There's nothing quite like the excitement of readying the kids for a new school year - unless, of course, you're a parent also preparing to start a new school term at the same time. Four parents, two current master's degree students and one bachelor's degree student at Southern New Hampshire University and one alumna, share what it's like to be a parent going back to school in tandem with their kids.
Meet Amber Box, who will soon complete her master's in creative writing and English; Jessica Smyer, who is pursuing her master's in psychology; Steve Zanella, who is pursuing his bachelor's in creative writing and English; and Ashley Wallis '16, a U.S. Army veteran, who earned her bachelor's in English language and literature.
Box's husband, Benjamin, is also an SNHU student, and they have a 6-year-old and twins who are 4. Smyer's husband, Brandon, is an active-duty military service member and an SNHU student as well. The Smyers have two children, a 14-year-old daughter and a son who's 6. Zanella is the dad of three children, ages 11, 9 and 2 and his wife is an SNHU alumna. Wallis' husband is also an active-duty service member, who was deployed twice while she worked on her degree. The couple has two sons, who were 7 and 5 when Wallis began working on her associate degree and 10 and 8 when she finished her bachelor's.
We recently asked them about their experience returning to school along with their children.
What's it like being a parent going back to school at the same time as your kids?
Ashley Wallis: Preparing for school when you have to organize not only your own academic needs but get your kids enrolled, get everything on their supply lists and make sure everyone has shoes that fit can make for a hectic beginning.
We had to move while I was in the middle of two literature classes. I took notes during swim lessons, read during meetings and had books sent to the motel we stayed in while we tried to find a house. I worked hard and was able to keep my grades up despite everything going on in our lives thanks to my family's support. Now that I know I can succeed in those conditions, anything the boys come to me with as school starts up again, I know we can handle it.
Jessica Smyer: Going back to school for a master's degree is extremely exciting. Going back to school the same time as my children are is equally exciting.
Steve Zanella: It's a little strange, the idea that I have homework to do just like my kids. But it has also allowed us to connect in a way that wouldn't be able to if I wasn't taking classes. When I talk to them about balancing schoolwork and play, I have to set an example for them to follow. I find myself telling them, 'I have to finish my homework before I can go do other things as well.' And I think when they see me sitting at the computer working at night or on the weekends, they realize that I know what they are going through and I understand how challenging it can be to do work you don't necessarily want to do, but know you have to do.
Amber Box: Hard. Confusing. Frustrating. Wonderful. Not going to lie, going back to school at the same time as my three kids is really hard. As it so happens, I also teach classes and my husband is in school at SNHU, too. With all of us engaged in academics, the schedules are confusing, and there are a lot of frustrating things to figure out from childcare and transportation logistics to balancing homework to what's for dinner.
But it's also so very wonderful to get to share this with my kids. They see me or my husband working on homework and it inspires them to want to do theirs. I love when they grab a book or a notebook and plop down next to us to do their practice! I am going into my final term this term before graduating with my master's, and despite the challenges, it has been a great experience.
Did you find there were commonalities between your own preparations and what they need to do to prepare?
JS: I found it funny how I had to prepare for school in some of the same ways my children did. I did not need new school clothes or shoes; however, we as a family of four all going back to school did need school supplies and computers. I found that adjusting our schedule from summertime to school time was similar to that of my children. As a family, we have set out a schedule to stay organized and get schoolwork done. For my family and me, staying organized and using a schedule helps us stay on track and focused on our schoolwork.
AB: There were a few areas that our preparations overlapped. For one, school supply shopping is a must. I might not need new clothes or a backpack to do my work online, but it's fun to share in the experience together. My oldest thought it was so fun to pick out notebooks for himself and for his mom!
Another area that overlaps is getting organized. With five of us in school at one time, scheduling can be a bit daunting. However, with a good system, it's totally doable. We use a simple calendar on the wall and a fairly structured routine to keep things on track.
One other area that overlaps is reading. In our home, we read all the time. However, during the summer, we let them take a bit of a break and read when they want to rather than deciding for them. So before each school year begins, we wean them back into reading every day. My oldest will be going in to first grade, so he practices his sight words and phonics. My younger two are twins, so they "read" to each other from picture books. Mom and Dad are usually reading from our textbooks in advance of our classes.
AW: While getting things from their supply list, I'm putting notebooks, highlighters and pens into the cart for myself as well. We designated homework spaces - my sons would sit at the table and do their homework while I had my books, notes and laptop out in my little corner. Everyone had their place set up where they could focus on schoolwork and not be interrupted. That didn't always work for me, but that kind of goes along with being a parent.
SZ: I think the commonalities in getting ready to go back to school was more about the getting into the proper mindset to prioritize what needed to be done each day once school began. Summer is a great time for relaxing, not only from a physical perspective but also from a scheduling perspective. When school starts, our schedules become a lot more regimented and require much stricter planning if we want to be able to accomplish everything we want. Getting into that mindset was something I talked to them about as I prepared myself for the same transition.
What tips would you offer a parent on how to go back to school at the same time as their kids?
AB: First, get organized before school starts. Find a system that works for you. We have found that having a planner and a solid routine is the easiest way to stay on time and not forget anything. I use a planner for my own work and my teaching, but then we have a calendar hanging in the kitchen that we use for everything else - appointments, projects, school events, etc. This helps us stay ahead of things so we can avoid last-minute stress as much as possible.
Along with this, we have a routine that the kids know well. For example, as soon as we walk in the door, backpacks are checked and forms signed while the kids eat their afternoon snack. Homework is done together at the table while dinner is being prepared. My husband and I rotate days on the computer (he reads while I write, etc.), and most of our homework is done as soon as the kids go to bed.
I'd also suggest that you make family time a priority. We do homework a lot of weekends, but we also set aside times in our schedule that are just for the kids and us. Without this, school can be overwhelming, especially if you are taking more than one class or have more than one kiddo returning to school. But everyone needs time away from school! Game nights, taking a walk together after dinner, or even just watching a movie together are all great ways to forget about your looming discussion board deadline and focus on why you are doing it all in the first place!
Finally, I'd say don't be afraid to ask for help. If you are struggling with an assignment, rather than stressing over it, reach out to your instructor or advisor. SNHU has always been a great resource for students - even if it's just to listen to your latest meltdown. Use them!
AW: For any other parents starting school at the same time as their kids, my first piece of advice would be to breathe. You can't take care of your family if you don't take care of yourself first. It can get very overwhelming as it gets closer to the first day of school, but you've got this. Make checklists for both you and the kids for items you need before school and things you want to accomplish. The earlier you do dental appointments, clothes shopping and car maintenance, the less you'll have to worry about once that first week of school starts.
Once everyone has started school, remember to take breaks when you need them. Your kids may need help with homework. Maybe they'll even be frustrated to the point of tears because they can't figure out a math problem. This meltdown will likely happen when you're trying to write a discussion post before a deadline or you do not understand a math problem of your own. In a situation like that, explain to them that you need a few minutes to finish your work and then you'll work on it together. Not only do they get a break, but also you can get your work done and be able to focus on them. Maybe take scheduled breaks together and decompress. Cook dinner, go for a walk or just do something fun for 15 minutes.
The less stressed everyone is, the better everyone will be able to perform in school.
JS: My advice for any other parent in the same boat is to stay organized. Organization can help greatly when it comes to both parents and children going back to school. I recommend a schedule. I would also like to say that not everything will go as planned, and that is OK. Stay focused and on track, but be prepared for some days not going as planned, and move past them and keep going. You are all worth it!
SZ: I would say use this as an opportunity to connect with your children. Don't try and be a hero and pretend that it is easy. Children can tell when you are struggling with something. And if you pretend everything is going well when it isn't, it can send them mixed messages. Instead, talk to them about the challenges you are struggling with regarding your classes and homework. Chances are they are struggling with something similar or will someday. Let them see that it is ok to struggle as long as you keep working hard and don't give up. You don't have to be perfect to be a good parent... or a good student.