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Sanity-saving tips for thriving and surviving in the new school year

CHOICE parents share their back-to-school life hacks to get the year off to a great start.

schoolchildren running to start class at school
Last updated: 19 January 2021

Whether you're bursting with joy at the thought of dropping your little terrors off at the school gate after a long summer holiday, or riddled with stress about all the school supplies you have to buy, we're here to help. 

Perhaps you're anxious about how they're going to cope with the new routine? Or just how you're going to manage packing a vaguely nutritious lunch every day that they'll actually eat? 

If you've been a little lax with screen time over the school holidays now might be a good time to start scaling it back 

Our fine community of wise and organised CHOICE parents has put together a hoard of brilliant top tips for parents of school kids of all ages who are about to head back to the classroom. 

And although CHOICE parent Jason's (somewhat resigned) tip is to "go out and buy five lunchboxes then lose them immediately because it's going to happen anyway", most of our parents have greater hope that your back to school journey this year is going to be a breeze.

Here's what they had to say.

1. Label, label, label

OK, so we know kids will lose stuff, probably a lot of stuff. CHOICE parent Tracy concurs: "LABEL EVERYTHING," she says. "With permanent marker – especially hats, jumpers, lunch boxes, drink bottles and pencil cases." 

"It can be worth ordering those name stickers and iron-on things and letting your child customise them, pick the colours and patterns they want, and then go crazy labelling everything themselves." 

There are many websites that offer cheap labels you can design yourself, from Big W to Tinyme, Hippo Blue, Stuck on You and Bright Star Kids.

2. To your stations!

CHOICE parent Stacy says: "My kids are old enough to pack their own lunches so I allocate an entire shelf in the pantry for school snacks and they know they can pick and choose from this shelf only. Freeze sandwiches over the weekend for the entire week (bread rolls are better than bread for this)."

school uniform hanging ready for first day at school

Create 'stations' so kids can easily prep themselves for the school day.

CHOICE parent Simon suggests: "Get the first school day of supplies 'station-ready' with bag and uniforms at arm's reach, so everything is easy to find and ready to go."

Stacy also says: "Ensure the kids take responsibility for the things they can actually do. There are loads of websites that can help you decide what is an age-appropriate task. For example, they should be able to pack their own lunches from age six."

3. Shop smart

Tracy suggests doing a 'home inventory' with your child before you head to the shops to stock up on school supplies. See what you already have lying about the house that can be used again and suggest that if your child reuses older things, they can spend the money they've saved on something else – a reward for themselves, or a charity donation of their choice.  

And Tracy urges caution: "If you have to visit a shopping centre, chart a careful course through that steers your child well away from Smiggle and Typo. They're the McDonalds of kids' stationery!" 

All that heat, exercise and food over summer can tend to result in spontaneous growth spurts

A good approach for when your child is asking for all sorts of things is to start with 'No' and negotiate from there. If you're going to succumb to the car-shaped pencil case your child insists they need, make sure they value it and know that it has to last them. 

mother putting on school shoes for child

Kids' feet tend to swell throughout the day, so shop for school shoes in the afternoon.

4. Shoes: buy early or leave to the last minute? 

CHOICE parents are divided on this one. Ash suggests getting shoes early so your child (especially if they're starting kindy) can wear them around at home to get comfy in them and avoid blisters. 

Other parents say you should wait until the absolute last minute – all that heat, exercise and food over summer can tend to result in spontaneous growth spurts at any time! See our 6 steps to make sure your kids shoes fit.

5. Break holiday habits

If you've been a little lax with screen time over the school holidays, now might be a good time to start scaling it back, perhaps enforcing no screen time in the mornings (when they'll soon be getting ready for school) and no screen time after a certain time in the evening. 

Allocate a time before bed for reading books or things that make them use their brain, such as word searches or crossword puzzles. 

three school friends

If you're positive about back to school time, chances are your kids will be, too.

6. Be positive!

Kids will often take their cues from you – so remind them about all the great things they like about school. Simon suggests reminding your child that playing with their friends is much better than hanging out with mum or dad. 

Plus, to ease the transition, you can blur the gap a little between school and holiday by balancing work and play. 

"We play some during school terms, learn some during holidays. We've spent at least an hour a day during the holidays working on his reading and writing skills so it's less of a change when he goes back to school," says Simon.

7. Get creative to save time 

This golden stress-saving tip comes from CHOICE parent Marg: "I used to set the table for breakfast (cereal in the box, bowls and spoons), fill the kettle, put tea bags in the cups, lay out uniforms and have bags packed all before I went to bed. My husband would laugh at me but it really helped take the stress out of the mornings."

8. Travel training

For children who may be ready to walk to school by themselves or take the bus, you might like to start them on some 'travel training' while still on holidays. 

Take the bus or train with them, or walk or ride the route they'll be taking to school a few times to help them get used to it. 

"My son is going to high school so we are riding our bikes to and from the new school for an entire week prior to him starting," says Stacy.

schoolchildren eating lunch at school

Avoid lunchbox angst by preparing ahead and getting the kids involved.

9. Make friends with the freezer, and involve your kids 

CHOICE parent Kathleen is big on being prepared with lunches. "My biggest learning is to freeze sandwiches and snacks so I always have something to throw in their lunchboxes. I always pack lunches the night before as we're out early in the mornings." 

"Fresh sandwiches freeze well, particularly with fillings such as jam, Vegemite, chicken, cheese (grated only, otherwise it gets too crumbly) – just make ahead and take out the night before or in the morning before they head off to school. They will be surprisingly fresh and soft by lunchtime," she says. 

Kathleen also suggests using reusable fabric or beeswax sandwich bags to reduce plastic, and freeze treats like muffins, donuts and cupcakes.  

"Cupcakes freeze well with icing if it covers the cupcake completely, and cream cheese icing freezes really well," she says. 

Ash also says that involving your kids in lunchbox shopping and prep is not only a great way to teach them new skills, but will likely make them more engaged and likely to actually eat what you've packed them.

How to use reusable food wraps

10. Crafty contact

As kids across the country prepare to trudge again towards the classroom, you can almost feel the collective palpable panic of the mums and dads that abhor one thing above all else: contacting exercise books. Who would have thought that applying a simple clear sheet of plastic to a book could cause so much anxiety? 

Anyone who has painstakingly smoothed out the sticky substance over a crisp new textbook only to discover they've created the telltale creasing or bubbling of a contact fail will understand the fear. 

One of our CHOICE staff, doting uncle Jonathan, has a creative solution:

"When I was at school, in order to avoid the terror of trying to apply contact to my exercise books, my parents would buy me clear plastic book covers (available from shops like Officeworks) and I'd use the computer and printer at home to design my own special covers for each school subject."

"An A4 print-out should slip easily into the plastic sleeves and it helped my technology and design skills. It was always a fun project designing what each cover would look like with our computer," he says.

11. Reward responsibility

If your kids are old enough, now could be a good time to talk to them about reducing waste and how the little things they can do can make a difference. You could watch documentaries such as War on Waste together to start the conversation and encourage them to be more responsible with their belongings. 

Praise kids for reusing things and making them last, then hopefully you'll be making fewer trips to lost property as an added bonus!

We care about accuracy. See something that's not quite right in this article? Let us know or read more about fact-checking at CHOICE.

Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.