomorrow may hold. Everyone is lacking in social interaction these days and the dearth of human touch has taken a toll on each of us. For kids that attend in-person school, they are instructed not to hug or fist-bump their friends. This goes against every instinct our little ones have! Overcompensate — snuggle a little longer, hug a little tighter, and love a little louder. 

Set the alarm earlier than you think you need to, if only to give yourself a moment of peace before the day breaks wide open. If you have kids that can handle the responsibility, have them set an alarm, but if they are like mine, you’ll have to make sure they don’t hit that snooze button too many times. Try rousing the kiddos by blinking the overhead light on and off, or sing a familiar morning rise song, so it sets a cheerful tone of the day for all of you. (And let me know if this gentle approach to wake-up time actually works for you on your first try!) I would suggest pouring a glass of water on those recalcitrant sleepy heads, but that would involve more wash for mom! 

One way to help manage the morning routine is to make a weekly/bi-weekly breakfast calendar. Select an easy morning meal that appeals to your family, and make it each day that you have to get your crew up and out. For examples, Mondays are for oatmeal. Tuesdays, eggs. Do this each week or every other week and you will always know what to put on your shopping list. As an added bonus, after a while, you can almost prepare it on autopilot! Lastly, make it a rule that they have to come to the breakfast table (or counter or couch or wherever your kids eat) already dressed for the day.

My children wear uniforms, but every night, I make sure that they have selected one for the next day so that they are ready to go the following morning. This is especially helpful if your school does not require uniforms. If that is the case, put a bin under the bed with five days’ worth of outfits containing everything your child will need- including a mask! They can exercise some autonomy and choose their clothes, but won’t be searching for a pair of socks at the last minute. One mom I knew just let her kids sleep in their clothes for the next day, which certainly sounded odd until I tried to get three kids out the door on time. If it works for you, do it! Either way, you’re not scrambling for a clean shirt when you’re trying to arrive at school before the bell rings. This probably doesn’t sound like groundbreaking advice, but it’s a habit I still carry over to this day. 

Speaking of suggestions that might not be groundbreaking but will break the morning chaos cycle, if your kids take a lunch, make it the night before. Have them help you prepare it with food they like so you know it won’t be traded for someone else’s Swiss cake roll when you sent carrot sticks. Put their lunch in the fridge with a sticky note on the front door as a reminder, and have their backpacks lined up nearby so you’re not running after the bus or making an extra trip to school to deliver the forgotten items. 

Set a timer. Watching the numbers count down on the microwave (or better yet, listening to the ticking of an “old school” egg timer) helps children grasp how much time they can spend dawdling before they actually have to put on their shoes and brush their teeth. It might even save you from repeating (or yelling) for the umpteenth time for them to go and do those same exact things! A parent can dream, right?

Turning to after school, if it all possible, have snacks waiting for them when they get off the bus. Alternatively, employ the tactic that one parent I know used: feed them dinner right after school. Then later in the evening, have a second dinner of cereal or something equally light and easy. I can think of some teenagers that would love to fit in a fourth meal of the day! (Mine included!)

Before you dive right into homework, let them jump around a little bit. Take a minute for some downtime and chill. Have that afternoon snack or early dinner. It’ll give them some brain food to focus on their homework. On the subject of homework, put a calendar by their homework/virtual school area. Mark off due dates, and later, note the grades they received so they can chart their progress. It helps ease the stress of a deadline to see it written down. As I told my son, doing the prep work isn’t always fun, but the feeling of preparedness is the best confidence booster. When they see for themselves the outcome of the hard work they put in, their commitment to success is perpetuated. 

When moving from downtime to homework time, or really from any one activity to another, remember that kids do not shift gears well. They cannot turn on a dime from one thing to another, and function best in a structured environment. Knowing what is next eases the anxiety of any transition. Give your children a countdown to the end of the current activity, and moving to the next phase will be much easier. When I call out “five minutes,” my youngest knows that is the five-minute warning, and is satisfied to happily wrap up her task at hand. They can focus on completion and adjust accordingly whatever comes next.

While you are on the task of stocking their distance learning area and searching endlessly for those elusive Clorox wipes, think about making an “extras” basket. Supply shopping can be fun for kids if they get to select their notebook colors and label their USB drives in preparation for the new year. It eases some of the angst they may feel by having their gear in order. Knowing they have a surplus of supplies for future use or to share with a friend who might not be quite as equipped will surely make back-to-school a little brighter. While you’re at it, don’t forget to grab some poster board and at least one project board that will most assuredly be needed at the last minute. One thing is certain — buy early because these necessities will cost a lot more in January! 

To continue cultivating your routine, assign your kids a “day.” For example, if you have two kids, one gets an even numbered day and the other an odd one. Rotate the number as needed to work for your family (1, 2, 3, if you have three kids, a day off and a day on if you have one child, etc.) This works for the “who gets the front seat” debate if you have more than one child old enough to sit in the coveted right hand spot. It will also solve the dilemma of what to watch on movie night as well as who gets to make the dinner selection or select a special treat if they meet a goal. (It is also worth noting that I am all about a harmless bribe. No one — including you — cried on distance learning day? Goal met! Ice cream for everyone!)

As for a special treat, consider incorporating a small tradition into back to school. For example, we get frozen yogurt on the first day of school. We might not get it for the rest of the year, but it makes the first day momentous. I get to hear all about their inaugural adventure in a fun and neutral environment. This year, of course, it might be fro-yo to go in the park, but it’s still going to be a celebration of our “thing.” And for those parents who share their babies and might miss the first morning and taking those back to school pics (that you’re sure to have to see plastered all over social media), having a tradition of your own will make YOUR first day back with them just as memorable and special (and likely a lot less stressful) than the actual first day of the school calendar. 

Lastly, school nights can be hectic. Sometimes, at least in the “before time,” we often ate on the fly, rushing from school to practices to games. If you rarely get the opportunity to sit down at the table as a family, try to make it a priority, even if it is only once in a blue moon. Moving dinner from the couch (or the car) and being able to relax and actually talk over a meal will renew your mom heart when the conversation starts flowing around the dinner table. It won’t happen every night (and if it does in your house, I am one amazed mama!) but achieving that goal will be as rewarding as the meal you share with your people.

Above all, do it YOUR way. 

Pick and choose ideas and tips that work for your life. Especially now, as we head back to learning in unprecedented times, just remember that parenting in a pandemic (and of course parenting in general!) definitely doesn’t come with a handbook! You got this, Super-Mom. 

Molly Lancaster

Hailing from Mandeville, LA, Molly has a flair for adventure, an affinity for spicy food and Sonic coke, and is rarely happier than when she is at a music festival. When she is not busy being the proud mom of George, James, and Charlie, Molly works as a criminal prosecutor based in South Louisiana. She obtained her undergraduate degree from Louisiana Tech before going to LSU but part of her heart will always be in North Louisiana. Molly reads a lot, enjoys a wide variety of different craft projects that she occasionally even completes, and doesn’t think tacos should be relegated to Tuesdays.