Back to school time is always so busy. Between buying notebooks and backpacks, new clothes and new shoes, you almost don’t have time to scratch your head and wonder where the summer went. But don’t give in to the mayhem just yet. It turns out that just a little pre-planning on your part can help you and your kids have a more successful school year.

The families in Oak Cliff send their children to every kind of school imaginable — private to public, religious to unaffiliated. And so, to help you get a handle on the upcoming school year, we’ve talked with experts from many of these fine educational establishments. Give their advice some attention, and you may be looking at the best school year yet.

Even the littlest forethought can help ease the transition from summertime relaxation to school-year structure, say many of our children’s teachers. Begin the year right, by looking closely at all the classes your student will be attending as well as all the extra-curricular activities you may be contemplating. What will your life look like on a day to day and week to week basis? Although it may seem like the last thing you have time for, thinking ahead about the coming months is well worth the effort. Knowing what you’re facing can be half the battle.

Sheryl Janning, first grade English teacher at the Dallas International School, recommends that parents help their children on a regular basis by teaching specific organizational skills. “Help your child get their school materials organized each night,” she says, “and get your child to school on time.” That way, parents help model a structured approach to learning. To students, she says, “Stay organized and listen carefully to the teacher’s directions.”

Pam Merryman teaches Juniors and Seniors at First Baptist Academy, and advises older students to “Be organized!” She says that planning ahead can greatly aid in fitting study time into a busy schedule. “Once a student is overwhelmed by academic demands,” Merryman explains, “it becomes very difficult to sort things out and start over.” The solution? “Before the school year gets underway and assignments begin to pile up, discuss what organizational method works best for your student.”

And some final advice about starting the year off right? From Christie Hamric, Art teacher at The Kessler School, comes this basic but essential recommendation: “Get back to that structured routine (translation: go to bed on time!)”

Merryman warns of the dangers busyness imposes on students. “Encourage your student not to become overcommitted this school year,” she says. “For high school students, there are many extracurricular opportunities along with social events, jobs and other demands on their time that make completing their academic assignments a real challenge.” Once over-extended, Merryman concludes, “students end up not performing to their potential in any of these areas.” She sets a compelling bar: “A student should seek to be well-rounded, not worn down.” Good advice from a pro — Merryman’s been teaching for 22 years.
Hamric’s advice is for parents to take some time from their own busy schedules to be with their children. “Make time to read together,” she recommends, “even when kids become proficient independent readers.” That time together not only enhances literacy skills, but also opens up the lines of communication between parents and children.

From basic calendars to high-tech online management programs, educational tools are available in many forms.

At the most basic level, Sheryl Janning tells parents of young students, “Teach your child to read a calendar.” Putting assignments and regular activities on a schedule will help your student understand that learning is a process, and we all take it one day at a time.

Merryman similarly advises older students to “write down all assignments in a daily planner along with other calendared events such as extracurricular activities, family events and work schedules.” She says that other school supplies may be helpful in keeping organized as well: “A student may also need to purchase folders, notebooks or other filing systems in order to keep up with handouts, notes and returned papers and tests for each class.” Parents can help too, she says: “Provide accountability and encouragement for your student as he or she works to maintain a planned schedule. Make study time a family priority in the midst of other demands on everyone’s time.”

Bishop Dunne’s Biology teacher Katy Bové says that many schools help their students stay organized by issuing their own study tools. “Bishop Dunne,” she says, “issues planners that include monthly calendars as well as daily schedules to accommodate both regular homework assignments and long-term projects.” She also recommends learning how to use any web tools available through your school. “Use online gradebooks and calendars,” she explains. “If you can check online, there’s no confusion about when that project is (or was!) due.” Online tools are also helpful for parents because, as Bové adds, “you can see if your daughter really did her homework last night.”
And don’t think that all seemingly recreational activity is just a distraction. According to Bové, “Listening to an iPod may in fact help your child study.” She qualifies, though, “chatting on myspace indeed will not!”

Bové doesn’t mince words. She challenges: “Stop doodling and take notes! Even auditory learners should write down key terms and concepts.” She offers good reasoning, too. “My version may be easier to understand than the textbook’s,” she says, “so take advantage and jot it down!”

Bové says, “Don’t be embarassed to come to your teacher for help.” In addition to shedding light on a difficult subject, Bové explains that coming to a teacher shows that you care about your schoolwork. And there can be a big payoff to that effort. “Simple clarification from your teacher,” she says, “can raise a merely passing grade to an A.”

Christie Hamric encourages parents to keep some perspective as they face a new year.  “Remember,” she says, “we are on the same team, so please be patient… we love your children, we know what we’re doing, and we are incredibly enthusiastic about bringing out the best in your child.”

And Sheryl Janning adds, “It’s okay to allow your children to fail once in awhile. That’s how we all learn.”