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Former principal spills the rules of back-to-school

The first day of school may be a ways off, but one former elementary principal says parents need to start preparing now. Here’s what you need to know that might NOT be in the official school guide, from lunch practice to perfect potty manners.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

I don’t like being a buzzkill. I really don’t. But that what I was every summer when I’d send my “Back to School” mailing as an elementary school principal. I always timed my letter about a month before the first day, for the same reason all savvy moms give a 5-minute warning before something unappealing is about to happen. It was my attempt to plant a seed: Savor your child’s fleeting moments of summer, but also get your parental act together, because come day one of school, my teachers mean business!

In the interest of making back-to-school smooth and stress-free for you and your child, here are my top 10 pieces of advice.

10. Unpack (for parents of our returning students).

Unpack the backpack from last year! I know most of you chucked it to the basement, or shoved it under a bed — I’m a mom, too — but there’s likely something perishable in there. If you open it now, you can spare your child the embarrassment of returning with a book bag that smells of decayed bananas, or even better, spare yourself the expense of a new one!

9. Crack those books.

Turn off the X-box, Wii, or Playstation and check that your older student has completed their summer reading.  I know, I know, I know! This summer was going to be different!  You were going to make sure that assignment was done right away, but then you blinked, and it was August.  Don’t panic!  There’s still time.   Now get crackin’!  (Required summer assignments can most likely be found on your child’s school’s website.)

8. Shop early, shop often.

Avoid that night-before-school-starts run to Target by checking things off the supply list now!  By carrying a copy with you and doing it piece-meal, it won’t seem like such a chore!   (Most school supply lists can be found on your child’s schools website.)

7. See the doc.

Schedule your back-to-school doctor’s appointments and attend them, preferably, before school starts.  We do check those vaccination records!  The coaches do need those physical forms before the first day of practice! And, for the love of chocolate (and I do love chocolate—hint) don’t forge them—we can tell!  (Most required medical forms can be downloaded from your child’s school’s website.)

6. Lights out.

Start reining in your child’s bedtime. I know some of our students have grown fond of Nick At Nite, but it’s time to get the evening routine back to school hours!  Begin gradually, with five to ten minute increments at least two weeks before school starts. It lessens the blow of that first early morning.  Not completely, but it helps. I promise.

5. Lunch practice (for parents of first timers).

Practice eating from a lunch box! That means pack your child’s lunch using all the same Fort Knox-like containers you’d normally use.  And remember, those juice bags and squeezable yogurts can be tough for little fingers, so practice opening everything. It will make lunch time less stressful and more filling!

4. Remember: Dessert first.

Start thinking about packing those lunches and remember the Rule of Reverse Course Eating. Not familiar with the rule? Most kids, given a wide variety of food choices while out of the sight of a parent, will start with dessert and work backwards leaving the healthiest choice for last.  Simply stated, if you pack a sandwich, an apple, a juice box, a milk carton, a bunch of grapes, a bag of chips and a Ding Dong, your child will eat the Ding Dong, the bag of chips, the juice box, a bite of their sandwich, and toss or trade the rest!  Remember, keep it simple — keep it healthy.

3. Teach your little man to stand.

For incoming kindergarten boys: Start perfecting pottying Big Boy style, now!  What do I mean?  Make sure your little guy can complete his business standing up and seal the deal by shutting the barn door.  Sitting down with undies around the ankles is not going to cut it anymore.  He’s in the big leagues now.  It’s time to man up!

2. Pay a visit. 

Complete a dry run to ease the jitters. Come play on our playground, take a walk through our halls.  Practice opening a locker, or spinning the combination on a lock. Kids are like adults in that the unknown breeds anxiety. Ask your child what they’re nervous about and then conquer their fear. It will make you and your student feel more confident.  (Give your child’s school a call if you need access to the building.  Most will do their best to accommodate your request!)

1. Carpe Summer.

Take the above nine suggestions and tuck them away!  Seize this last month of vacation and make as many childhood memories as possible. Before you know it we’ll all be shoveling (snow and homework) again. 

Carolyn Savage is a former elementary school teacher and principal who traded in her administrative stripes to stay at home with five children. After she’s cleaned out her kids' backpacks and practiced packing lunches, you’ll find her writing about her constantly evolving life on her blog,!

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TODAY's complete Back to School guide