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More how-to guides for life
Sunday, August 31, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 a.m.
How to's for life A monthly guide

By Stephanie Dunnewind, Seattle Times staff reporter

This week, families with children face the onslaught of everything school entails: busy mornings, carpools, after-school activities, making lunches, dealing with homework. But parents can start the year right by taming the chaos and setting positive routines in place.


• If your child is heading to preschool or kindergarten, practice self-sufficiency skills such as tying shoes, putting on coats, and their knowing first and last names.

• Show students heading to junior high or middle school how to open a combination lock, which they will likely use on hall and gym lockers.

• Organize a first-day-of-school neighborhood party. Meet 15 minutes early at a home or the bus stop and share muffins, juice and, for parents, coffee.

• If a young child is nervous about being away from parents, send a family photo in a backpack, lunch box or key chain.

• Help young children write a letter of introduction to their teacher. Children can share any concerns or worries, express their interests and list a few goals for the school year. Include a picture.

• Ask teachers whether they prefer communication by note, phone call or e-mail.

• Don't linger in the classroom the first morning. Teachers want to get started.

Reminding children of specific tasks is more helpful than a vague, "Are you ready?"

Teachers say it's important for kids to arrive at school on time — calmly. Seattle parent educator Elizabeth Crary, author of "Pick Up Your Socks ... and Other Skills Growing Children Need!" offers these tips for smoothing the morning routine:

• Designate one place for everything needed to walk out the door (for parents and kids): backpacks, coats, shoes, library books, keys, lunches, homework.

• Observe what slows your child down, then eliminate the distractions. Turn off the TV until kids are all ready. If they can't resist playing with bedroom toys, have them get dressed in the bathroom. If they're indecisive about what clothes to wear, insist they set out an outfit the night before.

• Look for underlying reasons why children are balking. If it's for parental attention, promise to read a story or play a quick game once they're ready to go. All the time spent nagging can be used more positively that way. If a formerly enthusiastic child starts dragging in the morning, problems at school may be dampening her desire to get ready.

• Set up a five-finger check for evening and morning routines by assigning a task for each finger. In the evening, for example: put homework in backpack, set backpack by door, set shoes by door, set coat by door, make lunch. In the morning, it might be: Get dressed, eat breakfast, brush hair, brush teeth, get a hug/kiss.


While it's often easier for parents to do a task than encourage a child to do it himself, experts advise parents to help children assume responsibilities.

• By second or third grade, children can take care of their own lunch and serve themselves cold cereal or help set the table for a hot breakfast. With younger children, parents might first help by getting out ingredients while the child actually makes the lunch, or split the duties until kids can do it entirely alone.

• Let children pick out their own alarm clock. For kids who hate to get up, situate the clock far away from the bed so they have to get up to turn it off. By fifth or sixth grade, allow natural consequences to kick in (such as explaining to the principal why they're tardy) if kids don't get up on their own.

• Don't expect immediate independence. While children can get dressed with some assistance by age 2½, Crary found most parents had to supervise or remind kids about getting dressed until age 10.

• Help the child create a checklist for items needed for after-school activities, from instruments and music sheets to various sports equipment and water bottles.

• Have a parent inbox — a hanging folder, box or plastic bin where kids can put permission slips, parent letters or anything else requiring a parent's attention.


• Fill a small box or bin with homework supplies so a child won't have to stop work to search for a necessary item. It might include: dictionary, paper, index cards, markers, pens, pencils with erasers and calculator.

• Make it seem like your child is teaching you, rather than the other way around. If a child asks for help, for example, don't immediately offer the solution. Instead, say, "Wow, I haven't done this for a while. How does your teacher say to set up this problem?" The goal is to lead your child into figuring out himself how to proceed.

• Ask clear questions. In response to "Do you have homework?," some kids consider only specifically assigned daily worksheets — not studying for a test, working on a project or writing a report — "homework."

• Be a visual "anchor" by working or reading quietly in the vicinity of your child. Don't interact unless the child has a question or isn't staying focused.


Some tips for healthful lunches kids will actually eat:

• Make it very easy to eat fruits and vegetables by sending them in bite-sized pieces: peeled oranges, chunks of melon, pineapple pieces, baby carrots or cucumber slices. Send dip for the veggies and yogurt for fruit dunking.

• Copy the appeal of packaged lunches but up the nutritional value. For example, send small, separate portions of low-fat meat, cheese and whole-wheat crackers, plus pudding and a beverage.

• Some options beyond sandwiches: hard-boiled egg, yogurt, chicken drumstick, hummus and pita bread, bread sticks and cheese cubes, cold pizza.

• Some food-safety lunch tips from the U.S. Department of Agriculture: Don't leave any perishable foods at room temperature for more than two hours. Use an insulated lunch box or double-bagged paper bag. Include a small frozen ice pack or frozen juice box to keep perishables cool. Throw out anything not eaten at lunch.

Sources: Nutritionist Ann Litt,; USDA;; "99 Ways to Get Your Kids to Do Their Homework (And Not Hate It)," by Mary Leonhardt; Audrey Thomas, author of "Skills and Responsibilities from Tots to Teens" (; Peggy Umansky, founder of "It's About Time" (; Elizabeth Crary, author of "Pick Up Your Socks ... and Other Skills Growing Children Need!"

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