Meghan Burns: Kindergarten Teacher, Palmetto Elementary School
Linda Dwyer: President, Miami Palmetto Senior High PTSA
Rita Field: School Counselor, Palmer Trinity
Sabrina Garcia: Senior, Palmetto Senior High School
Lynn Zaldua: Principal, Pinecrest Elementary School
Educators, parents and students on the front lines give us their best tips for a successful school year.
Impose structure and routine.
Almost every expert we spoke with mentioned structure and the importance of a routine. But that doesn’t mean that that routine is the same for every student. “I think children thrive when they know what is expected and when,” says Dwyer. “For one child, coming home and getting homework done right away is best. For another, she might need to run around before hitting the books again. Whatever the routine, allowing the child to have predictable plan is empowering.” Zaldua agrees, “In my experience, elementary-aged children thrive best when there is structure at home and parents provide established routines.”
Don’t underestimate the power of a snack.
For Zaldua, giving kids a healthy snack break after school not only allows a moment to decompress, but gives parents and caregivers a chance to spark conversation. “This is a great opportunity for parents to discuss how their day in school went,” she says, suggesting questions such as “What was the best thing that happened in school today?” On the student end, Garcia suggests bringing older students a snack while they’re working on homework or studying for exams, calling it not only a show of support, but also a way of “re-energizing” for the afternoon or evening.
Keep track of success and always give praise.
Burns, Field and Zaldua all suggest creating a designated spot in the home for schoolwork and Burns likes the idea of creating a sticker chart to motivate younger students to read every night. Additionally, she suggests celebrating accomplishments throughout the year, whether it is a good grade, overcoming a difficult situation or displaying good behavior in the classroom. “Sending sweet notes in the child’s lunchbox is always a thoughtful surprise,” she says. Zaldua also advises keeping track of older kids’ work on online programs with a checklist, and encourages even the simplest positive reinforcement. “Praise them for their efforts,” she says. Field echoes the sentiment. “Parents should focus on their child’s efforts rather than grades. Providing positive reinforcement of what they have done well goes a long way,” she says. In addition, Garcia says reminding students of upcoming events such as senior trips or college tours can create incentives to do well and put forth maximum effort, “knowing something great is soon to come.”
Find learning in the everyday.
With Burns’ younger students she likes parents to continue the learning process even outside of the classroom. “Incorporate lessons that are learned in school into daily life, for example, reading street signs or asking what letter items begin with in the grocery store. You can create math problems using real life situations, or let your child tell the time for you (you can get them a watch) or let them count money in your purse or make change in the store.”
Make sure they get free time, fun time and a good night’s sleep.
In addition to reinforcing school goals (“always encourage kindness,” says Burns.), teachers, parents and administrators say free time is a good thing. “Our kids are so overscheduled,” says Dwyer, a mom of three. “Children need time to imagine and dream. They need to read for fun, play outside and even be bored,” she says. Burns agrees, suggesting plenty of physical activity and limited screen time. They all also stress the importance of sleep.
Don’t let homework get you down.
Perhaps the most hated of all back to school changes, homework time can be a ten-minute blip or an all out war. But Zaldua says it’s never intended to be stressful. “If you feel your child is taking too long with homework you should schedule a conference to discuss other strategies or accommodations with the teacher,” she says. “Students will naturally resist working on assignments at home (many adults do too!), but holding students accountable for completing their work will prepare them for future chapters in their life.” Parents can also help by setting up space in a common area for student to complete their work. “Doing homework in the bedroom can be too distracting if they are receiving messages from friends,” says Field.
Burns agrees that letting teachers know if home learning is too easy or too difficult can be useful and result in accommodations, and says letting even young children be independent is important. “Parents can check for accuracy and address any concerns or mistakes with the child or their teacher,” she says. “Pay attention to what the child is having difficulty with so that the teacher can work on this in class and provide suggestions for the parents to ensure success.” Field, too, builds on that idea. “Ask them questions about their work, but don’t do the work for them. Help your child think through assignments so he/she comes up with the answers or understands the process.”
On the home side, both Dwyer and Garcia are fans of getting work done as soon as possible. “I see kids start homework at 6 or 7 pm after a full day of school and activities,” she says. “At this point both the parent and the child are exhausted.” Echoes Garcia, “I believe homework is something you just have to get over with. Procrastinating in high school is not really an option, especially in AP courses. My philosophy to minimize stress when it comes to homework is to complete it or begin the assignment when it is assigned.”
Keep lines of communication open.
For students of all ages, navigating the social aspects of school can be tough. All of the experts agree that open lines of communication are key to understanding what’s going on. “Instead of prying, I think a better approach is to let your child come to you and have a safe environment, free of judgment, where kids can confide in you,” says Garcia. Dwyer suggests making your home a friendly environment for students and their friends to hang out and says she tries to maintain a balance while still being involved in school and activities. Field also suggests asking specific questions. “Check in with your child by asking questions such as: ‘What was your favorite part of the day?’ ‘’Did your science class go better today?’ ‘Did you and your friends get along ok,’” she says. “Parents need to put their own devices down and really listen to their child. They need to make themselves available when their child wants to communicate, even if it’s at bedtime. It’s important for a child to know that a parent is truly interested in their day.”
Dwyer, obviously, is a fan of joining the PTA or PTSA, as is Zaldua, who points out that they have “many committees and opportunities for volunteering.” She also advises parents to continually check the school website, app and social media (and kids’ backpacks!) to stay on top of school events. For Burns, it’s also helpful when parents donate time in the classroom. “Teachers spend a lot of time cutting, gluing, laminating… If parents can assist with this the teacher can concentrate on preparing meaningful lessons for the students,” she says. “Helping prepare a science or art lesson is helpful as well.” But most of all, Zaldua likes to remind parents that they are the best example when it comes to school time. “It’s important for parents to follow school rules,” she says. “You children are always watching! Be a good example to them.”
Reach out…via email.
All of the experts on the school side agree that a note or email is a great way to reach out to your teachers. All have email addresses via the Dade county school system and should share them on the first day of school. Once you establish contact, a face-to-face conference can alleviate any concerns when it comes to your student. “Parents should be proactive to prevent any situation before it’s too late,” says Burns. “Try to meet early in the year and not the day before an important test.” As a Principal, Zaldua encourages the same, asking parents to follow a chain of command that begins with their teacher. “If there is an academic or behavioral concern that cannot be resolved with the teacher, the Assistant Principal assigned to that grade level/department or the school’s counselor should be the next point of contact,” she says. “All concerns that cannot be resolved by the Assistant Principals or Counselor should be directed to the Principal.”
Know your child.
Zaldua suggests setting long and short term goals for the year and discussing them with students to get their “buy-in,” and stresses that parents know their child best and are their first teacher. Dwyer, too, says setting realistic expectations and then supporting kids through those can help tremendously. “Every child is different and if we celebrate their successes while supporting them in their struggles that can help them to keep pushing through the year.”