Back to school strategies

Jamie's advice:

Strategy 1:
"Talk up" the new school year. Imagine what it would be like if your boss approached every assignment with sighs, eye-rolls, and a constant barrage of negativity. You wouldn't feel very inspired to do your best work, would you? Of course not! Well, the same principle applies to school. If every other word out of your mouth conveys how much you dread getting up early, supervising homework, running to sports practices and music lessons, and so forth, your child is hardly going to be enthusiastic about it either.

"Always frame the impending school year in a positive light," says Woolf. "When you seem happy and excited about something, chances are good your kids will catch your upbeat mood. They'll be much more likely to cooperate."

Strategy 2:
Make sure kids have the right tools for the job. No business leader would expect her employees to get the job done without phones, computers, Blackberries, and other tools of the trade. So make sure your kids are well equipped for the school year. Don't just fly through the annual "school supply" shopping ritual-make it an event. Take the kids along and let them select the perfect book bag, the right notebook colors, and so forth. The same goes for back-to-school wardrobes.

"Just as leaders create buy-in by having employees participate in decision making, you can help your kids get excited about school by letting them equip themselves for the upcoming year," says Woolf. "It's amazing how much more likely an 8-year-old girl is to take ownership of her homework when she gets to carry it around in a Hannah Montana backpack!"

Strategy 3:
Enlist the whole family in setting big picture goals. Exemplary business leaders know that when we don't set goals, we're susceptible to enervating detours that take us away from where we want to go. Why is goal setting so important for business leaders and parents alike? Because, says Woolf, the very act of articulating a goal and committing to it focuses our attention on the bigger meaning and inspires us to not lose our motivation over those niggling details. The clearer your mental picture of your desired outcomes, the more likely you are to behave in a way that supports your goals.

"Talk to family members about their hopes and concerns about the upcoming school year," advises Woolf. "What is your and your child's picture of an ideal school year? What about your spouse's? And last but not least, what about your own goals? Help everyone figure out what they want to achieve this year, and they'll have an inspiring vision to work toward."

Strategy 4:
Chart out the specifics. If a business leader announces to his staff, "We're going to have the best year ever," that's all well and good but how will this occur? Just like when you declare your New Year's resolution-I'm going to get physically fit-you know what happens: You go gangbusters at the gym for a couple weeks and then it's back to your old sedentary habits. The secret is to articulate specific, measurable action plans: Together with family members, come up with concrete plans for sharing chores, doing homework, and having fun throughout the school year.

"If you say, 'Everyone does homework from 4:00 to 5:30, then we do chores and prepare dinner together, and then we'll go to the park or play outside until bedtime,' well, that's a lot different from making some vague statement like 'Homework comes first,'" explains Woolf. "Specificity is the key."

Strategy 5:
Rally the troops. Behind every successful business project, there is a team with the right abilities and a common goal. Raising a child takes more than a few stalwart villagers. Write down lists of people who can help with carpooling; this will lighten your driving load and your carbon footprint. Share household chores with your children; this will teach responsibility and alleviate some of your burden. In fact, if a task makes you cranky, get rid of it altogether if you can, advises Woolf.

"If you hate making lunches every morning, for example, delegate this chore to your kids," she suggests. "Don't fall into the 'Super Mom' trap of trying to do too much yourself. It only makes you resentful and creates tension around the whole issue of school."

Strategy 6:
Identify potential challenges and create your plan of attack. The best businesses are keenly aware of the obstacles they may encounter and have plans to address them. Instead of losing sleep, make a list of the challenges you anticipate facing this school year. Let's say you have three kids at three different afterschool programs, each with the same pick-up time. Instead of wringing your hands over the impossibility of it all, go back to strategy four to convene your support team. And sometimes, the biggest obstacle you have to overcome is not one of logistics, but of attitude.

"One mom told me she dreaded the math homework because her son, who is worried about his first year of algebra, 'is terrible at math, just like me,'" relates Woolf. "But all that does is reinforce the notion that success requires inborn abilities. Wouldn't it be better to convey the message that success comes from practice, hard work, and a readiness to persevere after failure? Instead of buying into your child's negative mindset, say, 'Math doesn't come easily for anyone. It takes a lot of hard work and practice.' Remember that optimism is contagious...and if need be, you can always hire a tutor!"

Strategy 7:
Keep your own priorities straight. The best leaders spend most of their time on what matters most. It's standard operating procedure for working moms to live out of alignment with their highest priorities. We're just too busy, too tired, and too overwhelmed to take the time to go to the gym or to pursue a long lost dream. But remember, says Woolf, if you can't stay focused on your own goals, you aren't teaching your kids to do likewise by example.

"If you realize that you're letting your priorities fall by the wayside, go back to strategy three and decide how to make your calendar reflect your big picture goals for a successful school year," she advises. "While it's true that the school schedule can feel overwhelming, don't let it take over your life. Remember, you're not in school; your kids are. Keep using your support network and carve out some time for yourself."

Strategy 8:
Get back on track. Just like in the corporate world, you will hit glitches that throw your good intentions into chaos. Go back to your picture of success and decide what you need to do to get back on track. Math battles are becoming a way of life? Convene your support team and consider hiring a tutor or scheduling a teacher conference. Instead of falling back into the nightly homework battles, take decisive action to break the cycle.

"Getting off track doesn't mean you've failed," says Woolf. "It just means a course correction is in order. Not only will regrouping hopefully solve your problem, it will serve as a good lesson for your kids: When Plan A doesn't work, you don't give up-you just put Plan B into action."

Strategy 9:
Celebrate endings and beginnings. Business leaders create rituals at the end of a project before jumping into the next big endeavor. Before diving straight back to school, don't leave the summer behind without sharing gratitude about the summer's greatest hits. Allow family members to talk about what they enjoyed most about the summer and encourage them to express how they feel about going back to school. You might throw an "end of summer" party to give your kids a chance to mark the transition.

About the book "Mom-in-Chief"

Mom-in-Chief: How Wisdom from the Workplace Can Save Your Family from Chaos will be in bookstores in February 2009, but is available online now at, as well as all the major online booksellers.

Buy the book on Amazon: Mom-in-chief

About Jamie Woolf
Jamie Woolf has over twenty years of experience consulting to business leaders. Based on her work inside dozens of organizations, Jamie lays out her "best practices" to enjoy more success at home and at work. She founded The Parent Leader to help mothers and fathers gain the self-awareness and leadership skills to transform their daily parenting challenges into desired results and co-founded Pinehurst Consulting, an organization development and training consulting firm. She blogs on She serves on the Advisory Board of Working Mother Media.

Jamie Woolf holds an M.S. in industrial/organizational psychology from San Francisco State University and a B.A. in psychology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She lives in Oakland, California, with her husband and two daughters.

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