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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘‘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
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:
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
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:
‘‘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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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:
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.
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:
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.