How to beat back-to-school stress and avoid overspending, according to teachers

Help your children ease into the school year anxiety free and keep some money in your pocket with these expert tips.
Image: Little boy shops with his mom
Teachers encourage parents to steer clear of trendy, brand name clothing, and instead invest in comfortable basics. asiseeit / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

Back-to-school season is upon us, and while parents might be looking forward to the routine, this can be a stressful time, with various planning required to ensure the little ones are all set for day one of a new grade. On top of the prep, you’ve got the spending aspect. Back to school is often costly, with the National Retail Federation estimates that parents of kids in elementary school will spend a record-smashing average of $696.70 — up from $684.79 last year.

How can parents manage the transition without becoming overwhelmed and/or overspending? We rounded up advice from teachers and child psychologists who are champions in prepping for Back To School not only as parents, but also as professionals.

The National Retail Federation estimates that parents of kids in elementary school will spend a record-smashing average of $696.70 — up from $684.79 last year.

Alas, kids really do need all the supplies on those lists

Depending on how your child’s school operates, you’ve likely received a list of supplies needed on day one of the school year. This list is meant to be helpful, and you should use it, but as Dr. April J. Lisbon, a school psychologist and mother of three, points out, it can be daunting.

“As a parent, I am often frustrated with the amount of supplies on the list and the cost even with discounts,” says Lisbon. “If I weren't working in schools, I would question why one child requires so many supplies that they may never need.”

But time and time again these lists prove to be accurate in their count of just how many notebooks, pens, glue sticks and so on that a child needs in the classroom.

“In my experience professionally and personally, the children do need the supplies,” says Lisbon. “Children today are [often] working one to two grade levels above their assigned grade. For example, a lot of the work in kindergarten today is very similar to what was expected of children in mid to late first grade 10 to 15 years ago, hence a lot of the assignments require more cutting, gluing, writing and reading to ensure that students are ready for the next grade level.”

Don’t have the supplies-needed list? Call the school or check its website

If you didn’t get a list of school supplies needed in advance, you should be able to obtain it by calling or emailing the school.

“Don’t hesitate to contact the school for a heads up on what will be needed,” says Cindy Hemming, an elementary school teacher, parenting blogger and mother of two.

Emily Denbow Morrison, a high school English teacher, graduate writing instructor and mother of two, says you should also be able to find this information on the school’s website.

A tour of the classroom can bring clarity and peace of mind

If you have questions or concerns about the new school year, or if you just want to get a better idea of what your child’s new daily environment will look like, feel free to ask the school for an in-classroom meetup with your kid’s teacher.

“Call the school and see if it’s possible to meet the new teacher and get a quick tour of the classroom before school starts,” says Hemming. “Getting the lay of the land makes a big difference.”

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Buy clothes that prioritize comfort

With trendy apparel retailers ramping up back-to-school sales, it’s easy to be lured into splurging on your kids’ wardrobes. A new survey from Bankrate found that 43 percent of parents feel pressured to overspend on back to school shopping, with 23 percent saying this pressure was focused around clothing, shoes and jewelry.

"As a teacher, I often saw parents spend money on things like name-brand clothing and shoes that either got ruined at school or were uncomfortable for the child,” says Jen Babakhan, a former third grade teacher and the author of “Detoured: The Messy, Grace-Filled Journey from Working Professional to Stay-at-Home Mom”. “It makes more sense to buy clothing that will last, but isn't so expensive that it's a big deal if it gets stained or torn.”

The most important apparel item? Sneakers

“Parents can do teachers a huge favor by purchasing comfortable tennis shoes for their children to wear, as the school day is filled with not just recess play time but also physical education, and that often includes running,” says Babakhan.

In the days leading up to school, help kids wake up earlier and earlier

If your kids have to wake up earlier than they’ve been doing all summer, ease them into the time change transition by getting them to bed sooner than usual.

“As a teacher, nothing was worse than a moody, exhausted child on the first day of school,” says Babakhan. “As a parent now, it's easy to see how simple changes make such a huge difference in the behavior of a child. Parents can help teachers out by enforcing a gradually earlier bedtime in the weeks leading up to the first day of school.”

Babakhan finds that planning fun activities for kids that begin earlier in the day during the final days of summer can also help bedtime run smoother.

For little kids, create a picture schedule of the morning routine

For many parents, back to school also means a return to a highly organized morning routine. To help little kids acclimate, Jenna Palumbo, LCPC, a child and adolescent therapist, suggests parents create a “picture schedule.''

“You can buy a magnet board or print a free schedule off Pinterest, but I like customizing it for my clients using clip art and Microsoft Word,” says Palumbo. “Try to keep it at nine steps or less and make sure you're giving your input and letting your child make recommendations for what should be in the morning schedule, too.”

Once you have the steps written out, Palumbo recommends sitting down with your child and allowing them to pick and choose which clip art pictures they think look most like them or which one they like the most. You can kind pictures to use by googling, ‘clip art kid brushing teeth’ (or showering, walking to school bus, packing lunch, etc.),” says Palumbo. “If your child is artsy, you can even have them draw their schedule. Next, write below each picture what time the activity should be completed by. Then, it gets printed and put up in a couple places around the house. I recommend bathroom mirror, back of bedroom door and kitchen fridge.”

If your child liked this process, Palumbo suggests making an evening schedule, too.

Your child may be nervous. Talk to them and empower them.

Back to school can not only be stressful for parents, it can be stressful for kids.

“More than anything else, talking with your child about the upcoming change and transition can eliminate or lessen the inevitable back-to-school jitters that children experience,” says Babakhan. “Normalizing their feelings, and letting them know that most, if not all, students feel the same way before a new school year can help a child feel less anxious. A new classroom with a new teacher can bring upon feelings of vulnerability, so why not validate those, as well as give the child a mission, like befriending another child that is sitting alone on the playground or at lunch? When we educate our children about the power they have to be a friend on that first day, and make that their goal, it empowers them to face uncertainties with confidence."

Make a list of goals with your kids

One way to empower your kids and help get into a positive mindset about the new school year is to make goals with them.

“Talk with them about what they'd like to accomplish this year, and not just academically,” says Morrison. “What activities would they like to try? What friendships would they like to keep or find? What subjects are they interested in learning more about? Ask them to make a list of ‘What I'd Like To Do In [X] Grade This Year’ and encourage them to return to it every now and then. This is one way we show our children it's okay to dream big.”

Clear your schedule the evening of the first day back in school

After all this prep and planning, you may have already been planning a quiet evening at home following the kids’ first day back in school, but if not, go ahead and clear your schedule now.

“A few things are inevitable following the first day of school: Exhausted kids and paperwork,” says Lauren Tingley, an elementary teacher and mom of two. “While that could be a recipe for disaster, clearing your schedule will help you reduce stress and be able to be available to help your child decompress after their first long day back at school. If you plan ahead of time you will be prepared and make the teacher happy by sending [paperwork] back in the next day.”

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