Back to school. As an educator, my stomach does a few flips when I start seeing the bins of shiny new notebooks and pens lined up at Target. Those flips are a little bit of excitement (what can I say? I love school supplies), a little bit of nerves, and a little bit of regret that summer, which we look forward to for so long, has flown by so quickly. For students, it’s the same bundle of excitement and nerves. Will they have classes with their friends? Will they like their new teachers? Will they have someone to sit with at lunch?
Parents, you might be feeling some mixed emotions too – or you might just be secretly be happy to get your kids back into a routine and out of your hair (and pantry). But before you kick back with a glass of wine and pat yourself on the back for a summer well done, reassured that other adults will now be in charge of your children for 7+ hours a day, there is something you should know: You are one of the most, if not the most, important factors in your child’s education.
Although there are many factors when it comes to education, research has consistently shown that when parents play an active and positive role, the child is more likely to have higher grades, attend school regularly, have better social skills, and exhibit better behaviors. And you likely already know this to be true: 65% of parents say they wished they could be doing more in regards to their child’s education, and 50% say they know they are doing too little. 
This school year, I encourage you to get involved with your child and their learning. It’s not easy. You’ve got work, stress, and/or other children to take care of. Maybe you have a teenager who gives you one-word answers to your questions about school. Maybe you’ve had a bad experience when you reached out to a school in the past. On the flip side, you don’t want to be a helicopter parent, or even worse, a “lawnmower parent,” so how do you find the balance? What can you do?
Here are some simple but impactful ways to have a positive role in your child’s education:
- Spend time learning with them. Of course, you can help them with homework, but you can also have fun with it too: Discuss current events, play trivia, or (my favorite, being a former English teacher) read to them. Reading to toddlers and pre-K/ elementary students is especially beneficial but can even continue into adolescence, and will help develop vocabulary, social understanding, empathy, and literacy.
- Establish a relationship with your child’s school. This includes teachers, of course, but also principals, counselors, paraprofessionals, secretaries, bus drivers, and everyone else who is working to better your child’s life. When school and parents work together for the good of the student, the benefits are priceless. And little kindnesses toward school staff go a LONG way. If you appreciate a staff member, email them to let them know. If you’ve got a spare $20, pass out some $5 coffee gift cards when you stop by the front office and thank them for their efforts. It’s easy to get burned out working in a school, so those little tokens of appreciation really make a difference. (Believe me, I know! I once got a chapstick – a $2 gift, tops – from a parent with a nice thank-you note attached, and I still remember it fondly years later. In fact, I have all my nice notes saved to look at on my worst days at work.)
- Keep yourself in the know. Check their backpacks and SIS (Student Information System. In North Dakota this is commonly Power School). You don’t need to stomp into the school over every little bad grade, but you will have a better idea of what your student is doing and how they are performing. There is a balance here: It’s important to allow your student to generally be in charge of their own education, but also communicate your expectations to your child clearly and step in when they aren’t following through.
- Check your attitude. If you model an enthusiasm for learning and respect for school staff, your student will pick that up. If, on the flip side, you undermine or disrespect your child’s principal or teacher in front of them, they will learn that is an acceptable way to deal with something they don’t like. It’s certainly good to advocate for your child when necessary, but doing it respectfully and collaboratively will have the best outcome.
Being involved in your child’s education is a bit of a commitment, but it’s so worth it. This is a critical time for them, a time where they are learning not only academic skills, but also how to navigate complex societal and relationship norms and build life skills they will need for the rest of their lives. So arm yourself with these tips, and your student with some of those beautiful Target notebooks and pens, and you’ll both be extra ready for back-to-school this fall.
 Princeton Survey Research International, 2011