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July 27, 2015

Mission: School

By Tampa Bay Parenting

The air feels electric as Ashley Phelps looks around the colorful classroom. The early morning sunlight pours in through five large windows, bringing the bright colors on the walls to life. The fresh smell of Lysol and freshly sharpened number two pencils fills the room—it is an intoxicating blend of excitement and nerves.

She strains her ears as the first sounds of sneakers squeaking on the linoleum of the hallway begin to echo. Which of those sneaker squeaks belong to one of her students, she wonders. What will their personalities be like; how much will each child learn and grow through the next year?

“The first day of school is truly a whirlwind- the main goal, after all, is to get to know the kids and develop a routine and schedule,” Phelps says.

Like many teachers, Phelps spends at least a week, sometimes more, preparing for the new school year. Learning everything from new district policies to preparing months of lesson plans, she works to make sure that every fifth-grade student that enters her classroom at Valrico Academy in Riverview gets the very best education they possibly can.

While teachers are busy preparing for school, getting the kids ready for the upcoming school year is equally important. The beginning of the year is a key time for kids.

“Kids are more engaged in the beginning of the year than they are in the end,” says Phelps. “They are especially focused in the first few weeks as they feel out their teacher, classmates and the new content they’re learning. In fact, kids are typically consistently engaged up until the return from Winter Break.”

Preparing for the new school year means more than just buying new pencils, sneakers, and school clothes. One of the most important things that you can do for your kids to get them ready for school is to start a routine, and start it in the weeks before the first day of school.

“When school lets out for the summer, it disrupts a child’s routine,” says Maria Negron, director of programs for the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County. “Parents or caregivers of any kind need to prepare their child for school starting with their routine.”

Routines will both prepare your child to return to school, and can actually help boost a child’s sense of security and overall well-being. It also ensures that kids are eating and sleeping at regular times without a jolt to their system on the first day of school.

Negron says: “When parents change their schedules and everyone is on a constant routine, it shows the kids how much you love them and it really contributes to a sense of security.”

Getting into a routine is not only important for the student, but for the parents as well.

“It is important that families and teachers build these routines early. It creates a sense of comfort that allows students to focus on what really matters– learning,” says Phelps.

While routines are a major part of preparing your kids to go back to school, starting their learning process before the first day is an oft overlooked part of preparation.

“We hope to encourage families to realize that the more comfortable kids are with learning and getting information, the easier it will be for them to transition into the school year,” says Marni Fuente, program director of the Early Literacy Matters (ELM). ELM works with teachers, parents, and students to make sure that younger children learn crucial literacy skills that will help them excel for the rest of their lives.

Spending time reading to and with your kids is one step that Fuente suggests to help get your kids ready for school. She also recommends talking to your kids—tell them about what school is like and encourage them to ask questions so that they are ready to do the same at school. This not only gets your child ready for school, but gives them much-needed family time.

“The skills that kids are learning when they are young are just as important as other skills in life, so it is important to really engage with them,” says Fuente.

Getting kids ready for school and ready to learn can also be made easier when the child is involved in community programs. There are a number of programs at the Children’s Board Family Resource Centers that can help kids connect so that they are able to ease some of the anxiety of the new school year, while still fostering learning. These range from puppet theatre to science workshops with everything in between.

“The [Family Resource] centers even have a Lego free play time to help get kids thinking creatively,” says Negron. “Kids can even work on robotics. The Family Resource Centers gives flexibility to families so that they can be ready to learn, and there is no criteria to get to participate.”

If your child is experiencing a great deal of anxiety over the new school year, especially if they are changing schools, it is important to talk to them and to let them know what to expect. Encourage them to tell you what they are afraid of so that you can address the anxiety head on. It may be more intense than just the jitters, so try to really hear what your child is saying.

Negron suggests getting your child involved with a mentor. This can give them access to someone who is a little older than they are and who can really help them understand what the new school year will be like and can help them excel throughout the school year.

Finding a mentor who works in the field your child is interested in can foster a new level of learning that can translate into the classroom as well. A mentor who can also tutor is a huge bonus.

Especially when changing to a new school, be it from pre-school to elementary, elementary to middle, or middle to high school, it is important to make the effort to get to know the teachers and the school before the first day. Take your child with you to the open house, and communicate with the teacher in more than just emails, recommends Phelps. This can also resolve some of the anxiety that your child may be feeling.

Before the first bell rings, Phelps will be ready for every child that enters her classroom. She hopes that the kids, clad in their new school clothes, holding pencil cases and brand new erasers, are just as excited and ready as she is.

“There’s a key to it all. They’re still kids, and we want them to embrace it,” says Phelps. “Childhood ends too abruptly and there’s no turning back once you enter the long and tumultuous realm of adulthood. Kids are excited about a new school, and those memories are the ones that live on for years to come.”

For more information on programs at the Children’s Board Family Resource Centers, visit ChildrensBoard.org. To learn more about Early Literacy Matters, visit EarlyLiteracyMatters.com. Don’t miss the Suncoast Credit Union 8th Annual Back to School Fair on August 8 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. for everything you need to get ready for returning to school. Visit BacktoSchoolFair.com for more information

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