6 Tips for Stepfamilies to navigate the back-to-school madness

baack to school

For many families the start of the school term and the return to school is a looming presence that generates a sense of palpable unease.

The back-to-school madness, coupled by parents who operate from two separate homes juggling their respective household’s needs, brings with it a unique set of challenges.

The pressure of organising enrollments, purchasing of school equipment and supplies and selecting and confirming extra circular activities can exacerbate simmering tensions and ignite old debates between separated parents about finances, about who did more, who did nothing or who doesn’t do enough.

The key to limiting back-to-school madness and a successful school year for parents, stepparents and children, ultimately comes down to two things: civility and effective communication between everyone involved – between parents, children, stepchildren, ex-spouses and new partners, teachers and administrators. All of whom, although in particular parents and stepparents, are integral parts in ensuring the kids’ academic success and emotional wellbeing.

What’s happening or not happening in a child’s two homes can affect how well they do at school and their ability to concentrate and to learn.

Put simply, kids tend to do better when all members of the parenting team work cooperatively together on their behalf putting the kids best interests and needs ahead of their own.

If things between you and your ex-spouse are not quite where they need to be, a new school year is a great opportunity to press the reset button on your co-parenting relationship.

Back to school means not only are the kids returning to places of learning, but that parents and stepparents have new opportunities to learn to communicate better.

So with this in mind, here are 6 ways families/stepfamilies can seek to tame the back to school madness and make the new school year (and term) a fresh start:

1. Be proactive

Unfortunately, the reality is that many schools have not yet developed policies and practices that specifically target kids with two families and/or stepfamilies and take the needs of both households into account. It can therefore help, early on on the school year, to organise to meet with your children’s teachers or Principal to explain who’s who in your children’s world. In this conversation make sure the school is aware of any custody arrangements and of all the various adults that will be responsible, at some point, for school drop offs and collections or supervision of homework.

Ensure that the children’s school has both households contact details and that the parents’ and stepparents information is recorded accurately under “emergency contacts.”

Discuss with the school what, if anything, they can do to help ensure that both households receive appropriate information to ensure children do not miss out on attending school events and activities, get their homework assignments in on time or end up playing messenger between their two homes.

2. Embrace technology

If face to face communication is difficult or competing priorities and family commitments mean that trying to find time to physically catch up to discuss things is near impossible, email or text vital information.

Alternatively, share a google calendar with all the children’s extracurricular related activities and birthdays already recorded or use an ‘app’ such as ‘Shared Calendar’ or ‘2houses’ to not only schedule the kid’s activities but share photo albums and information, to-do and shopping lists and to keep a track of costs, etc. This ensures that relevant information pertaining to the kids and their educations and activities can be easily accessed and shared.

3. Share the load

Acknowledge to yourself and accept that, like it or not, your kids have two homes. Use it to your advantage. Promote a team approach to preparation with each household to be responsible for their part in achieving the overall goal: getting the kids ready and through the school year! Allocate various tasks to different people. For example, one person could be in charge of purchasing uniforms, another for ordering school supplies and textbooks and a third person could fill out and submit enrollment forms. Or one household could agree to care for and entertain the kids, freeing up the other adults in the other household to label clothes and school equipment, go shopping and purchase school supplies.

4. Divide and conquer

Given parents and stepparents are busy people and inevitably juggling parenting and work responsibilities and possibly the needs of multiple children, it can be next to impossible for the adults to find the time to attend everything or to volunteer for each and every event.

At the beginning of the school term make time to discuss the school calendar with the other parent/stepparent/household and also with your kids and review what events they feel are important for everyone to attend and which ones might be less important. Determine ahead of time what roles each parent (and stepparents) can play individually and together. Both households, together, then make choices and compromises about who might attend what and which events you might both or all might attend.

5. Forgiveness

Accept that there will be a few weeks of stress and frayed tempers as everyone in both families makes the difficult adjustment from sleeping in, casual breakfasts, impromptu picnics and who cares what they wore, to early starts, uniforms, homework and school buses. Keep your own feelings and frustrations in check when interacting and engaging with members of the other household. Try not to take it personally if they happen to come across as gruff, frustrated or even angry.

Remain mindful that when school commences kids too can be irritable, throw tantrums, have trouble with separating or sleeping as they adjust and settle into a new routine or reacquaint themselves with an old one and deal with all the “newness” that accompanies a new school year. This is pretty normal behaviour and does not necessarily mean that there is something wrong or that someone in the other home must be doing something wrong.

6. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking

Positive thinking is a mental and emotional attitude that focuses on the bright side of life and expects positive results. Rather than anticipating (or dreading) reenactments of last year’s drama’s, maintain an optimistic attitude and think that this year really can be different. There is every reason to hope that this year your relationship with your ex-partner may be different, that your kids will start well at school and you will all find ways to work together to support your kids so that they can shine.

If parents and stepparents present with an optimistic attitude and maintain their self-control during stressful situations (such as the start of a new school term), children will hopefully follow their lead and do the same. If you harbour a doom-and-gloom outlook, you may inadvertently set in motion a self-fulfilling prophesy.

So, as we experience that wistful nostalgia over losing the more relaxed environment of summer and look towards the new school year and the restrictions that it can often bring – try not to stress, be open to new possibilities, think about planning and effective time management and most importantly think positive thoughts. They can go a long way towards maintaining an effective co-parenting partnership.

Please feel free to share with us how you are handling the back-to-school-madness in the comments below.