Hack to School: Making the transition easier for the whole family (part 2)

Back to nature.jpg

If you missed the first installment of back-to-school hacks from Shelley Sperry and Mari Frost, which addressed tips and tricks in the food, shelter, and clothing categories, you can catch up here. All photos are by Mari Frost, a 15-year-old who attends high school in northern Virginia.

Our second set of back-to-school hacks is about easing into the school routine in ways that will make the transition better for your mind and body. For lots of kids that means moving from thinking of your computer, tablet, and phone as entertainment (Find those Pokemon!) to thinking of them as learning tools.

Tech Prep: Your Digital Health

We suggest taking an hour or two several days before school starts to set your family up on all computers, phones, and tablets for the school year:

When you get your school schedules (including extracurricular activities), put them on everyone’s phone (the easiest way is to just snap a photo of a paper schedule) and put paper copies in a spot that’s easy to find (a bulletin board, the front hallway, the good old fridge). And at the same time, make sure everyone has all important contact numbers updated, including the school office phone numbers.

If your kid is heading to a brand-new school, make the schedule or an annotated map his or her lock screen shot, so it’s always immediately available to glance at. And it doesn’t hurt to practice asking for help finding your way around the school—that’s not always easy for shy kids.

Students! Set up the bookmarks in your browser so you can easily get to Google Scholar, Google Books, and the public library’s search pages. Those are all better places to start than an ordinary Google search, if you’re doing research. And never forget to check .gov sites for information—you’ll often find terrific resources there. Use sites like the Library of Congress, the National Park Service, and the USGS for trustworthy information.

Avoid disaster now by making sure that your word processing software is automatically backing up anything you’re writing at least every couple of minutes. For real peace of mind, set up a cloud account where you keep all your papers and notes. Something like iCloud, Google Drive, Dropbox, or similar services are usually free for small amounts of storage, which is all you need for your school projects—unless you’re making a lot of videos or taking a lot of photos. Trust us—there will be a panicky moment when you’ll be extremely happy you have old drafts of a paper or notes saved in the cloud.

If you take notes mostly by hand, consider taking photos of the most important pages. You can then study anytime—on the way to pottery class or grandma’s house. You’ll always have them with you. Even if you much prefer to read paper books, it doesn’t hurt to invest in a few digital versions (or better yet, check digital copies out of the library) so that you can read a few pages of Catcher in the Rye while waiting for your Dad to get through the line at HEB.

Put a label with your name and school on your calculator and any other gadget you use regularly outside your house. If someone finds it, there will be no doubt it’s yours, and they can return it to the school. It should go without saying: Don’t put your home address or phone number on the label.

Wait until everyone is in a great mood, and then start a family discussion of the contentious subject of limits on screen time for the coming school year. Serve ice cream and cookies. Good luck.

Body Prep: Exercise and Sleep

A few days before school starts, try to get into the best falling-asleep-and-waking-up pattern for you. If you’re a kid or teen, eight hours is really the minimum you need to function well. We all love to cuddle with our phones and tablets, but try getting a regular alarm clock and putting the gaming, video-watching, texting, Instagraming device as far from your bed as possible so you’re not tempted to look at it at 3 a.m.

If you have superhuman self-control, and can have the device near your bed, you could try a sleep-cycle app that monitors your sleep and helps you determine the best time to wake up—but really, an old-fashioned simple alarm clock, your parents, or a pet that wants breakfast is the best alarm.

One thing that may help you de-stress and get a good night’s sleep AND will help the morning go more smoothly is taking a relaxing bath or shower the night before.

Consider making it a rule to eat a healthy snack and get some sort of exercise before starting homework. Kids often need a period of transition and relaxation when they get home from school. If they start immediately on homework or jump into fun screen time, they may not be at their most alert and efficient for the rest of the afternoon and evening. A routine of skateboarding, basketball, or biking outdoors—or dancing or yoga indoors—whatever gets them moving a little—will help energize them and make homework time easier.

Low Tech Prep: Handmade Fun

For young kids who are walking or taking a bus to and from school for the first time, spend a morning or afternoon creating a cool, illustrated map of the route and walking or driving it a couple of times so it becomes familiar. Find a friend in the neighborhood who will be your kid’s bus buddy or walking buddy as they get used to the new route. They may find other friends to walk and ride with later, but it’s great to start out with someone they know.

Walk around a new school, play on the playground or sports fields a few times, and look at photos of teachers online so that the school doesn’t feel strange on Day One.

Sometimes it’s non-academic things that stress us out the most, so spend a few hours at lunch or dinner brainstorming about the kind of extracurricular clubs and teams you might want to try and the service projects you want to do, if your school includes service as a requirement.

Make a COOL IDEAS folder for all the kids and hang up in their rooms or a common family area. Anyone in the family can toss in photos, articles from magazines, or random notes whenever they find something that might be helpful for school or extracurricular projects. For example, if you know your son likes getting outdoors in the mud and needs a community service project, clip out the calendar of watershed clean-up days and put it in the folder. If your daughter has to write and illustrate a paper on the Odyssey, jot down information about an art exhibit on ancient Greece you saw in a magazine. Set a time each week to sort through the folders and choose the ideas you’ll act on.

DIY Day: Think of something you know you’ll need when October, November, and December roll around and do a family craft night now, when you’re more relaxed than you’re likely to be in the middle of the fall. Make cute scarves and hand-warmers for cold morning walks to school out of fleece and rice. Get started on Halloween costumes. Make pennants you can wave at school football or basketball games. Create a place to display photos, playbills, and memories on kids’ bedroom walls using fishing line and clothespins or a DIY bulletin board out of an old picture frame.

Ahhhh, now we’re ready for the learning to start!

Shelley Sperry, with Mari Frost


Hack to School: Making the transition easier for the whole family (part 1)

Photo by Mari Frost

Staff writer Shelley Sperry enlisted her teenage daughter, Mari Frost, to contribute photos and expert tips for this special back-to-school post. It’s full of useful ideas for both parents and kids, so pick out some favorites to share with your family.

Some kids and parents get wistful when summer ends, and some can’t wait to get back to the routine of books, friends, and after-school activities. We’ve had a quiet, laissez faire summer at our place, so we’re all pretty excited to begin the more structured school schedule again. But there are bound to be anxieties, no matter how eager you are for the learning to start.

My teen daughter and I decided to collect some back-to-school “hacks” we thought might help everyone transition gracefully. There’s no shortage of ideas in magazines, on YouTube, and, of course, Pinterest and Instagram right now, so you can have fun making your own lists—and please share ideas in the comments. Here we’ve selected the ideas we think are especially helpful for the week right before the madness begins, to relieve potential flailing and stress. We’ve broken them down into a few key categories: Food, Shelter, and Clothing. In part 2, we’ll share Mind and Body health hacks.


If you have room in your fridge and pantry, designate a particular shelf or space as the lunch station—and if you have even more room, create a breakfast station too. Get a few cheap bins or baskets and use them to corral the fruit, cheeses, sandwiches, and salty and sweet snacks kids will be putting into their lunchboxes. We like the idea of using a small corkboard—or better still, a magnetic blackboard or dry erase board on the inside of the cabinet door. That’s where kids can leave messages for Mom and Dad, like, “We’re out of peanut butter!” and “Can I have Oreos next week????”

Walk kids through the process of washing their lunch containers or putting them into the dishwasher. Create the expectation that they’ll do this right when they get home—before snacks and homework—to make sure they’re ready for the next day. This is the hack designed to relieve Mom and Dad’s “Why are there 26 dirty containers in the sink?” stress.

Don’t forget after-school snacks and on-the-go breakfasts, especially for constantly hungry teens. Keep it simple. Ask each kid to name two snacks and two breakfasts they like, and then put a week’s worth of those in the fridge, freezer, or cabinet. We love having all the ingredients for smoothies in individual freezer bags so all you need to do is pop them into the blender.

Keep things cold in lunchboxes the easy way: use frozen water bottles or drink pouches or frozen grapes (a yummy, nutritious treat) to keep the rest of the lunch cold.

During a family dinner about a week before school starts, ask everyone to write down a couple of favorite quick and easy (15-minute) dinners. Break out the recipe apps and websites for ideas. Make a shopping list based on those dinners and try to make sure you always have most of the items on hand. Make a card with each item, including the recipe, and put into a paper bag that you clip to the refrigerator or pantry door. When you get stuck with no plan and no inspiration 30 minutes before it’s time to go to soccer practice, reach into the bag and make whatever you pick.   

Helpful stuff to put on your shopping list: cups with lids and straws for on-the-go smoothies or other breakfast drinks; magnetic dry erase or blackboard (or blackboard paint), magnets or cork board with push-pins for inside cabinet door; a case of freezer bags and zip-top plastic bags!


What every house or apartment with kids needs is a designated school stuff area that is not the dining table or kitchen counter or middle of the front hallway. Get your kids involved in creating a spot in your house for backpacks and a small school paperwork center. Unfortunately, it’s easiest if the spot is in plain view, and not hidden away in a closet. It will be used morning and night!

Create a system that meets your needs, but at minimum, try to have plenty of hooks for backpacks and any additional gear bags (for sports, ballet, etc.). A table with a few baskets or a small set of cheap drawers (plastic drawers work just fine!) that you can label: PAPERS TO SIGN; IMPORTANT ASSIGNMENTS; and ARTWORK.

Put a family school calendar on the wall—a paper one or a dry-erase board—and make sure kids can reach it to add their own events, if they’re old enough. They can draw pictures or use stickers too.

Helpful stuff to put on your shopping list: hooks of all kinds—heavy duty, preferably—to hold backpacks, hoodies, umbrellas, whatever your family wants to keep out of the closet and in plain sight.  Over-the-door hooks for our front hallway closet have been a game-changer in our house because they are the perfect spot for all our raincoats and Mom’s purse. Efficiency sometimes has to trump style.


There are three shoe tricks we learned recently, and we love them all!

  1. We all know we’re supposed to lay out clothes and schoolwork the night before so it’s all ready to go, but sometimes there’s that little extra item you REALLY don’t want to forget—your new locker combination, the extra keys, the bus pass you only need on Wednesdays, the calculator that’s required for the big test. Put those things inside your shoes. You can’t walk out the door without remembering them!
  2. Do your kids leave stinky gym shoes and clothes in a locker for days or weeks at a time? Give them a few herbal teabags and shove them inside the shoes to absorb some of the odor and leave a hint of lemon ginger or chamomile scent in the locker.
  3. New shoes? Wear them around the house for at least two or three days—or have a new shoe dance party with friends to make sure they’re worn in and won’t create blisters or be too slippery on the first day of school.

School clothes shopping is not usually much fun, but maybe a family pizza night that includes some school clothes prep could be?

  • If your kids need labels in some of their clothes, make them together with colorful permanent markers.
  • Roll tops and bottoms into outfits and tie up with a ribbon or twine and stack in an easy-to-reach drawer.
  • Let kids help pick out a few cute dollar-store bins and baskets, label, and put them in the closet or dresser so they can put away their own underwear, socks, and pajamas. Forget about folding—just getting things put away in roughly the right place is enough!

Don’t wait until after you have the emergency to put together your emergency clothes kit. The littlest kids may need to have this ready to go on Day 1. For older kids, it’s just a good idea to have an extra shirt and shorts or pants rolled up and available in a locker—or even in your car, if you are often rushing from event to event, eating and spilling. Put the items into a small plastic bag and squeeze out as much air as possible to reduce the size.

Other items that might be helpful to have in a very small backpack emergency kit: ibuprofen (if allowed at your school), pads or tampons, extra pencil and pen, travel deodorant and hand wipes, dental floss for kids with braces, a tiny roll of tape and/or glasses repair kit—or for kids who play sports, a whole extra pair of glasses, an extra reed or violin string for orchestra, a few dollars for the inevitable “I forgot my lunch” day.

In making this list, we discovered we have a lot more tips related to prepping not only your family’s kitchen and closets but also your kids’ minds and bodies for the transition to school. We’ll do that in the next post!

Shelley Sperry, with Mari Frost