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School Daze

Each month, The Saturday Early Show receives dozens of "Ask Mike" letters (questions for family and adolescence counselor Mike Riera) and in every batch, several parents ask, "How can I get my kids to be more responsible and more organized?" Back-to-school time is the perfect time to hone those skills, so Mike has some advice.

(By the way, Mike has a new job as head of the Redwood Day School, an independent school in Oakland, Calif.)

How involved should parents be in the back-to-school ritual?

The younger the child, the more you should be involved, and even for high school students, it's important that you stay involved. It makes a positive difference, even though the child may not readily share that with you.

In other words, if you're not already talking about the upcoming school year, start today. The beauty of the academic year is that kids have the chance to start anew every September. How many of us would love that opportunity in our work lives? A clean slate every year!

How can I get my child to feel a sense of responsibility for completing homework and keeping track of assignments?

You can't make it happen, but you can improve the odds. Just remember: It's about their growing responsibility from the inside, which means, unfortunately, that you often don't see results right away. They develop the roots of responsibility long before the behaviors bloom.

Set clear expectations and hold them to these expectations. Be interested in their work, the assignments, and what's difficult and easy about them. Your interest helps.

When they complete homework make sure you acknowledge it, but not just with an "I'm proud of you." Your feedback has to point to the internal growth of responsibility, so "How do you feel?" or "You must feel good about that" are better comments.

What are some ways to motivate my child to get organized and, more importantly, make it a habit?

Create a ritual at home:

  • Put the backpack in the same place at the end of school.
  • Do homework in the same place and at the same time.
  • For younger kids, sit nearby as they work, if possible.
  • Make sure they have adequate supplies, from notebooks to pencils.
  • Review their notebooks.

    Kids, just like adults, like the feeling of being organized. Before the school year begins, ask the teachers what they think are essential organizational skills. This prepares you and enables you to get a head start.

    How can I help my child balance the demands of school and extracurricular activities this school year?

    It's important to teach our kids how to set priorities. They can't do everything; at least, not all at once. This is crucial as they move up the grades: Elementary school kids can do many things, but as they get older and each activity requires more time and attention, they have to learn to prioritize. So start early: "We can go to the park and play, or we can go for a swim, but we can't do both. You choose." That's the key: Get them used to making decisions.

    What are some signs my child is on overload?

  • Not sleeping well or not getting enough sleep
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Moodiness
  • Generally, the same as stressed-out adults.

    To sum up: What are the best basic things I can do (beginning today) to get my child off to a good start in the new school year?

    Conversation and Time.

    Remember the 5 P's: Proper Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.

    Talk about routine shifts from summer to school year: Bedtime, curfew and the like, but get beyond this, too.

  • With older kids, ask them what they think your role should be for the coming year. It'll take awhile for the response to unfold, but when it does, you'll have some interesting conversations.
  • With younger kids, plan on spending time at the school during the first few weeks to get to know the teachers and other parents
  • And of course, the old tried-and-true rule: Make sure they eat breakfast. Research again and again shows us how important a good breakfast is to learning. Quite simply, children's brains work better and take in more information when they eat right in the morning. Starting from the very first day, make and keep this a priority, for you and your child.

    Finally, stay involved, but don't try to run the show, either. Just stay involved.

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