Back to school.
Don't forget ... organisation is the key to a stress-free return to school. Photo: istock

Ann-Maree Moodie

It's your little one's first day of school. She's standing beside you at the school gate wearing a uniform that makes her look so grown up. Her backpack is almost as big as she is. A new era has begun. Her eyes fill with tears. "It's OK, darling, you'll have a great time," you say bravely. The tears fall freely as she asks, what will she do if she gets hungry? Then suddenly, the realisation hits you. How could you possibly have left her lunch box at home?

JANUARY

Getting ready for school requires being organised so it's best not to leave it too late to buy uniforms, shoes, books and stationery.

There's nothing worse than a last-minute rush and finding that shops are sold out of critical items.

For first timers, including your child in the shopping trip will help ease the transition from preschool to "big school".

"For the little ones, January is a good month to talk about going to school and to cover all the issues that they might need to know," says Helen Paynter, a primary school teacher with 40 years of international experience.

"Take your child along to buy their first school uniform and other items for school. Make the event even more special by letting them choose their own lunch box and drink bottle." Make sure your child can open the lunch box easily.

Put your child's name on everything. A useful maxim to keep in mind is "if in doubt, label it". Remember, your child will be one of about 20 children in their class all wearing the same outfit, using the same type of pencils and carrying the same design of school bag. The school can only return lost items if they're labelled and your child will only recognise what's theirs if their name is on it. For school bags, attach a little teddy bear or similar so your child can distinguish their backpack from those of their classmates.

A useful idea is the Cubeo (organiseeasy.com.au) created by a Western Australian primary school teacher, Gail Rose, and her business partner, IT strategy consultant Kathryn Ryan, who have five children between them.

The Cubeo attaches to your child's school bag with a lanyard and serves as a reminder of activities for the day and the items needed to be packed. The display card and stickers can be changed as required to remind children about sport, library or news day.

After seeing thousands of five-year-olds through their first day at school, Paynter knows that it's the little things that make all the difference. "Closer to the start date, let your child dress up in their school uniform so they can get used to it," she says. "And always wear in the new school shoes - there's nothing like blisters on the first day to put you off playing with your new friends."

Prepare for the worst by putting Band-Aids on their heels and arches; also pack extra Band-Aids in the school bag.

THE NIGHT BEFORE

Murphy's law states that if something can go wrong, it will. Avoid the stresses of the first morning of school by laying out clothes (including underwear, socks and shoes) the night before. Have a bottle of sunscreen nearby to apply in the morning. Make the school lunch and put it in the fridge.

Pack the school bag and include a spare pair of underpants and socks in a plastic bag in case of any toilet accidents. Tell your child these items are in their bag if they need them; also mention it to their teacher when you arrive at school. Knowing they have a change of clothes will help ease any embarrassment and stress for your child if they wet themselves. And don't forget to pack two hats - one to wear outside at playtime and the other in case the first is lost.

Ensure your camera is ready, that the batteries are charged and that it's stocked with fresh film or an SD card. Charge up your mobile phone.

FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL

The day has come and there's a good chance that parents of first timers will be quite emotional. Stay bright and positive even if your little one is nervous. The teacher will have prepared activities for the children so direct them towards playing with a puzzle or a game.

"It's always a pity when the first-time parent fusses over the child in the classroom and then turns to me in a voice loud enough for the child to hear and says: 'Oh, I don't know how she'll go today because she's been so anxious,'" Paynter says. "Yet it always seems to me that the child was perfectly OK until their mother or father made such an issue of things. A quick hug and a cheery 'see you in the afternoon' is just perfect. Trust the teachers who have done this many times before and know how to settle children on their first day at school."

If you're using the after-school care program, make sure your child knows who will pick them up and at what time.

MANAGING SIBLINGS

For families with two or more children, it's best to allocate tasks that are appropriate for each child's age to teach them about responsibility and staying organised. This is especially the case with teenagers.

"Sometimes it takes a harsh lesson [for both parent and child] to reinforce routines, like packing their lunch," a former preschool assistant turned professional organiser and owner of Creating Order from Chaos (creatingorder.com.au), Angela Esnouf, says.

There's no quicker way for teenagers to learn to be on time for school than feeling the pain and the consequences of being late. "My own teens learnt the hard way," Esnouf says. "I let the school know ahead of time what my plan was. It didn't take long before I could implement it. They both missed their ride to school one morning and begged me to drive them. When I refused they told me they wouldn't go to school. I explained the consequences of that decision, so they ordered a taxi and arrived at school on time but felt the pain in their hip pocket. They were never late for their ride again."

GETTING (AND STAYING) ORGANISED

Esnouf advises establishing a system and a routine that suits everyone in the family and sticking to it. "At home, have a designated place where school items belong to avoid the stress of a frantic search each morning," Esnouf says.

"For the little ones, a simple picture list of before and after-school duties will help your child be ready for school each day. For instance, take photos of your child eating breakfast, getting dressed, brushing teeth, putting their packed schoolbag by the front door for the morning routine and create a poster with those photos. For the afternoon routine, you might take photos of changing into play clothes, unpacking their bag and putting it in the right place and having a drink and snack. If parents are consistent with their own routines it will help the child settle in quickly."

Even if you're a first-time parent of a school-age child there's no doubt you'll already have a small pile of paperwork from the school. This is the time to establish a system for administrative paperwork, as well as correspondence, newsletters, permission slips for excursions and management of your child's work.

The NSW Department of Education has ideas on creating a school organiser and templates for the folder are available to download free from www.schools.nsw.edu.au/news/schooldays/organiser/index.php.

One template is for important numbers for the school. It's a good idea to enter these details in your phone, too.

"Have a clearly defined space for these to live and have a routine for processing them," says Esnouf, who is also the president of the Australian Association of Professional Organisers (aapo.org.au).

"I recommend using a highlighter pen the first time you read a notice. It'll save you having to re-read for that important date or phone number later. Children will bring home lots of work,too. At first you'll be tempted to keep every piece but you'll soon need a bigger house if you do. Over time try keeping just the milestone or significant pieces of work. Your child can even help you decide."

Encourage your child to empty their school bag when they get home. Check for uneaten food and notices from the school.

Ann-Maree Moodie's daughter starts school this year.