Back to school in the single parent home

The “cookie cutter” back to school approach and the single parent home.

As the school year has already begun for many, a flurry of articles touting the latest “edge” in preparing our kids for school has hit the internet. Many articles focus on “regularly scheduled” days of homework, dinner and studying, all working together like clock work. I haven’t come across too many articles focusing on back to school in the single parent household. When I think back to the school age years, charts, starts, prizes, positive reinforcement were all good ideas. But these ideas did not consider the special needs child, the “visual learner” or the children of single parent homes. As a former teacher and a long time parent, I have found that there is no “cookie cutter” approach that works for all families. Too many variables and differentials in learning styles exist that require more than a “one size fits all approach”. So, while the single mom is frantically trying to take care of her family by working full time, serving as both parents, she must also navigate the valleys of homework, reports and studying. There are several key points to consider in approaching a routine that works for you and your children. But the number one thing to remember is this: YOU are your child’s parent and it is within your power to ensure this school year will be better than last. So don’t rely on rote homework or memorization of facts to monopolize study time. Secondly, don’t assume the latest “expert article” will work for your children. Lastly, specifically set aside time on a weekly basis to improve your child’s Executive Function.

Executive Function

This is by far the most critical component of your child’s education this year. Executive Function appears complex when you look up the definition or hear the term. But simply put, executive function means moving beyond “rote memorization” of facts or geography and into problem solving, higher order thinking and focusing on learning to make decisions. Executive function also plays a crucial role in children teaching children how to focus. According to an article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal written by Jonah Lehrer, “Children who can regulate their impulses and attention are less likely to commit crimes and do drugs”. It turns out that Executive Function is beneficial socially and academically.


For some kids coming home and diving right into homework works best because they tend to “crash” later. For other types of learners, coming home and having a half an hour to unwind before diving in better suits their learning style. Although each child does perform better at certain times and in certain environments, I do concur with the concept that there should be a set/organized dinner time. This is especially critical in the single parent home. Even if it means picking up a pizza, make sure it’s at the same time every night. This encourages family bonding and also teaches children planning. Knowing dinner will be served at 6:00 on the dot means kids will have some structure during homework evenings. They can choose to have homework done before or after dinner and the same goes for downtime.


Be clear about your expectations. Put it in writing, tape it to the bathroom mirror or put it on the fridge. If your kids are not clear about homework and education expectations … they will be left to guess. The second and most critical communication is with your child’s teachers. As soon as you can get the names and email addresses of each teacher, send a note to each teacher. Your email should read something like this: “Hi Mr. or Mrs. Smith, I am Angie’s mother. Although I am a single parent raising Angie alone, I am actively involved in seeing that she’s engaged and learning in the classroom. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help with Angie’s education and please don’t hesitate to contact me if there is ever a problem or concern.” Communication with your kids on how school is going should happen about three times a week. If you nag your child every day, they will grow weary. So, focus on what you expect from your child, follow up weekly and keep communication open with your child’s teachers.

On a final note, Executive Function information and guides can be found all over the internet. I would recommend that parents take the time to try the various games first and decide which are appropriate for your children. Remember though, your children will almost certainly meet your expectations … be sure to set them a little high while refusing to seep into the “fear of failure”.


Brain games

Happy Neurons

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