By scott scanlon Refresh Editor

Not everybody is like Lilli Zhang when it comes to the start of school.

“She was busy a couple of weeks ago looking at her school supply list and checking things off; what we had already and what we still had to buy. She’s 10. She’s told me several times already we need to buy school supplies,” said her mother, Mary McVee, director of the Center for Literacy and Reading Instruction at the University at Buffalo. “My boys never did this.”

For those of you who don’t have a little Lilli Zhang at home, here’s a last-minute to-do list, which is heavier on the big picture than the little ones.

The better thing about the start of school is that you can still have a big impact on your children in the coming days and weeks after the big day is over – and enjoy the extra time that comes with more structure in the lives of your children.

It’s almost time to exhale. But first, consider these tips:

Understand different needs and that everyone needs to pitch in

“A big part of this is knowing your child.” McVee said, and that includes those in the same household. Her daughter may be leading the charge when it comes to back-to-school preparations, but brothers Zach and Jaden Zhang, 17 and 15, respectively, also need to play some role – while staying in their comfort zones. “Even though sometimes as parents, it’s like, ‘I could do this faster myself,’ if they’re old enough to be involved, it’s helpful, because it helps them learn skills that they’re going to use at school,” McVee said. Build in breaks and incentives, she recommends: After this, go to a movie or ride bikes.

“And if you know a child who has a little bit more anxiety,” she said, “you take them to school a few days before school starts. Walk the route or drive the route. If you have a kid who’s going to high school or middle school for the first time, walking the school building beforehand is helpful.”

Control the message

“You set the tone for everything they think,” said Peggy Pozzuto, of West Seneca, “whether it be hating math, if you can’t stand the teacher, if you don’t like a policy. Any of that, they take it from you. And you can hear that in the way kids talk in school. You can hear the parents. You’re forming an opinion for your children they haven’t had a chance to form yet. Give them the opportunity.”

Pozzuto sees all sides of the school equation. She’s a substitute teacher, tutor and active at all levels of parent-teacher organizations in the West Seneca school district. She has five children: Sarah, 18, a freshman living at Canisius College; David, 16, who will be a junior this year at West Seneca West High School; Miranda, 14, who will be a freshman; Nicholas, 12, who starts seventh grade at West Middle; and Michael, 9, who will be a third-grader at West Elementary.

McVee encourages parents and other adults to monitor their talk, including when a child is texting or watching TV nearby. “If we say things like, ‘Alicia’s starting kindergarten this year, and this is a really big step for her. I’m worried she won’t have friends’ or ‘What if she doesn’t like it or do well?’ – maybe the child is playing on the floor and you’re thinking, ‘I’m just talking with grandma and the child isn’t paying attention.’ They pick up what we say and what we do.”

Ease concerns

Some children will become clingy, whiny or act out in the opening days of school because they haven’t established a comfort level. Listen. Your kids might have fears that are easily addressed, McVee said.

“Positive talk in these next few days is important,” she said, as is “planning what you will say ahead of time is helpful. … What am I going to say if a child doesn’t like to get up early and go to school? What am I going to say when things get frazzled?”

With younger children, especially, talk up scenarios in the next few days, McVee said. What happens if they miss the bus? Get lost? Can’t open their locker? Can’t find a class? Have your children write down plans for this – including phone numbers – and identify an adult or two whom your kids can talk with if they’re struggling with something.

Conversation is key

You can help put your child or children at ease next week by being more available to them, particularly at strategic times, McVee said. Try to have family dinners together the first few days of school, and steer the conversation to the impressions children have of their new teachers and academic surroundings.

McVee said her sons open up more around the dinner table when they talk to each other than when she tries to ask them direct questions one-on-one. She also finds it helpful to offer to drive her kids around with their friends, who can’t help but chatter about school when they’re together. “I often think, ‘That’s interesting. They didn’t bring any of this up at home.’ ”

Talk up school

“Kids love to hear things like ‘That teacher is so good at science,’ or ‘That classroom is so cool,’ or ‘That teacher has a lot of energy,’ ” Pozzuto said.

“Talk up lunch,” she adds. “We always tell them what’s for snack, so they can look forward to something.”

Leave a very simple note with that lunch – something like “I love you! You’re awesome!” – McVee said. “That small token is a way to connect with your children when they are at school.”

Get involved

I don’t think some people realize that with your involvement with a school, that can take away some of the pressure on your children,” Pozzuto said. “My (youngest) son knew the principal before he went to school, and most of the teachers, so they were all waiting for him. It gives you a connection to the school and it allows your kids to make connections.”

McVee points out that you don’t have to be heavily involved in school affairs to take a little extra time to be helpful to someone else’s child, a teacher or other school staff member. It’s fine to say, “I’m here. How can I help?”


Inside: More advice for parents, teachers and students starting the new school year, plus ideas for packing a nutritious lunch that kids will eat. Page 10