Back-to-school can be such a rollercoaster of emotions, for everyone involved. As a parent, there's a bit of disappointed that the freedom of the summer is over, but a relief that some semblance of structure will be introduced back into your kids lives. For our kids, there are likely a whole bundle of nerves as they get ready to see their friends back in the school setting, perhaps they are facing new schools, new teachers, or just really anxious about what a new grade level will have in store. And surely they are all going to need to adjust back to getting up and out of the house at an earlier time! As a stepmom, there is an added layer of emotions, as we try and organize our households to gear up for another year of cooperation (hopefully) and logistical coordination with our stepkids' other house. Sometimes I use this time to try and envision how my role in this coordinated dance could, or should, change from the year before. What can I do better, where should I step back, and can I squeeze in a little more fun and a little less worrying. I also spend some time focusing only on our house, and how to keep us on track. It's not a task for the faint of heart, or for the organizationally challenged, I've found! I wanted to share some of our tips and tricks that we use to get ourselves organized and on the same page, that become especially useful at the beginning of the school year when everyone's emotions and nerves are on edge. Please, share your own systems in the comments!
I have 4 step kids - entering 8th, 6th (twins), and 4th grades. This year is the first year of middle school for the twins, who will now be joining their older brother on the earlier middle school bus. It's also the first year that our youngest (and only girl) will be the only one of her siblings at her school, she'll be riding the elementary school bus with out any brothers this year. With 4 of them it's easy to get lost in the comings and goings. It's also really important to me and my husband to begin to foster their responsibility and independence. I, myself, am an only child so some of my life experiences are unhelpful in this family, but I've noticed with four children it is often difficult to fight the urge to "do it for them". When they were smaller it was much easier to just tie four pairs of shoes, than to wait for them to painstakingly work through it on their own. As they got older, it remained easier to pack four backpacks ourselves than to run around after 4 different kids searching for things. Easier for us, but not always the right answer. Here are some of our systems that attempt to keep our family moving smoothly, while transferring some of the responsibilities on to the kids.
I have a weekly calendar displayed in our dining room - which is also the central hub of our house. I put it together with 7 frames from the dollar store, and some twine down the back. I used black posterboard to fill the frame, and on the posterboard I wrote one day of the week. For our house our week starts on Monday, so I hung them Monday down through Sunday. Each week I use glass chalkboard markers, and I write the date, whose day it is, everyone's different activities, and our dinner for the day (more on this in a later post). I change it every Sunday night. Doing that helps me to prepare for my week, as I can mentally make sure we are prepared with rides for each activity, and can pair up dinner options with the best nights (frozen pizza is a good option for the nights everyone has sports practice!). I've been doing this for about 8 months now, and at first I was the only one who noticed it. But, the kids now all take turns standing there and looking at it - wondering what their week has in store for them. It helps them to remember which days they have certain things, and when they are switching houses. It also helps my husband to know what I was planning on for dinner, so that he can get it started since he is usually home first. It's really a great system for getting our complex schedule out in the open.
This is new this year. Our schedule has shifted a bit, and initially it was difficult for me to grasp it - the details of it are too complicated and unimportant to go in to here, it's essentially a 50/50 split with 2-2-5-5 over two weeks. We do have a google calendar, or more importantly, four google calendars. Each kid has one for their activities, and all parents and stepparents have access to it. The google calendar was getting too cluttered with some of the new details, and I needed a bit more space to be able to "see" things play out. I decided to get a monthly calendar, which is hanging up in my home office, right off the dining room, that outlines which days/weekends the kids are in which houses. It also outlines my travel, so that my husband can clearly see when he'll need to step in and do my morning tasks. It also marks off the school schedule, so I can see no school days and half days. Admittedly, this calendar is more for me, but the kids know it's here and can come and take a look if they want to see the entire month at a glance. I bought myself one that I can color in, and it's been a nice distraction from our hectic schedules, some nights I just sit and color!!
Ok, so, you can see I'm all about visual things. I am a pretty organized person, but I don't even know how to begin to instill this in other people. I decided a few years ago to try and do more of my organization externally, so that the kids and my husband could see it, and perhaps pick up some good habits. I made these signs last year. The kids had an au pair for essentially their entire life, and we were finally able to get rid of having an au pair. (Our au pairs were all really lovely, and I miss them and their presence in our lives for the wonderful people they were - I don't miss the expense of paying someone to live in our house and help, what worked out to be, one or two hours a day with the kids! Having no au pair also freed up an extra bed room, so now we can spread the kids out rather than have them all share. It's also given them some extra personal responsibility, and has been wonderful for them!) When we were preparing to have no au pair, we asked the kids what they were most nervous about, and some of them expressed being nervous about forgetting things that they would need for school, or what to do in the mornings. While I knew that I'd be here in the morning to help, I opted to make these signs instead, so that there was something else that they could look at and help them figure out what was expected of them. I ordered a table tent stand online, similar to what you would find in a restaurant, so that we could easily flip the days. I laminated the sheets of paper, so that I can use a dry erase marker to make an extra note on some days, as needed! I find it helpful to have it all written down, that way there is less arguing about what they didn't know they needed to do!
School Bag Cubbies
One of the keys about wanting our kids to be able to "pick up" after themselves, and get themselves ready, was to give them a space for their things. Everyone has a bin (there are only 3 bins shown, as our oldest child was the only one to listen to my initial plea of "please could you put these things in your room", so his bin is in his room!) The bins are in our "hallway" near our coat hooks, very convenient to hanging up your jacket AND putting your bag away. It's not a fool proof system, bags are strewn everywhere often. But, it's very easy to say, "go put this in your bin please", and they know exactly where to toss it! It makes mornings easier, too. Can't find something, check your bin!
This was a brilliant idea that the kids' mom came up with. She ordered everyone a tote bag with their initials. And, this is what they use to bring stuff back and forth between the houses. The original idea was that everyone would put whatever they needed in their tote bag, and then bring it with them when they went over to moms. Things like their favorite stuffed animal, their iPad, the book they're reading, something they were working on here that they want to keep working on there, whatever they want. In practice, we don't always need all 4. So, now we usually just start with one bag, and grab a second if it seems required. On the morning of a day we switch, the kids know to put all of the stuff they want to bring in the tote bag. I try really hard not to "check" the bag. Sometimes I list out certain things, or if there is something that was really needed, I'll remind them. But, now it's all on them if they've remembered what they want. And, it's glorious! Their mom and I also use these bags to send stuff we need back and forth between the houses - if a certain outfit is needed, or too many shoes have gotten dead ended in one house, or if there was school forms or something. We usually will text to let each other know what we've sent up there, but the tote bag is a really nice place to throw things that need to be relocated.
Please comment with any of the systems and tricks that work in your house! Happy Back-to-School, everyone!!