Deanna Teasdale still remembers the excitement of getting her oldest child ready for the first day of school.
It was 2005, and Teasdale, eager to do everything she could to pave the way for her daughter Haley’s academic success, met with the kindergarten team to find out what kindergartners were expected to know.
"They asked if she knew her nursery rhymes and if she could write her name yet," Teasdale recalls. "Then they suggested I have some fun with her over the summer and leave it to the school to instruct her."
Fast forward to the present, and Teasdale finds herself navigating a much different landscape as she readies her youngest child for a new school year.
The teachers at 8-year-old Trey’s school have been encouraging her to practice math strategies to keep his brain engaged. They’re urging her to push him to read beyond his grade level to minimize "summer slide."
And everywhere she looks, she sees tips from education experts on what parents who have the basics covered — food, shelter, safety — can do to give their children an edge in the classroom.
An educator herself about to begin her 24th year at Westgate Elementary in St. Petersburg, Teasdale marvels at the avalanche of evolving and sometimes conflicting information aimed at parents who only want to do what’s best for their kids. She wonders: How do parents know which tips to follow and which to overlook?
Even education experts seem to disagree. Some advocate full-on parental involvement and frequent communication with teachers while others recommend holding back a bit. Some suggest near total immersion in a child’s social life while others say kids should be given a chance to make their own decisions — and possibly a few mistakes along the way.
Jo Boaler, a professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, is an example of the more measured approach.
Among her back-to-school tips: Never praise children by telling them they’re smart. While it may seem encouraging, Boaler says, this type of "fixed ability message" can backfire.
"When children are told they’re smart, they often feel good," she said. "But later, when they fail in some situation, they’re likely to think, ‘I’m not so smart after all.’ "
Rather than shield their children from making a mistake, Boaler says parents should encourage children to work on problems that challenge them so the possibility of making a mistake increases.
And when it comes to homework, she advises parents to take a giant step backward.
"Sometimes my daughter asks for help with her homework and I’ll encourage her to have a go at it first without my help," Boaler said. "I tell her, ‘I don’t want to take away the opportunity for you to struggle and for your brain to grow.’ "
Marsha Richardson, a clinical psychologist and lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, takes a more traditional approach to the ways parents can help their children achieve academically.
She recommends a gradual return to a school-year bedtime schedule, making plans to get involved with the PTA or SAC, and initiating "courageous conversations" that will open the door for ongoing communication throughout the school year.
"First and foremost, it’s important to know your child," Richardson said. "You have to know what their stressors are at home, at school, and in the neighborhood."
Which in the long run, she says, means there is no "one size fits all," and that parents need to take their cues from their children rather than relying for advice on what they hear on TV or read about online.
What does Teasdale make of all this? Her experience as a teacher and parent has helped shape her own back-to-school tips:
• Get to know your child’s teachers. Encourage them to communicate when your child is excelling, not only when he’s struggling.
• Be present at your child’s school in whatever way your schedule allows. This could mean volunteering to go on a field trip or participating in the annual fundraiser. Focus on quality, not quantity.
• Keep an eye on what’s coming home in your child’s backpack and follow what her teacher is posting on the school or classroom online communication platform.
• Know when to get involved in your child’s social challenges and when to stand back and let him deal with issues himself. Understand that you don’t need to intervene in every situation.
• Try to avoid hypervigilance. Rather than reacting to every little bump in the road in your child’s academic journey, take a longer view and focus on the big picture.
"Check out all the advice, have the conversations, but trust your children to know what’s best for them," she said. "Let them lead."