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School

Giving Your Children the Best Possible Education While You’re Hard at Work

Beyond the kids’ physical health and safety, nothing is as important to you as their education: it’s their potential, their minds, their future. But when your five-year-old is having a difficult time adjusting to the school routine, your eight-year-old needs help with a science project, you’ve just had a critical client meeting scheduled at the same time as your parent-teacher conference, and the test that determines who gets into the accelerated math group is next month, too, it puts you in a real bind. You’ve already got two important jobs, and staying on top of your child’s education means taking on a third.

When you can pinpoint what makes the start of school so hard, though, it can help make the transition a little smoother. And with some specific workparent tactics and approaches, you’ll be better able to handle all of those details and logistics while focusing on the piece that really matters: your child’s overall academic development and long-term success in school. To learn more, read on.

Why the Start of School Is So Hard—and How to Make It Easier

When your child enters school for the very first time, the small, happy, trusted, stable workparent triangle you’ve created between you, your child, and your caregiver(s) is suddenly broken open. A huge new cast of characters takes the stage: teachers, school administrators, the school-bus driver, sports coaches, new friends, the new friends’ parents, the new friends’ siblings, and so on. As exciting as “big kid” school is, it also means that academic pressures begin to set in, and for the very first time, you find yourself thinking not just about your child’s safety and happiness, but about his performance, abilities, and future. Adding to the challenge, many of the practical working-parent solutions you’ve used up until now and the daily routines you’ve so carefully honed over the past few years—the pickup time and backup care plans, the way you’ve stayed connected to your child while busy at work, even the way you spend your mornings and evenings together—may have to be revisited. The changes are many, meaningful, and disconcerting, and it can be a jolt to realize that something so profoundly positive, and that you’re so deeply committed to—your child’s education—is throwing you off your game.

‘‘I work with a lot of my clients in the mornings, evenings, on weekends, which meant that before my daughter started school, I got to spend weekdays with her. I took her to all her playdates, and we went to ‘mommy and me’ classes. I loved that time together.

Then she started school, and all of a sudden, it was gone, and that was awful. I had all these strange emotions: that I should be working more to provide for her—even though that made no sense, and nobody had said anything like that to me.

I realized I had to make some concessions in my schedule and carve out time, just for her. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are Daddy-daughter time. But the biggest change is that I’ve made that time more intentional. I’ll take her to her tae kwon do class, and then we’ll practice the forms together. I’ll take her to her favorite pizza place, and while we’re having dinner, focus 100 percent on her.”

—Justin, fitness educator, father of two

All that said, here are several ways for you to get ahead of the schooling challenge, to defuse some of that tension, and to make the move to school easier and happier, for the whole family. These techniques work both in that very first year and in all of the back-to-school seasons that follow.

  • Provide a positive preview.  Whether the start of school is smooth or strained will depend, in large part, on how your child feels about it—which will depend in turn on the cues you send. If your child’s first year in school, or fifth, goes undiscussed, it remains mysterious and scary, but if you refer to it excitedly, read your child stories set in happy classrooms, assure her that you’ll be carving out extra time from work to be with her in those first few days, and even do an informal school visit together, the whole transition will lose some of its sting. Set the tone, up front.
  • Get the family calendar under control.  The start of school means an exponential increase in both the amount and complexity of the working-parent logistics you have to deal with. If you haven’t yet developed an organized, integrated, single-view family calendar and established times for regular review of it with your partner and/or other caregivers, do so now. Then, as soon as the school calendar is available, ensure that all of those dates are loaded in, with special events and exceptions—like Curriculum Night or the earlier pickup time on the Fridays before holiday breaks—clearly flagged. (For more specifics on managing the family calendar and competing priorities, look ahead to chapter 10, “Time.”)
  • Make—and protect—time for the transition.  Try to find as much give as possible in deadlines, travel, shifts, and work responsibilities for the two weeks before and after Day One of school. For those critical first few days, mark drop-off and pickup times as “booked” on your work calendar if you can; even if you’re not physically there, you’ll want to be available. (Expect to do the same at the end of year as well, when class events and parent obligations usually peak.) Plan on letting other personal and community obligations go during this period.
  • Rehearse.  Before school starts, hold a “dry-run day” to practice the morning getting-ready routine, the lunch-box prep, and the dual commute. What makes transitions feel so destabilizing is their unknowns; the more natural the daily routine feels, the easier it will be for your kids to learn and for you to work without worry.
  • Create a key-people list.  As you learn the names of your child’s teachers, friends, fellow class parents, the school librarian, lunch attendant, and so forth, write them down on a single consolidated list. When you’re pulling long hours at work, you’ll feel much more informed and in-charge knowing exactly who your child is interacting with—and being supervised by. It will make conversation with your child easier, too. Asking your son if he finished the tie-dye project in Mr. Delgado’s art class, for instance, will prompt a much better conversation than simply asking “How was your day?”
  • Partner with other parents.  With babies and toddlers, it’s very difficult to pass off childcare responsibilities. But during the school years you can—and should—develop a trusted circle of fellow parents who can help with pickups or carpools, when you have to work late or there’s a school cancellation because of terrible weather. Don’t worry if you don’t have a team in place yet: this group will emerge organically, as you connect with like-minded mothers and fathers in your child’s class throughout the year, and gradually you’ll feel more comfortable asking for and offering specific help.
  • Acknowledge your own emotions.  Starting school is a big deal for your child, and let’s be honest: it’s a big deal for you, too. As you approach Day One you may find yourself buffeted by multiple, contradictory feelings. That sense of relief (I’m glad she’s becoming more independent and we don’t have to pay for daycare anymore!) may be accompanied by disbelief (My baby’s starting school?), loss (How has the time gone so fast—and did I miss too much of it while I was working?), or self-doubt (Will she do well even if I’m not home every afternoon to check her homework?). Each of these feelings is completely normal, and you’ll likely find that all the other mothers and fathers in the class, whatever their work commitments, are thinking and feeling various versions of the same. Those concerns should begin to dissipate as your child settles into the school routine, as the whole family adapts to the new rhythm, and as you get to watch—and enjoy—her new experiences and achievements.

Fostering Learning—and Success in School

Even if you’re to-the-wall at work, you can still be your family’s chief learning officer and nurture the kids’ academic achievement.

Educating them at home—and every day

Most formal, structured learning happens in a school setting but don’t make the mistake of thinking that school and education are the same thing, or that the development of your child’s intellect is somehow inherently better handled by school professionals. You’re always your child’s most important teacher, and you don’t need a blackboard, flash cards, worksheets, or an advanced degree to be a first-rate educator, either: you can foster your child’s learning naturally—day to day and at an any age—with a few simple techniques.

  • Read—together and apart.  A primary driver of your child’s success in school is how much he reads and how much he enjoys it. Read aloud, let your child read alone, and let him see you enjoying your own reading material, also. For great ideas on age-appropriate books, ask for your school’s reading list or check out your local library.
  • Step up your vocabulary.  Use newer, more-complex words and phrases. Go a few grade levels ahead. If you child doesn’t know a new word, explain it, use it in a sentence—and then be sure to use it again several times over the next several days to “cement” its use.
  • Ask “why” and “how” questions.  Encourage the kind of independent, logical, multistep thinking that will be required on standardized tests, later on in school, and in adult life by asking such questions as, “Why do you think fire trucks are red?” “Why did the bear give away the apple at the end of the story?” “How would you solve this problem?”
  • Count it.  The more time your child spends thinking about numbers, the more easily she’ll latch onto important math concepts, and daily life brings ample opportunity to think numerically. Ask your child, “How many cookies do we have here?” When she answers “five,” respond by asking, “So if I give one each to you and your sister, how many would we have left?” Addition and subtraction—pain free.
  • Encourage interests and expertise.  Your child may be obsessed by ceramics, swimming, outer space or all three. Support her as she learns to enjoy research, sustained interest, and the sense of pride that comes with knowledge and mastery of a subject.
  • Get out there.  Use weekends, vacations, and spare time to visit museums, libraries, historical sites—many of which offer free entry or reduced rates for children and families, and may offer special online access, tours, or programming.
  • Amp up the screen time.  Don’t give more of it, of course, but choose more-educational options. The science-oriented show can keep the kids just as engaged and happy as their favorite cartoon program.

Fostering academic success: what really works

In 2014, Professors Keith Robinson, of the University of Texas, and Angel L. Harris, of Duke University, published The Broken Compass, a large, first-of-its-kind research study analyzing the impact of more than sixty different types of parental involvement on long-term student performance as objectively measured by grades and test scores. The study looked at more than three decades’ worth of data, and across a large, diverse set of students and families. The study sought to answer the question, What really works, in terms of parental involvement in children’s education?

The key takeaway: many common forms of parental involvement have negligible impact on educational achievement. In fact, some common forms of involvement—like hovering over homework assignments—are actually correlated with reduced academic outcomes.

So what will, for the most part, work? Reading to your child; making it clear that you expect him or her to go to college/university; talking about what happened during his or her day at school; and requesting that the school assign your child specific teachers all show the most-consistent benefits to children’s achievement outcomes.

Bottom line: don’t worry if your work responsibilities make certain kinds of engagement in your child’s schooling difficult, or if you don’t have hours to spend on school volunteer activities. Keep your focus, and your family conversations, centered on the value and long-term importance of education, and on enjoying learning for its own sake.

Homeschooling

‘‘My wife is a trained educator, and we homeschool—but we also try to help them learn new things all the time. I’ve always excelled at math, and I’ll try to find ways to work numbers into things the kids are passionate about. Vacations, we avoid crowds and costs and take them places they can see something new. We want everything to be a learning experience.”

—Robert, learning specialist, father of three

‘‘Our work allows us to spend part of each year living abroad and homeschooling. In a way, we had that working-while-overseeing-school Covid-19 experience before it happened. A few things have helped us make it work.

First, we keep the hours limited. Home is usually a respite for kids—and if they have to work too long and too much, school begins to feel like a punishment. Second, we set expectations for the kids that they have a job to do here—just the way we have jobs, too. And third, because we’ve realized we can’t teach them everything under the sun, we focus on what we want to leave them with—on our family’s values, how we want them to approach things.”

—Shelly, communications firm founder, mother of three

Developing a strong relationship with your child’s teacher(s)

Teachers and school administrators are your key allies as a working parent. They educate—and evaluate—your child, they provide important insight into his ongoing development and needs, and they serve as parent-like figures for hundreds of hours each year. Besides you, they’re the most prominent figures in your child’s education—and future. It’s critical to develop strong relationships with them, and to do so early on.

Plan to communicate openly and directly, especially when changes in routine or other events at home may affect your child’s behavior or performance at school, and expect that some, if not all, of that communication will be by phone or email rather than in person. Tell the school office that you’ll be away on business next week, in case your first-grader acts out. Flag it when your son is struggling with his foreign-language homework—and ask about the best ways to support him. Let the science teacher know your daughter loved the chemistry experiment. Write a thank-you note, copying school administrators, to the math teacher who stayed after class to tutor the kids on long division. You may not get much, if any, response—remember, each teacher works with dozens of parents—but rest assured, your message and approach will be noticed. And just as you would with any important customer or senior person at work, plan to keep those communications regular. You don’t want to be a nag or a pest, but you do want to stay top-of-mind. Bring the old client-coverage rule in here: if you’ve gone three weeks or more without being in contact, find a reason to get in touch.

To strike the right tone when dealing with school professionals, think of each one as you would a trusted coworker: someone who you appreciate and depend on, and whose constructive comments you take graciously, offering your own in a spirit of respect, trust, and good humor. Teachers are highly trained and extremely hardworking professionals. They’re also humans—and often working parents themselves. They’ll notice and appreciate your warmth and collaboration, and likely respond in kind.

The committed professional’s guide to parent-teacher conferences

Your parent-teacher conference may feel like a performance review, but it isn’t. It’s a collaboration—a place from which to refine your educational game plan.

As you listen to the teacher:

  • Remember that every child, yours included, has ways he or she can develop. Be open to what you hear. Take the attitude that both you and the teacher are working toward your child’s long-term good.
  • Listen and absorb without reacting. Periodically paraphrase to make certain you’re understanding exactly what the teacher has said. For instance: “She seems happy in the classroom, but is shy around new peers?”
  • Compare notes: when a development area is discussed, tell the teacher whether it’s a surprise or consistent with what you observe at home.
  • Grasp the context: Is this a completely normal challenge for most six-year-olds and likely to resolve itself without intervention, or should you be consulting a specialist? To ensure clarity, ask the teacher whether the issue she’s flagging falls under the category of observation, concern, or problem.
  • Turn the teacher into a coach, and consultant: have her tell you which activities or approaches you could use to support your child in these areas while she’s at home.

As you leave the meeting and afterward, be certain to focus on the totality of what you heard—not just the constructive or developmental areas, but the whole. Shyness and phonics may be concerns, but if your daughter works hard, has made friends, and has adjusted beautifully to school, then that should be your primary take-away.

‘‘We divide and conquer, and coordinate. I’ll go to Curriculum Night, and then my husband will go to parent-teacher in person while I videoconference in on his phone. The teacher sees my face and knows she has my full attention. That way, we both get to be present, and the teachers know we’re both involved.”

—Keywanda, senior timekeeper, mother of two

Homework

Take-home assignments were originally intended as a way to teach kids responsibility and to reinforce lessons taught at school. Unfortunately, homework can all too often morph into an overwhelming, time-consuming exercise that ends past bedtime, in power struggles and tears. What should be a simple algebra worksheet can leave you feeling torn: of course you want your child to succeed academically, practice resilience, and feel comfortable tackling new challenges—but when you’ve got so little time to spend together each evening, the last thing you want to do is spend it carping at your child to finish her assignment, or checking it for errors. So:

  • Figure out an organizational system that works.  Review your calendars together at the start of the week so that you and your child both know what’s coming as far as homework, quizzes, and tests; set up special baskets to hold uncompleted assignments and library books to be returned; and have your child lead “backpack check” each evening. Think like your work self: get the whole team involved in making the system work as smoothly and time-efficiently as possible, and in improving it when it doesn’t. When setting up your routine or organizational system, think what’s age-appropriate and will work for your child. Your daughter won’t be able to file her papers into special folders if she can’t yet read the labels, and a color-coded system may work better if she’s visually oriented, anyway. But do find your system: if you can keep things calm and shave even ten minutes off the evening ritual, that’s a lot of emotion and relationship value saved—and an hour more a week to spend reading with the kids.
  • Emphasize that homework is your child’s, rather than a family, responsibility.  Encourage your kids to start their assignments earlier in the day and involve any other caregivers in reinforcing that message. Even if you plan to review your son’s Spanish conjugations, let him know that you’re there to help when he’s truly stuck, not to remind, nag, proofread, or otherwise serve as unpaid labor. As he grows, help him think ahead about bigger projects, particularly ones that involve research or special materials. As the science fair approaches, for example, ask “What’s your plan?” for making the papier-mâché volcano rather than leading the project yourself.
  • Hold a family study hall each evening.  Make it a family ritual to have daily, silent, dedicated work time around the dining table together. The kids do their homework, while you catch up on office emails or reading. Pick a reasonable length of time—ten minutes for a young child, ninety for a teenager, for example—and set a timer on your phone to go off when time’s up. When it does, the whole family gets to enjoy downtime or a relaxing activity like watching a favorite TV program together. Not only will you set an example, your kids will learn how to focus better, to work more efficiently, and to use the “sprint and recover” approach when tackling a large workload—all skills that will make them more successful and happier in school and in their futures. You’ll also have established a clear boundary between work and play, which is vital and healthy for all of you.

‘‘We set the expectation early on that homework was the kids’ responsibility. Sure, if they need help or for us to check something, we will. But in general, evenings should be family time.”

—Jeff, investor, father of two

After-school activities—and ways to think about them

After-school activities can supplement your child’s education in wonderful ways, help you “stretch” care arrangements, and bring an element of fun into the relentless homework-and-testing cycle of modern education. If your daughter loves field hockey, if it lets her blow off steam, if it fosters her discipline and perseverance, and if it keeps her busy until 5:30, when you can pick her up, well, then everybody wins.

Play and playdates

You’ve reached professional success because of your focus, prioritization, and action-oriented mindset. In the work world, these get you ahead but try not to bring too much of that same outlook and approach into your kids’ education. A key part of your child’s learning comes through play—which, unlike work, is inherently undirected and not focused on any particular outcome.

Consider blocking off a certain amount of time per day and/or afternoons per week for your child to spend in completely unstructured activity, and be sure to keep materials that encourage open-ended, creative use—like building blocks, art supplies, and dress-up costumes—around the house. And organize regular playdates, if you can: learning how to navigate relationships and get along one-on-one with others is a critical part of your child’s development. An afternoon spent building—and knocking down—Lego towers or playing hide-and-seek in the yard with a friend is just as educational and valuable as time spent in the classroom.

Taken too far, however, after-school activities can put terrible pressure on any working-parent family. Overscheduling exhausts children, making it hard for them to perform academically or, for that matter, to behave well at home. Certain sports and lessons can become jaw-droppingly expensive, and the commitment required for others can seriously encroach on the narrow windows of evening and weekend time you would otherwise get to spend with your child.

Here’s how to keep perspective, ensure that extracurricular activities remain a positive, and make the choices that are right for you.

  • Avoid using activities to plug an emotional hole.  It can be easy, if you feel guilty about working long hours, to “compensate” by stretching to pay for expensive ballet lessons or by spending all weekend, every weekend, focused on your child’s chess tournaments. And, particularly if your professional life is a very demanding one, you may try to convince yourself that success on the stage or playing field now will make your child’s later life much easier. (She won’t ever have the financial struggles you’ve had if she becomes an Olympic athlete, right?) Those instincts show the depth of your commitment as a parent; you want the best for your kids, after all. But overpaying, overscheduling, and overextending will only make working parenthood harder, and very likely reduce the benefits those same activities are supposed to bring. Besides, your kids may prefer spending those hours doing low-key, at-home activities instead, or in dedicated one-on-one time with you.
  • Stay neutral and balanced.  For each potential extracurricular activity, carefully consider its pluses and minuses. If it helps your child academically or socially and doesn’t require huge expense or time investment, great. If it makes scheduling and logistics easier, even better. But beware activities that leave you feeling like you’ve got yet another job to do.
  • Go slow.  For anyone used to pushing themselves at work—and to thinking in terms of sales quotas, time-to-market, performance reviews, and the like—it can be tempting to take a “more is more” approach, cram in as many extracurricular activities as possible, and do each one to the max (to join the competitive football team, for example, instead of the local league). But your child is still growing; she doesn’t have an adult’s focus, energy, or drive, and her livelihood—fortunately—doesn’t depend on her performance on this field just yet, either. Think about setting reasonable limits—e.g., one after-school activity per week or one sport per season—and let your kid say no if she wants to. Remind yourself that you can always sign up next semester, or as she grows and her interests change.
  • Reinforce the lessons.  Help your children “see” and apply what they’re learning in extracurricular activities in other areas of their lives: to use the good sportsmanship they’ve learned at tennis in social situations, for example, or to use the same kind of can-do spirit they picked up at Scouts in geometry class.

Making the Time—and Being There

Your job pulls in one direction, parenting in another, and school commitments in a third. Here’s how to be where you’re needed, when you can’t be in three places at once.

Talking with your manager and colleagues about school commitments

Even if you’ve grown confident discussing care arrangements or visits to your child’s health provider, talking with your manager and colleagues about school-related issues can feel different—and harder. “I need to take my sick child to the doctor” may seem like an easier, more defensible message than “I need to meet Mia’s teachers” or “I’ll be offline this afternoon for the school play/bake sale”—which seem more elective.

Instead of worrying or being defensive, try explaining the why, not just the when, of time away from work, and think about using the same priorities, next steps, commitment, enthusiasm framing tool you’ve used in other workparent conversations. For example, rather than telling your boss and colleagues that you’ll be “out of the office tomorrow afternoon,” explain that “I won’t be available from 1:00 to 3:00 because of a meeting with Mia’s teachers. Her math scores have been suffering, and we need to figure out the game plan for next year. I’ll be back online by 6:00 p.m., and I look forward to going over the budget draft at tomorrow’s meeting.” The second statement will be more comfortable to share, will make it easier for colleagues to understand, sympathize, and ally themselves with you—and will do a better job of telegraphing your commitment.

Volunteering

Even with a very flexible job, it’s unlikely you can make it to every school performance, library fundraiser, and field trip, even if you wanted to. So here’s what you can do instead.

In the first week of school, tell your child’s teachers and/or the school’s volunteer coordinators that you’re eager to put in your fair share of sweat equity—but that you will be doing it all in one go. You’ll schedule a personal or vacation day well in advance and use it entirely for school volunteerism. Maybe you’ll be the “reading helper” in your daughter’s class in the morning, walk the school’s neighborhood safety patrol in the afternoon, and take the minutes during the school fundraising-committee meeting at 5:00 p.m. When the day is over, you’ll enjoy knowing that your yearly contribution has been made in full—and efficiently. That “I’m not doing enough” guilt will go away, and you’ll be able to focus back on family and career.

Interacting with nonworking parents

In many school communities, there’s a subtle—or not-so-subtle—tension between working and nonworking parents. People make assumptions and judgments about individuals in the other group, and it may even feel as if there are two opposing “camps.” Do not be influenced by or play into this dynamic! Who cares if other parents have made different choices? And anyway, from a practical perspective, nonworking parents can be some of your best allies and informers—keeping a watchful eye on playground dynamics at pickup, sharing information on school happenings, and just generally being your eyes and ears on-site. There is simply no value to be had in an adversarial, “us versus them” stance. Do what you can to close the divide, create good relationships, and be an example for others around you—including the kids.

‘‘At first, I wanted to be involved with the school in a way that would let me use my skill set. Now, I only take on projects that I can do with the kids. I want to be smart about getting as much time with them as I can.”

—Michelle, marketing director, mother of three

If your child’s school requires you to contribute supplies or materials as well as time—if you’re on the hook to bring in the class snack once a month, for example, or to provide decorations for the end-of-term class parties—keep it a “one and done” hassle. Go to your local discount retailer, buy that huge crate of generic-brand granola bars (or paper plates, or art supplies), and have them in the basement ready to go when you need them. No more adds to the to-do list or frantic night-before trips to the convenience store; you have better things to do with your money and time.

How to be present—and what to do when you can’t

As someone completely committed to your child’s education, you’ll likely feel it essential to be there, in all senses of that term, throughout his school experience. But when you’ve got a crazy schedule, are at work, have limited flexibility, or—most likely—all three, then showing up, even virtually, can be tough. When your job or pay depends on your hours, full concentration, or physical presence—if you’re a nurse, pilot, or retail salesperson, for example—it may be impossible. Even amid nonstop work pressures, however, a few specific strategies can help you feel and be more present.

First, make the windows of time you do give to anything education-related regular, even if brief. If you can’t do drop-off every day, fine, but perhaps you can do a “Daddy drop-off day” once every other week. If it’s impossible to make it home before homework is done on a regular basis, don’t kick yourself about it, but do have a daily five-minute video call to help on that hardest math problem. That consistency, and not sheer hours or physical presence, will let you feel on top of things, and help your child feel your complete commitment.

‘‘I’ve tried to train the school to give parents more lead time on school plays and other big events, because if I know about it two months out I can sometimes schedule around it. If I can’t, I’ll tell my daughters, ‘Dad loves his job, and Mom loves hers. The nature of our jobs means we can’t always be there. But I’ll ask so-and-so to take a video of your concert, and I can’t wait to watch.’ Instead of overapologizing, I just explain. And I don’t wear guilt as a badge of pride, because no one gets advantaged from that.”

—Rick, airline pilot, father of three

Second, think about digging down into the average, day-to-day parts of your child’s education. When you’ve got very limited time, it’s natural to focus on special school events like the class play, holiday concert, parent-teacher conference, or arrival of his report card. Those are important showcases and milestones, and they carry a big psychological premium, but they don’t provide insight on the times when he isn’t performing, celebrating something, or being evaluated. Neither do they give you the chance to show that even though you work hard, you care about what school really looks and feels like. So think about taking a “school day”: a vacation or personal day (or two) per year spent fully focused on the school routine. Do drop-off, have coffee with another parent from the class afterward and compare notes on how the year is going, host a playdate, attend the sports practice, drive the carpool, supervise homework, let him test you on those tricky spelling words—and just generally be around with no agenda except supporting and observing. In a short period of time, you’ll get new insights into his life, get to spend a very different kind of time together, and develop better perspective on his classes, friends, and teachers—on the whole-enchilada school experience.

Third, and very practically, don’t be afraid to go high-tech, particularly when you’re in a scheduling jam. Until recently, most of us felt real pressure to make it to parent-teacher conferences in person, and of course it’s great if you can, but the one beautiful legacy of the 2020 pandemic is that none of us needs to pretend that the world will fall apart if we go virtual. If the only parent-teacher slot available is for 3:00 p.m. on a Thursday, a time when you can’t make it in person, alert the teacher that you see this conversation as all-important but that you’ll need to do it via videoconferencing. If you sense hesitation, remind the teacher that you’re in a role—like hers—that means having to show up in person and during set hours. Similarly, when a work obligation keeps you away from the year-end concert, ask a friendly fellow parent to take and send you videos, and then make it your first order of business to watch the videos together with your child, and with great fanfare, as soon as you get home. Those scenarios may not feel ideal. (Would your own mom have “phoned it in” to parent-teacher? Probably not.) But we’re living a twenty-first-century reality here, and the cellphone shots of the slides from Curriculum Night will give you all the important information you need.

Taming the Logistics

Along with the challenges of education and learning, school brings a whole new set of practical matters to contend with. Here are the most important—and how to handle them.

Safety

When your child was a baby and started a new care arrangement, you worried about safety. Could you trust the other adult(s) to take good care of him? Would you know when something was wrong? Those same apprehensions will likely come back now—different, but magnified. School brings new people, places, and situations into her life, and you may feel that you have much less control than you had before. But there are ways to help ensure your children’s security, and to mitigate those concerns.

Whatever your child’s age, means of transport to and from school, and overall care arrangement, make it a habit to:

  • Regularly review—and rehearse—core safety rules.  Make certain your child knows the safety guidelines and habits appropriate for his age, whether that’s “don’t talk to strangers,” “never get in a car with someone you don’t know,” “always buckle up on the school bus,” or “don’t answer the door until I get home.” And don’t leave these simply as platitudes or concepts—practice them. Have your child playact saying “No!” to the talkative stranger, for example.
  • Identify “safe” adults.  Emphasize that there will never be any negative consequence for alerting you or these trusted grown-ups to safety issues or concerns.
  • Ensure she knows phone numbers.  Your child should know where you and/or your partner can be reached during the day, your home address, and the name of her school. (At the same time, explain that she should not share that information with others.)
  • Ensure she knows how to use the phone.  Rehearse phone usage on both cell phones and landlines. (Listening for a dial tone or dialing a long-distance prefix before the memorized number won’t be intuitive for a child raised in the cell-phone era.) If there’s any chance that she will get your voicemail or connected to one of your coworkers when she calls, make sure that she knows what to do next—e.g., to call your partner instead or to say it’s urgent and ask to speak with you.
  • Remain alert during transition times.  The school years mean more transitions than you may have had to deal with before. Your child will be moving—a lot—from place to place. There’s school drop-off, dismissal, the bus to swimming practice, and then the carpool ride home. If you can, keep an eye on the phone when you know your child is on the move in case you need to help rearrange pickups, playdates, or transportation. If work responsibilities mean you can’t be available at certain times—if, for instance, you’re on a plane, arguing a case in court, waiting tables, or giving a presentation—make sure your partner is on top of things, ask a trusted colleague to watch your cell, or reach out to your Parent Team for backup.
  • Plan and practice for unsupervised time.  If your child will spend any portion of the day unsupervised, be clear and specific on safety rules and protocols (e.g., no detours on the walk home, no using the stove). Do one or more “dry runs” of the unsupervised part of the day, and discuss what your child should do if he feels unsafe or finds himself in an unknown situation—if no one meets the school bus, for example, or if he starts getting messages from an unknown number. Finally, practice any backups, like ringing a neighbor’s door for help.
  • Get technology on your side.  Older kids may have smartphones, but there are many easy-to-use, inexpensive, emergency-call-only flip phones made for younger ones. For the smallest children, you may want to consider one of the small GPS tracking devices that clip inside a jacket or backpack and let you track their real-time location.

Handling school-related emergencies

When you became a workparent and created a holistic care plan, you carefully established one or more backups. Now, with school-age children, you need to refresh that plan: to adapt it so that it will let you cover those random holidays when schools are out, sick days, sudden closures, and other unexpected events that may interrupt your regular routine. Three things can help:

  • Expanding your network of support.  The elderly relative who couldn’t handle the physical demands of a baby a few years ago may be perfectly capable of looking after a feverish six-year-old or driving over to the school to do a last-minute pickup. Or perhaps that occasional evening babysitter with the flexible schedule can jump in as needed.
  • Collaborating with other parents.  Most families are in the same boat as you are, so see if you can create informal arrangements to cover each other on a rotating basis.
  • Getting ready at work.  If you have to leave work suddenly, who can step in and get the job done? Can you “bank” extra hours—or favors—on the job now to create more flexibility when you need it down the line? Now that he’s older, is there any way your child can spend the day with you at work—and if that’s a plan, do you have enough books or toys or iPad movies at the ready to keep him busy for eight hours?

There’s no single right answer here, but you do want to make sure that you’ve done all of the up-front legwork you can. As you do this advance thinking, new solutions will likely emerge—and you’ll feel more in control knowing you have options.

For more ideas and support for handling sick-child emergencies, turn to chapter 19, “Health—Yours and Theirs.”

When school’s out—but work isn’t

All working mothers and fathers have to cope with time when school stops but work doesn’t. If you can afford backup babysitters or summer camps to help fill in the bigger gaps, that’s great—but those extras require significant resources, and even then, you’ll be left with “stub” days to solve for. Regardless of your circumstances, school breaks will require more of your time and attention and mean that you need to get a little working-parent creative. To make good plans for school breaks:

  • Look ahead, start early, and stay organized.  Most school calendars are set long before the school year actually starts, which allows you to get an important jump on planning for the times school will be out. As early as possible, start sketching day-by-day plans for holiday breaks and week-by-week plans for summer. As you go, make sure you’re capturing all options, information, and next steps in a single, central place.
  • Explore your options.  Check in with other parents at your school to see what their plans are, and ask the school or teachers what other working-parent families commonly do. Does the school have a summer extension program? If your organization has an emergency backup care program, does it cover summers and/or older children? What’s available at your local community center, church, or temple, or at other local community or civic groups, like the Girl or Boy Scouts? Many similar organizations offer cost-controlled summer programs, and financial help may be available. Go broad.
  • Consider costs.  In addition to evaluating the price of each individual activity (e.g., day camp versus a week at Grandma’s versus a short-term babysitter), you’ll also want to add up the totals and see the full cost for the entire summer or holiday break. Don’t forget to include “hidden” expenses—like new gear for the sports camp, or the train ticket to Grandma’s—in your calculations.
  • Explore a collaboration with other parents.  You may be able to form a “vacation pool” with other working mothers or fathers, whereby each one of you takes turns watching the kids on preplanned, scheduled days off from work.
  • Look for help that’s also out of school.  If your younger kids are on break, older kids will be too. Ask your network about teenagers and twentysomethings who might be willing and able to babysit at moderate cost (particularly if shared with other parents).
  • Don’t put more pressure on yourself than you have to.  Your child doesn’t need to be in an academic-enrichment program or advanced tennis classes every week of the summer, and it’s not a big deal if you can’t get a spot at, or afford, the “right” performing-arts camp, either. Slower, unstructured time with a sitter or relative, or in another low-key setting where the kids have to make their own fun, is just fine—and a healthy antidote to all the homework and testing that comes throughout the school year.

Once you have a plan in place, document it carefully, and on a day-by-day basis. And remember to communicate the plan—particularly a complex one—to caregivers, to backups, and to your kids. The more everyone knows what’s coming, the more comfortable everyone will be.

The working-parent-friendly school

You may or may not get to choose where your child goes to school, and you can’t control how that school is managed. But if you are considering various schooling options, or if as a volunteer or concerned parent you’re trying to make your school more working-parent friendly, here’s what to think about and push for:

  • A single, consolidated, institutional and/or class calendar with key dates, holidays, and parent commitments marked out well in advance.
  • On-site after-school extension programs or activities that help you “stretch” the school day to better map to work hours.
  • Clear policies regarding scheduling problems and emergencies. For example, if you’re late for pickup, the school should have a consistent way to keep your child safe until you arrive.
  • A strategy for big-picture emergencies—including those that involve lengthy school closures.
  • Consistent, comprehensive use of technology both to communicate important information like grades and attendance and to handle details of dismissals, to submit health forms, to get notification of bus delays, and the like.
  • Clearly defined, age-appropriate, and limited amounts of homework. Kids should be able to “own” their assignments, and the homework philosophy should be available via clear, thoughtful, written policy.
  • Teachers and administrators who are available—at least some of the time—during workparent-feasible hours. For example, a certain number of parent-teacher conference slots should be available before 9:00 a.m. and after 5:00 p.m., teachers should be willing and able to respond to emails, and there should be clear windows during which you can reasonably meet or speak with school professionals.
  • An active, informal network of fellow working parents. Ask another parent you trust for color or see if you can attend a PTA meeting or review the minutes. (If parent-to-parent discussion is all about new volleyball uniforms and doesn’t touch on after-school care, that will give you an important clue.)
  • Regular insight on day-to-day activities and curriculum. It’s hard to feel connected—either to your child or to the educational process—when you’re not often physically at school. Weekly emails and photos showing “what we’re studying” can provide important information for working parents and serve as a jumping-off point for conversation with your son or daughter.

Focusing on what really matters

With all of its deadlines, complexity, evaluations, and social pressures, school can be a daunting experience, for kids and for their working parents. Amid all the noise, it can be helpful to remember the two key outcomes you—and every parent—are really shooting for: independence and opportunity. You want your son or daughter to develop into a competent, responsible adult capable of managing in a complex world. And you want him or her to find the maximum possible number of open doors in terms of college and later in terms of career. But you don’t need to ensure that your child has a bump-and-bruise-free experience at school in order to get there. It’s OK—desirable, even—for your child to struggle with long division or have an argument on the playground, or for you to miss a few sports games. They’re the experiences every child needs in order to become resilient, independent, and ultimately successful in his or her own right. And remember: school won’t be the only place your child gets an education. Like all parents, you will teach your child the greatest lessons: the importance of hard work, the value of commitments to family, and the satisfaction that comes from a tough, complex job well done.

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