Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead book cover

During an elementary school supply drop-off visit at my daughter’s school one day, I was struck by how much preparation must have gone into coordinating 60 minutes of activity for the hundreds of students and families in attendance. As we approached the front entrance, the principal and staff members welcomed us, ushered us toward classrooms, and answered our questions. Once inside, vibrantly decorated chalkboards, doors, and walls greeted us. And we thoroughly enjoyed the chance to organize her desk and locker, easing pleasantly into the start of the new year.

We were spared all of the meetings, emails, checklists, and minutiae that go into pulling off events like this. We didn’t even have to labor over our part of the equation, gathering the school supplies themselves. We didn’t trudge through the aisles of stores picking out notebooks, crayons, and pencils like when I was a kid. No, we ordered the whole bundle in one fell click via a link the school had emailed us.

Thinking of all the work the staff and teachers put into making things easier for us got me pondering what families should be doing to make things easier for teachers. What are our obligations as partners with teachers in our children’s education? What contributions can we make to kids’ school success through the habits we instill, activities we plan, or attitudes we cultivate at home? Where does teachers’ work end and parents’ work begin? Or, more accurately, how should we connect, collaborate, and communicate to reinforce, amplify, and support one another’s work for the kids’ benefit?

There are so many things we as parents can do at home and before kids start kindergarten to get them ready for school, from preparing them for what to expect and how to act at school to dressing them for success (it’s not quite what you think). But once they’re through the gates, our part is far from done. Here are a few touchstones for what parents should do once kids are in school:

Know the Expectations

A critical factor in having a good school year is defining a good school year. Yet too few parents have a clear understanding of the academic expectations of their children’s teachers, schools, districts, or states. Instead, all too often we look to lagging indicators like grades on individual assignments, report cards, or standardized test results to tell us how our child is doing. A better approach is to look ahead and learn what our kids are expected to know or be able to do by year’s end—as well as how their teacher plans to get them there.

This eye-opening exercise can give you a sense of the breadth and complexity of what students are expected to learn. It can alert you to opportunities to cultivate developmentally appropriate knowledge and skills at home. It can also highlight areas of weakness that may warrant extra help beyond school or home, for example through tutoring, field trips, or enrichment programs.

When my daughter was younger, I paid particular attention to the foundational reading standards because I knew those skills pave the way for all later subject-matter learning. Once she was a fluent reader, I locked in on the grade-level writing standards. These include capacities that will serve her well lifelong, such as how to:

  • Write arguments to support claims with clear reasons and relevant evidence, using credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text.
  • Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content.
  • Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences.
  • With some guidance and support from peers and adults, develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.
  • Use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of three pages in a single sitting.
  • Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources; assess the credibility of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and providing basic bibliographic information for sources.

Basically, she should be fully capable of writing a blog of her own. Here’s how you can find out what your child needs to learn this year: Check out the Common Core State Standards to see what 41 states, the District of Columbia, four territories, and the Department of Defense Education Activity agree kids should be able to know and do at each grade level. For states like Alaska, Texas, Indiana, Florida, and Virginia that have their own standards, Google the state name followed by “learning standards” or “curriculum standards” to find details.

Read School Communications

We’re all suffering from information overload, but one great way to build goodwill with your child’s teacher from day one is to actually read the information that comes home in a timely fashion. And then do your best to respond warmly, enthusiastically, and quickly, as you would expect your child to. The teacher’s  job of educating your child and their classmates is already taxing. Don’t add the extra burden of educating you on information they’ve previously shared.

It may not be ideal for you to have to sift through a child’s backpack for a paper flier, read each item in classroom e-newsletters, or log into the school website for the field trip calendar, but it’s best to do it anyway. As Vlada Lotkina, CEO of parent-teacher communication platform Classtag, observes, teachers’ day-to-day reality is challenging, too. “Not only do teachers face conflicting parent expectations and preferences for when, what, and how to communicate, but they also have to manage this and a multitude of admin tasks on top of their core teaching responsibilities,” she says.

In short, answering needless inquiries from parents takes away from the time they can devote to teaching our kids. So before you dash off the email asking how your child will find the right classroom when they get off the school bus, see the note that came home explaining that the teacher will be greeting kids in the play yard, starting at 7:35, with a sign with her name on it.

Also make a special note of what method of communication each teacher prefers. It’s easier and more effective for you to adapt to their style than to get them to switch to yours. Remember, every teacher deals with dozens of parents. It’s unreasonable to ask for elaborately tailored communications, e.g. to text you, but email your wife, and chat in person with the babysitter at pick-up. Be flexible and read the information that comes your way, however and whenever it arrives. 

And if you feel so moved, advocate for communication solutions that leverage technology to reach parents through their preferred methods, so that the personalization doesn’t fall on the teachers’ shoulders.

Put the Home in Homework

There’s a great deal of debate circulating about the merits of homework, particularly with younger children. Does it actually help them master the intended material? Does it steal time from family meals, bonding, and other learning and enrichment activities? Does it create stress and anxiety for parent and child? The answer of course is: It depends. It depends on the nature and amount of the assignments; the intentions and effectiveness of the teacher; the maturity, skills, and disposition of the child; what else the family has going on; and innumerable other factors.

So, in my mind, as a parent, the most pertinent question isn’t whether homework in general is good or bad, but how our family in particular is going to approach whatever homework our child receives. In this way of thinking, parents need to know:

  • What kind of homework will be assigned and how frequently? E.g., will there be daily assignments and/or longer-term special projects?
  • How long is the child expected to spend doing homework?
  • What kind of parent participation in homework does the teacher expect? E.g., should parents be reading along, going over instructions, answering questions, checking results, signing off on it?

Sometimes you may have to ask the teacher about these things in an email or at back-to-school night. Often you won’t. Veteran and proactive teachers tend to provide this kind of info upfront. We’ve just got to notice and digest it.

My daughter’s third-grade teacher sent weekly emails offering insight into the work ahead and what appropriate parent support would look like. One memorable dispatch arrived with “Rigor, Time Management & Expectations” in the subject line. Inside, she broke down her intention to provide learning experiences that were academically, intellectually, and personally challenging to students; why such rigor was different for each student; and how students’ ability to prioritize tasks, plan ahead, and complete assignments on time was another matter altogether. She made it clear that our role was to check in and ask our kids questions about their research reports and other assignments, but not to take over or do intensive teaching. She’d provided ample instruction, examples, rubrics, and so on during class time.

Other times, you will need to ask your child’s teacher for more information, either on their overall approach or on specific subsections of the curriculum or assignments. Request the details you need to help your child succeed. For example, see our post on asking teachers about spelling instruction: Nine Questions to Ask Your Child’s Teacher About Spelling.

For example, when my daughter was heading into a new classroom with a new teacher at a new school in a new state, I had a lot to learn about the workload, grading policies, and parent expectations there. But I was already clear on my primary parent duties. These are things every parent should be striving to achieve, within your particular constraints and abilities:

  • Provide a quiet, well-lit, well-stocked, distraction-free space to do the work.
  • Ask questions that help the child prioritize and plan how they’re going to get their work done. 
  • Support them in keeping the commitments they make to themselves around when and how they’ll work.
  • Use specific language to praise the work ethic, organization, and tenacity they show in completing assignments, to reward their effort and encourage more of it.

Supplement with Intention

An email from a one-on-one tutoring company landed in my inbox with the subject line, “A Successful School Year for Your Student.” 

“Now more than ever, your child deserves an effective, reliable learning experience,” the message inside read. “We can help.” To illustrate the point, it featured pictures of three children of diverse ages and ethnicities happily engaged in learning activities—a teen reading a thick hardback book, a young girl smiling and gazing off as if visualizing the spelling of a word, and a little boy seemingly deep in thought with a blue pencil hovering above his composition book. The takeaway was clear: One way parents can help kids “read and comprehend to their potential” is to hire a tutor.

Should parents have to pay to secure basic literacy skills for their kids? No. Do they? Often, yes. The reality is that private tutoring is a major player in the reading landscape, with implications for how, when, and whether kids fulfill their reading potential. I looked up statistics on tutoring nationally and internationally, and found a major uptick in tutoring for early-elementary students. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the sector was nearing $800 million in annual revenue. Large franchises like Kumon experienced rising enrollment among preschoolers, according to market research firm IBISWorld. Some of this demand is driven by parents bent on creating super-achieving students, but much of it comes from a simple desire to get a struggling child to “grade level.” 

I wish it weren’t the case, but the booming supplemental education industry props up reading achievement on a national scale. Getting a sense of your child’s prospects for the year—what’s expected of them, where they stand, and how successfully their school and teacher may move them along—could lead you to call in some reinforcements. If that’s the case, know that you’re far from alone.

But supplementation isn’t always about bringing in the big guns. Often parents can make an impact by bringing real-world context and experiences to school subjects. Wisconsin history is a focal point of the fourth grade curriculum in our state, so we took a little trip to Madison before school started that year. We visited the capitol and began accumulating the little points of reference and insights that my daughter could build on when her class dove into the topic later that year. As she gets older, I continue to keep an eye out for fun ways to connect while building on what she’s learning at school.

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