A few weeks ago, I held a fashion show in my living room. Instead of swimwear and bridal, the categories were more “Does that have holes in it?” and “Can you just wear a belt?” and “Trousers that are now the same length as cut-off shorts.”

Yes, it’s the annual back-to-school scramble, when families transition their emotions, schedules, wardrobes and wallets from relatively laid-back summer mode to sensible bed times, packed lunches and permission slips due today shoved in your face on the way out the door.

This is our fifth first day of school, including preschool and that terrible COVID-riddled year when my son’s desk was our living room coffee table. And each time, I wonder if there’s a better way, because I’m usually shocked when he makes it through the school doors with both shoes.

“Transition time between summer and the start of the year is evident in the pure exhaustion students show by the end of the day, but also in how they respond in the first few weeks,” said Stacy Corcoran Bryan, a public school educator for 31 years, now working in Baltimore County. “There are often big feelings, and that often leads to big behaviors until they get into a groove.”

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This preparation is about more than school supplies — although that’s also a lot of money, time and research. It’s more about getting them back into the mindset of being able to learn. Even if you get it right, what you need to do and when changes with every grade. Parents website has a detailed guide to what kids might need based on their age, from preparing a kindergartener for their first possible parental separation to practicing with middle schoolers how to work a combination lock.

The only thing parents, teachers and others seem to agree on is that this test starts before the first bell. Corcoran Bryan broke it down to three R’s: “Routine, reading and rest.”

“The quantity and quality of sleep” is the “most glaring transition” for children, she said, meaning that the days of falling asleep whenever you want must be replaced with “routines at night that are calming and consistent, and plenty of time to sleep well.” And yes, as a mother, she knows that’s easier said than done, and requires “ripping off the technology Band-Aid. My rising second grader rests better when screens are off, a bath is taken and we read together before lights are out, early.”

My son and I have been trying that over the last week or so, though I admit that it’s not going as smoothly as I had hoped. The week before, we were up till 10 p.m. watching shark movies and now it’s like a “Jeopardy” question: “What is a bedtime, Alex?”

Emily Wofford of Jessup, a veteran early childhood teacher at a private school, thinks “the week before school starts is good to start seriously transitioning your child.” She suggested something I hadn’t thought of, which is to “lessen snack times at home because kids won’t get to go graze throughout the day at school like they can at home.”

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She also said that for the little ones like those she teaches, it’s helpful to “talk reassuringly about your child’s day at school and that you’ll be back to get them. Maybe check in with the teacher to see what the final activity for the day is so they know the time is near to get picked up.”

Speaking of pickups, some school transitions are as crucial as getting there and back home. Baltimore Banner reader Ash Higgins, a freelance media production specialist, isn’t a parent, but sees a lot of students on public transportation. He recommends kids download the Maryland Transit Administration’s Transit app, which he deemed “solid” in monitoring bus arrivals by GPS. (I’d have loved this back in the pre-cellphone 1980s, when my sister and I would order paper schedules through the mail and there was no way to tell how long the bus was delayed. Sometimes we just had to walk. Both ways. Uphill. During a Sharknado.)

Corcoran Bryan, who I’ve known since eighth grade, said these transitions are particularly important for kids like the students in special education she has worked with and her own son, designated “twice exceptional” — i.e., academically gifted alongside some challenges, like neurodivergence.

“Change is super hard for my little scholar, and the anxiety about returning to school is real,” she said. “As a lifelong special educator and now a mom, I recommend doing a lot of listening and validating of feelings in the first few weeks. Remember that, as a parent, you can’t direct or control things in the schoolhouse, but you can help your child cope and you can communicate and inspire or influence.” Even as a veteran, she sees room for improvement in creating more boundaries and routines next summer. “When we know better, we do better, right?”

Then again, you could just go for broke and let time sort it out. “I say blast it all: Let him stay up late, sleep in and enjoy the rest of the week,” said Stacie Stankus Beard, a former teacher in Maryland who now works and lives in Connecticut. “No matter what, the first day of school is always ‘Uggghhhhhh, MaaaHhhhhhm, I don’t wanna get out of bed.’ But that only lasts like 30 minutes before they are out the door, so … then it’s the teacher’s problem.”

leslie.streeter@thebaltimorebanner.com

Leslie Gray Streeter is a columnist excited about telling Baltimore stories — about us and the things that we care about, that touch us, that tickle us and that make us tick, from parenting to pop culture to the perfect crab cake. She is especially psyched about discussions that we don't usually have. Open mind and a sense of humor required.

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