Does the back-to-school season ever feel chaotic to you? Or perhaps this is your first time going through it, and emotions are high? If you’re looking for ways to make this start to the school year a bit more calm, you’re in the right place reading this blog post. (Also see below for a workshop you can join on September 6, 2023.)
I’ve done the back-to-school thing a bunch of times now, with boys who are entering 5th grade (his last year of elementary school) and 7th grade (his second year of middle school). And there are two things I’ve found particularly helpful during this always-a-bit-nutty time of year.
First, I view everything up through September 30 as the “start of school.” When I set the expectation that things won’t feel even quasi-normal until October, I don’t get as stressed out when by mid-September, we’re still a bit disjointed as a family. As I always counsel new parents who are returning to work from parental leave, these major life transitions (and back-to-school is one of them!) are processes or seasons, and not one-day events.
Second, I’ve found it helpful to use the same framework I teach new parents for the return to work after baby, for the return-to-school in the fall. What is this framework, you ask? It’s an intentional and organized focus on 4 (and only 4!) things.
4-Part Framework for a Mindful Return-to-School Season
When to-do lists are spinning through your head, and everyone’s feeling a bit anxious about everything being new, I find it helps to anchor ourselves with a framework. Focus on these 4 things as you prepare for the start of school. And tune everything else out.
Back-to-School Anchor #1: Mindset
The first of the 4 themes I like to focus on is about getting your head as a parent – and your children’s heads as students – in a good spot for the return. Before you pivot to the school year, spend some time intentionally closing out summer. At a family dinner one night, pick up a pen and paper, and take notes while each family member answers the following questions about the summer you just had:
- What did you most enjoy about the summer?
- What is one, specific, favorite memory?
- What is one thing you hope to do next summer?
The writing it down part is really important! I find my children are more present and know I’m taking them seriously when I write down their answers. Looking ahead to next summer also reminds them that these fun times will come around again.
Next, look ahead with intention to the upcoming school year. Pick your pen back up and write down each family member’s response to the following questions:
- Wordstorm: What are some words that describe how you hope this next school year will feel?
- What’s one thing you know you love about the school year?
- What is one thing you hope can happen this year at school?
This is also a good time to return to whatever daily micro-mindfulness practices you know can serve you well. Taking even just a few minutes a day to breathe and calm your own nervous system as a parent can go a long way toward having a smoother return. Here’s how to do some box-breathing, which is one of my personal favorites.
Back-to-School Anchor #2: Logistics
On the logistical front, start early in making a list of what you’ll need to acquire / buy / figure out before that first day of school. Here are some things you might have on your list:
- School supplies (schools usually provide a list by grade level; some schools allow you to purchase all at once through services like Sprout)
- Transportation plan / subway or bus pass
- Lunch / Snacks
- Clothes and shoes that fit each kid
With respect to the schedule, you may need to start shifting a child’s bedtime little by little, as the first day approaches. Also, if you take nothing else away from this post, heed my advice to not overschedule the first few weeks (and weekends) of school! Try to keep the calendar as clear as possible, especially when your kiddos are really little, as we all need time to decompress and play.
Finally, remember that as schedules shift, it’s really important to revisit conversations about the household distribution of labor. What worked over the summer in terms of who-does-what-at-home, probably won’t work the same way in the fall. In the words of Eve Rodsky and the “Fair Play” system, your cards probably need to be re-dealt. (If you haven’t sat down to watch the Fair Play Documentary with your partner, now’s a good time to do that!) Don’t forget to include your kids in age-appropriate household responsibilities, too.
Back-to-School Anchor #3: Leadership
Now is an excellent time to remind yourself that working parents make amazing leaders. Pause for a moment, and jot down a handful of the skills you’ve gained through working parenthood that are also useful to you in your career. Keep these skills top of mind throughout this transition period.
In your workplace, how can you show up as a leader who’s going through a life transition? Here are a few ideas:
- Discuss with colleagues the season of life that you’re in. Talk about how you may need a little bit more flexibility over the next few weeks.
- Determine whether there are projects you can get ahead of now, before the school year starts. Or perhaps assignments that can be shifted in time.
- Normalize this time of year as being one of change for many people. Be open in sharing your experiences with colleagues and check in with others who are also part of the back-to-school circus.
One final leadership idea: involve your children in donating school supplies to kids who may not be able to afford them. Many communities have local school supply drives, or you can contribute internationally through UNICEF’s school supply donation page. Give your kids a dollar amount limit and let them choose what your family will donate.
Back-to-School Anchor #4: Community
It’s time for me to utter one of my favorite refrains: don’t go through any major life transition alone!! Find others at your same employer, in your neighborhood, and in your friend group who are also working parents going through this same back-to-school transition. (Feeling like you’re lacking a good working-parent community? Join the Mindful Return 201 group that’s kicking off on October 2!) Your organization’s working parent or caregiver ERG or network can often be a good place to start.
If your school offers grade-specific start-of-school play dates, make an effort to attend with your kids. In a few weeks, if room parents organize a class dinner for the parents, get a babysitter and go. If you drop kids off at a playground or bus stop, linger sometimes and get to know the other parents. Yes, I know this can take time and life is hectic. But these parent connections are so incredibly important. Not only do they provide camaraderie and friendship, but I’ve discovered they are important sources of school intel and sanity checks!
Remember, We’re All Just Experimenting
This back-to-school season, pause and congratulate yourself on getting to this stage of working parenthood. Celebrate how far you’ve come as a parent (at least for your school-aged kids!) in getting past swaddles, and diapers, and naps. And celebrate the path your career has taken through it all, too. Hold everything lightly these next few weeks, and remember that nothing has to be permanent. No one has all the answers. We are all experimenting every day, and you’re doing an amazing job supporting your children as they enter their new life stage, too.
Join me for a 1-hour live workshop to talk through all of your back-to-school stressors on Wednesday, September 6, from 2-3pm Eastern / 11am-12pm Pacific. (Can’t make it at that time? We will send everyone who registered the recording afterward.) Register here! (Cost is $49, and participation is limited to the first 100 registrants.)
Want more practical tips on working parenthood? Check out my book, Back to Work After Baby: How to Plan and Navigate a Mindful Return from Maternity Leave