Q: This far into the semester, my second-grader and fourth-grader still can't get into a school-year rhythm. The younger one forgets his lunch; the older one can't remember which night is Cub Scouts. My wife leaves for work early, so I'm the "traffic cop" who feels guilty when they get on the bus in tears. Help!
A: Tears are no way to start a school day. It sounds like your kids aren't emotionally ready for the routines that school requires.
"Children need to be explicitly taught to manage and embrace the job of being a student," says Shirley Harden, a retired principal who coaches parents on how to do this. "Most families send kids to school rested and fed so they have energy. But kids also need a full tank of mental energy, with their heads clear so that they can learn, make good choices and deal with life's glitches.
"They get that energy by knowing that they have an important job -- to be a student and assume the job's responsibilities."
Parents teach these job responsibilities by establishing a structure for school days, outlining daily rules and routines and practicing them so the structure becomes a habit, says educator Marcia Tate, author of "Preparing Children for Success in School and Life" (Corwin, 2011). Here's how:
-- Spell out and model expectations: "Explain that it takes contributions from every family member to make a household run smoothly," says Tate. "Discuss what they can do to make the family function more harmoniously. Stress the importance of doing their jobs well and model it. Want them to make their beds each morning? Make yours, too."
Rather than tell children what not to do ("Don't leave your lunchbox there"), tell them what to do ("Please put your lunchbox on the kitchen counter").
-- Practice routines and procedures: "Routines can be centered around getting ready for school, what happens when the school day ends, cleaning up after meals, doing homework or getting ready for bed," says Tate. "The more routines are practiced, the faster they become a habit. It may take three or four weeks for kids to develop the habit of making their beds."
-- Hold kids accountable: "Tell your children you expect them to follow through on job commitments you've discussed and established as a family," says Tate. "Decide on consequences for noncompliance and stick with them."
-- Relieve stress the night before. Carry out tasks (laying out clothes, gathering books and getting papers signed) the night before. Are kids buying or taking lunch? Go over the next day's schedule to note nondaily activities, such as clubs. Try for regular bedtimes: Research shows that they can reduce behavior problems and increase focus for kids this age.
-- Schedule a positive ritual to end the day: "A nightly wind-down just before bed is important," says Harden. "What you call it doesn't matter -- it's the ritual that counts. You might read, recap the day or plan the weekend. Draw out concerns and deal with them. No one wants to go to sleep with a worry list."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)