Nan Austin

The first day of the rest of your (school) life

Kaylee Camacho, 5, will be heading back to school with a new backpack she got, shown here, during the Back to School Block Party at the Modesto Gospel Mission on July 30, 2016, in Modesto.
Kaylee Camacho, 5, will be heading back to school with a new backpack she got, shown here, during the Back to School Block Party at the Modesto Gospel Mission on July 30, 2016, in Modesto.

School buses are revving into action this week, bringing an early August end to summer vacation while parents recover from the sticker shock of back-to-school shopping.

Just to recap: Modesto City Schools started Monday. Sylvan and Ceres districts started Tuesday. Escalon kids head back to campus Wednesday. Turlock and Ripon schools open Thursday. Newman and Patterson classes start next week, as do most Merced County schools. Delhi and Hilmar, however, started this week. Tuolumne County schools begin Aug. 23 and 24.

Here are some back-to-school tips that hopefully will make this your child’s greatest year yet:


No matter when your kids start, Back to School Night will soon follow, a tour of each child’s school day that provides invaluable insight. Besides getting concrete information about what materials are needed and how much homework to expect, just walking through the rooms and meeting other parents helps fill in the blanks of that blanket, “It’s OK” kid-staple answer.

At any age, a glimpse into the personalities and preferences that populate their world gives a parent more to talk about and an opening to strategize about how to handle difficult subjects, situations and people – skills every kid needs.


Knowing how to handle the uncomfortable goes from desirable to critical when facing – or witnessing – a bully sizing up opportunities. Bullying, including on social media, will be a problem for more than 1 in 5 junior high and high schoolers. If it is not happening to your kids, you can bet it is to someone they know.

According to the federal Safe Supportive Learning website, 21 percent of kids 12 to 18 report being made fun of by their peers, 18 percent had been the subject of rumors, 11 percent had been shoved, tripped or spit on and 6 percent had been threatened with harm. A new study cited in the site’s bullying page found 43 percent of school staff say bullying is a moderate or major problem at their schools and 41 percent say they witness bullying interactions at school once a week or more.

Middle school may be worse than teen years in this regard. To get the latest, head to for information on what it looks like, who bullies target and ways to help the bully and the bullied. Register for a free Federal Bullying Prevention Summit streaming online Friday.

Sylvan Union School district focuses its parents page on bully prevention.

As an aside, my aunt used to be a psychologist for the state of Texas, working with the worst of the worst teen offenders. As a soon-to-be first-time mom, I once asked her how anyone could make sure their child never ended up being one of those teens. Her answer: “Enjoy them.” So many children have no one who makes them feel loved and accepted, she said.


Take advantage of car time to connect, ask random questions that give them time to bring up worries. Travel time can also be used to quiz kids on spelling words or have them gobble down a snack and some water. Long wait to get out of the school parking lot? Stay put. Roll the windows down and chat or do homework until the crowd clears. Have to wait for one child to finish a game? Have a plan for what the other kids will be doing.


Have a computer coming home this year? Have your child explain how they sign on and off and how they do their assignments. Here’s the thing – by teaching you they learn it themselves, and that applies to calculus, writing assignments and everything else.


Volunteering in your youngster’s class is the best way I’ve found to keep tabs on your child’s success. Sitting at the back of the room I watched all the kids interact, saw how my child fit in and got a sense of the rhythm and lingo of the grade. Be aware everyone going to campus has to check in at the office. Some will require picture ID.

Some employers set aside a set number of hours or forgive a longer lunch period to let workers pitch in, but if you have no time or toddlers to tend some teachers welcome off-site help.

Joining the parent club is an easy option. Most take sign-ups for event volunteers, a way to give a little time but not a lot. Booster groups raise funds for music and sports. Serious money for arts and sports takes diving into the LCAP (Local Control Accountability Plan) and lobbying for a change in funding priorities.

PTAs have a wealth of information for parents – on everything from the LCAP to immunizations – available in English or Spanish on the Californian State PTA website, It is online and free, even if your school does not have a PTA.

Ceres Unified has parent engagement teams at all its schools, offering information in Spanish and English for parents and opportunities to get involved. Modesto City Schools have parent days with workshops on a range of topics and a lot of helpful links at


Easier said than done, but making sure kids get at least eight hours of shut-eye every night will help their schoolwork and their mood. Organizing the morning routine also helps as bleary-eyed kids head out the door. Kids would do better, studies show, if school started a little later. But until the grown-ups are willing to disturb their own routines to make that happen, turn off the screens and shoo kids to bed a little earlier.

Reading a chapter a night of a new book (or a favorite) was the best incentive I found, with kids racing to brush teeth before I started the story – and I did start without them the first time, reading to an empty room while they dawdled. It worked.


It takes thinking ahead, but regular meals and time to walk around the block or play a game of catch makes a difference. Healthy kids are better learners. Hand-washing routines and talk about how germs spread also helps limit sick days for everybody.


Starting a new grade in a new class can be worrisome, especially with many schools waiting until the last day to let families know which classroom kids will go to. Taking a walk around the school and pointing out the bathrooms, play areas and cafeteria makes everything more familiar. Pointing out the pluses of getting to see friends again, and being excited about new projects kids bring home or topics they are learning also helps kids feel good about school.

Yale researchers teamed up with Kleenex to make a video about empathy, talking with fifth-graders heading to middle school about their worries. Check it out on the Kleenex Facebook page.


On the fast-changing education front, big changes have stretched schools to provide a better education for everyone. But it pays to know what will benefit your particular child. Find out how schools are organized, where the money goes and how to be an effective advocate at