The beginning of the school year is an exciting, overwhelming and nerve-wracking time. From meeting new teachers and making new friends to getting up early and working late, the long days can be jarring—especially after a summer full of outdoor play, video games, and good ol' fashion fun. But you can help ease your child's transition by speaking not only to them about the upcoming year but to their teachers, counselors, educators, and peers as well.
These questions for their teachers on the first day of school will maximize your child's education and help them develop in an age-appropriate manner.
Preschool and Elementary School
What does a normal school-day look like?
While there are a few givens when it comes to elementary education—all young children will learn to read, count, problem solve, and write—the day-to-day semantics vary. My daughter's kindergarten class, for example, focused heavily on reading, writing, and math, but art, science, social studies, and physical education took a backseat. Each curriculum was taught just once a week. So ask what your child will do each day. Ask about recess, projects, group activities, and breaks and voice your concerns. "Don't be afraid to advocate for your child," says Ashley Cobb, an eighth-grade math teacher from Jefferson Middle School in Washington, DC, and mother of four. Children spend most of their waking hours at school; as such, we need to do everything we can to support their social, emotional, and educational development.
How do you handle tantrums, emotional struggles, and aggressive behavior?
Let's be honest: five is a tough age. (Hell, so is four, six, and seven.) Why? Because most children struggle to understand their emotions. Testing boundaries and "acting out" is par for the developmental course. But a good teacher knows how to handle these infractions without being harsh or abusive. "Communication is the most appropriate method for dealing with these behaviors," says Jaime Ewing, an elementary educator in the Bronx. "Punitive and negative consequences will NEVER work... and nothing is learned except an ingrained feeling of 'I am bad and/or worthless.'" So ask your child's teacher how emotional outbursts and tantrums are handled and what their classroom rules are.
When do kids eat lunch and are they allowed snacks?
They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but the value of having a filling and nutritious lunch cannot be overstated. Food gives you energy, which improves mood, concentration, and focus. What's more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nutrition directly affects how (and what) a student learns. However, mealtimes can vary. My daughter ate "lunch" at 10:30 a.m. Therefore, you should ask your child's teacher when mealtime is and what their policy is on snacks. If lunch is extremely early or late, pack accordingly.
My 7-year-old is reading but not at an age-appropriate level. Do you have the capacity to support students who are "behind" and, if so, what do you do?
A lot is expected of children these days. They should be able to spell, recognize dozens of sight words, and have the capacity to complete simple equations and word problems before their sixth birthday, but not every child will learn at the same speed. Some will struggle. "Every student learns at their own pace," says Becky Turner of the Stratford School. "Some students are voracious learners and cannot soak up the learning quick enough... while other students need more time to absorb concepts as they are taught." If you see your child is having a hard time or is expressing frustration and disinterest, talk to your child's teacher and see if they have an aide, assistant, or tutor. Ask about your child's academic habits (in the schoolyard, lunchroom, and classroom) and, if necessary, inquire about an evaluation or IEP.
How do you measure academic progress and "success?"
Success looks different from child to child and school to school, but most districts have a set of specific guidelines they use to determine "progress." Find out what these are on day one and work with your child (and your child's teacher) to ensure their educational needs are being met.
What are kids expected to do for themselves?
This may seem like an odd question, but when you are talking about children—particularly young children—it is very important. Is shoe tying required? Do the kiddos need to put on their own hats, backpacks, coats, jackets, and gloves and are they offered a hand in the lunchroom, where carrying trays can be tricky and opening drinks can be complex? If not, be sure to practice these skills at home and ask your child's teacher for some TLC. A little help can go a long way.
What's the best way to contact you?
It is important to know how your child's teacher communicates. After all, your kiddo will be with the same instructor for nine months (or more) so find out whether your child's teacher prefers emails, text messages, phone calls, or notes.
Middle School and High School
How can we work together to support my child's success?
While older children tend to be more autonomous than their younger peers, they still need our guidance and help. Turner says that "by middle school, parents should begin to step back from their students' academic career to allow their child to learn valuable skills needed for high school." However, since classes tend to be overcrowded and children mature at their own pace, caregivers should remain involved. "Parents should feel encouraged to keep in contact with their students' teachers," Turner said. "Use the school's portal to watch out for missing assignments or grades that slip," and ask your kid's teacher what will be most helpful. They will be able to offer suggestions, guidance, and support.
What can I do at home to reinforce what you teach at school?
Your child will get the most out of their education if you help them stay focused by teaching them organizational, time management, and interpersonal skills. For example, if your child hates working with others but the class involves group projects, talk to them. Listen to their frustrations, difficulties, and struggles and then help them problem-solve. "Be present in your child's life. Be curious about their interests, struggles, desires, and feelings...and then encourage and support them," says David Olinger, the director of digital strategy at Seattle's O'Dea High School. They will fall and fail—and that is important—but knowing they are not alone makes all the difference. Is your curriculum designed to prepare my child for their post-high school career?
Good teachers know that while grades matter, education is about more than reading, writing, and taking tests. "Preparing students for college and life after high school is literally 100 percent of why I do what I do," Olinger says, and most teachers agree. So ask teachers how they support their students both inside and outside the classroom; learn what technologies the school will employ, ask if basic life skills like debating, resume writing, and interviewing are taught, and inquire about extracurricular opportunities. "So much of what is asked of students in traditional classrooms is theoretical and...uninspired," Olinger says. "Letting students know they're part of the world outside the classroom and that adults outside the home and school care about their thoughts and experiences can make a real difference in how they imagine their future, and thus their present decisions to get there."
And finally, ask your child's teacher "what am I not asking but should be?" because while you may believe you've thought of everything, they probably have ideas, suggestions, and insight you haven't even considered.