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The back-to-school balancing act

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Lynette Boatright looks over her list of required supplies as her son Carter, 11, looks on at Target on Friday afternoon in Casper, Wyo.

Lynette Boatright looks over her list of required supplies as her son Carter, 11, looks on at Target on Friday afternoon in Casper, Wyo.

Dan Cepeda, Associated Press

We don’t want to hover and swoop in each time they have a problem. Try to be a hang glider. Teach them how to ride the ups and downs of life. – Lori Jones

SANDY — When students in the Canyons School District returned to school on Monday, theirs weren't the only butterflies present. Parents, likewise, can feel a great deal of stress about school.

Parents know their participation is critical to their child's success in school, but growing awareness of helicopter parenting and the damage it can cause might leave parents wondering how to find the middle ground.

Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Every child is different, and most parenting means learning on the go.

There is, however, a good deal of guidance available on the topic, and schools want to help parents find the resources they need. Communicating with school officials is one of the first steps toward establishing the balanced routine that will work for your child, Lori Jones, the comprehensive guidance coordinator for Canyons District schools, said. The key is to support your children's education and create an atmosphere where they can succeed, and then step back and allow your children to slowly take responsibility for their own learning and growth.

"Tell yourself that this is the beginning of your child's wonderful adventure," Jones said.

Stepping up

Parental involvement is one of the biggest influences for good in a child's academic pursuits. Early involvement puts children on a path toward long-term success, said Sarah Clark, a literacy expert and an assistant professor in Utah State University's Emma Eccles Jones College of Education and Human Services.

Involvement begins at birth. The more parents interact with their children and speak and read to them, the greater advantage the children will have in kindergarten, Clark said.

Once children start school, opportunities for involvement multiply exponentially. Some opportunities are obvious: school fairs, open houses, parent-teacher conferences, PTA. Parents should attend these kinds of events whenever possible, Jones said. Here, parents can learn about the resources available to them and their children.

School-sponsored events can also help to keep the lines of communication open with teachers and administration — an important factor Clark emphasized.

"Sometimes we don't want to hear what's wrong with our child in school," Clark said. "We don't have all the information, so the more we can communicate, the more we know how to support their learning at school. That's really powerful as a parent to have that information."

If necessary, Jones said, some schools can make translators available for parents. She encouraged those who are aware of families who could use language assistance to reach out.

Activities outside school can help facilitate students' learning. Jones said walking in the park or visiting a museum with younger children can be worthwhile activities. With older children, discuss the current topics at school, or watch the news together. Involve children of all ages in their cultural heritage of family history.

Sometimes, children struggle in school for social reasons. This is an area where parents can be especially helpful. Jones recommended role-playing at home and learning about resources available at school if behavior or social problems persist.

Preparing an appropriate setting for homework is also an important part of the equation. Homework should always be taken into consideration when building a child's schedule, but parents don't need to set rigid rules about a specific time of day dedicated to homework. It's more important to eliminate distractions that would prevent students from completing their assignments — such as loud, constant television — and to make important supplies readily available so students do not have to waste time looking for the materials they need.

Stepping back

There are limits to the usefulness of parental involvement. In the era of cellphones, Jones said, parents can easily take this to the extreme — children can call home at the first sign of trouble, and parents can arrive just minutes later.

In the long run, this kind of helicopter parenting can hamper children's self-esteem and coping skills. Children who are allowed more autonomy as they get older tend to do better in college and careers, but children of helicopter parents may be afraid to try new things, Jones said.

Parents should avoid doing things for their children that their children can already do for themselves, said Madeline Levine, a psychologist and best-selling author who has worked with Stanford's school of education. In fact, they should even avoid doing things children can almost do for themselves.

"The extent to which someone is hovering over you to make it perfect — you're not going to do as well," Levine said. Like learning to walk, "learning is accelerated by successful failure."

Sometimes, that might even mean backing away from checking homework entirely, she added. Students need to learn about the consequences of turning work in late.

When children are learning a new skill, parents need to determine how often to intervene on a case-by-case basis.

"Every kid is different," Levine said. "Some kids need more involvement. Some kids need less — but the degree of involvement in general, in this country, is like a mass delusion. We overestimate how much grades are going to influence their future success."

To avoid becoming helicopter parents, Jones suggests a hang glider approach.

"We don't want to hover and swoop in each time they have a problem," she said. "Try to be a hang glider. Teach them how to ride the ups and downs of life."

When a child becomes frustrated with a difficult task, parents should ask clarifying questions — asking, perhaps, how the student might start solving the problem. Jones also recommended a three-step approach to homework help, where the parent works out one problem, assists the child with the next, and asks the child to finish a third and subsequent problem on her own.

If a child is not yet ready for a task, there are some warning signs to watch for. Should a child stop sleeping or eating, or begins to complain of headache or stomach ache, it is probably time to intervene, Levine said. If problems continue, speak to the child's teacher.

Overwhelmed parents club

Children aren't the only ones who stress about school. Parents, also, can feel overwhelmed by the school year if they and their children are overextended.

Jennifer Griner, the founder of the National Association for Balanced Moms, is all too familiar with the situation, which she said generally stems from two problems: a feeling of guilt that leads parents to take on more than they can handle, and an inability to say no.

"If moms are stressed out, everything's a reaction," Griner said. Parents can't give their children peace of mind if they themselves do not feel peace.

Griner advocates adding new activities one at a time — for example, adding a once-a-month PTA meeting can be a good thing. Jumping into too many new activities and commitments all at once is not.

At the end of the day, parents have to know their family's limits and advocate for the time they need to fill obligations. Older children can be involved in the planning process as well. Griner keeps a family calendar, and when one of her children suggests a new activity, she shows the calendar to her child and asks how the child can coordinate the requested activity with the rest of the family's obligations.

To avoid burnout, parents should also schedule time for themselves, Griner said.

Being involved doesn't have to mean never saying no and attending every PTA meeting, Jones said. She also advocated finding something to look forward to when the children go back to school, and added that even volunteering at school once a year is a great thing.

Most of all, she said, parents would benefit from building a support group of other parents — an "overwhelmed parents club," she said.

EMAIL: epenrod@deseretnews.com