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It’s hard to believe that it’s back-to-school time again across the country. Of course, “back to school” means something different now—for some, it means in-person school for the first time since March 2020. As we talk with parents and school leaders, they are dealing with a range of pressing needs from making sure buses are available and on time to the basics of safety and psychological well-being of students.

As we climb the hierarchy of needs, we get to “cognitive” needs: making certain students are learning and are challenged with rigorous material, so they maintain academic progress.  That’s our ultimate focus as an organization (and mine as a parent of three), but we first must jump a number of hurdles to get there.

One key hurdle we all face? Helping students organize, plan, and prioritize.

Here are 2 important ways parents can help improve planning, so students are able to focus—with less distraction & wasted energy—on academic success:

Establish/re-establish structure

For many families, the past school year and, of course, summer meant relaxing certain routines. It’s helpful to involve students in discussions of re-establishing these routines. Collaboratively, families can set clear norms around:

Bedtime: What time is bedtime? What’s the technology policy prior to it (e.g., phones in the charger, NOT in the bedroom)? What prep for the morning must be accomplished first (e.g., picking out clothes, preparing bookbags, planning breakfast and lunch, etc.)?

A well-planned bedtime routine minimizes morning stress and chaos.

Morning: What time is wake-up? Who’s responsible for the alarm clock? Who’s responsible for breakfast? What are the time milestones for key actions (e.g., downstairs, breakfast finished, out the door, etc.)?

A stream-lined morning—executed on time—sets a low-stress tone for facing the challenges of the day ahead.

Keys to establishing successful structure:

  1. Co-planning, so the schedule is created collaboratively and students “own” it;
  2. Visualizing, so the plan is easy to access and remember (e.g., on a white board or in a shared electronic family calendar).

Make an accountability plan for academics

In general, students will have more homework as well as more access to teachers than they’re used to last year. How do we want them to handle the new challenges and opportunities?  An accountability plan for academics can cover—specifically—norms around the following behaviors:

Determine where and when homework is completed–defining this plan engages the student in important self-reflection: “When and where am I most productive in completing work related to my different subjects?” “What can I commit to consistently, so my routine is regular and predictable?”

Establish norms of preparing for & communicating results from tests–defining these norms also engages the student in important self-reflection: “What should my prep time look like for tests or assignments in my subjects?” “How can I make sure to update my parents on my academic progress and challenges along the way, so we are all on the same page?”

Encourage self-advocating with teachers—encouraging students to engage their teachers builds self-confidence and independence.

Establish norms around:

  1. Emailing teachers for clarification around assignments;
  2. Reviewing all feedback with teachers to demonstrate curiosity, engagement, and the desire to improve; and
  3. Visiting office hours regularly to establish rapport and relationships with teachers as mentors.

Keys to establishing an academic accountability plan:

  1. Consistency;
  2. Self-reflection on who the student is and how the student learns/performs best; and
  3. A strong focus on self-advocacy with teachers.

Clear structure & accountability plans—like all educational plans—need to be customized to the unique needs and context of the student and family, but even just the attempt to create them sparks useful, important conversations. The effort helps identify key academic behaviors, prerequisites to successful academic performance now and in the long-term.

Good luck, plan well, and we wish everyone a successful school year!

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