In preparation for a new school year, Rebecca Castro and her 8-year-old son, Pablo, soon will be shopping for a new backpack.
The Palatine mother of two pre-orders a majority of Pablo's supplies through his school, leaving only the backpack -- an item that typically doesn't last year to year -- on the shopping list.
"I just cleaned out his old backpack today," Castro said with a laugh. "It had about 50 pencils in it and old crayons."
Like many school-aged youngsters and their families, Pablo and his mom are preparing for the annual ritual of returning to the classroom. Both parents and teachers agree a smooth transition from summer to school life is key to a great first day.
August is a good time to ease into earlier bedtimes and structured routines, said Erin Knoll, assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Schaumburg School District 54. In the weeks leading up to school, practices such as eating lunch, doing chores or reading books should be done at set times to help kids get used to the more rigorous school schedule.
"Even if you post a schedule for (kids), that's an opportunity for them to read," Knoll said. "You want it to be fun. Learning is fun."
But as important as earlier bedtimes is earlier rising, said Maureen McAbee, assistant superintendent for instruction at Community Consolidated School District 59 in Arlington Heights. Rather than focusing on moving up bedtime in late summer, McAbee encourages parents to start waking their kids earlier.
"If their (internal) clock is on summertime and you tell them to go to bed at 9, they may not fall asleep," McAbee said. "It's probably easier to do the reverse. Start getting them up gradually earlier, then they'll be more tired at 9 p.m."
In addition to moving up the wakeup calls, McAbee said it's crucial to start practicing the morning routine, so kids know the pace they have to set on the first day of school.
"They're probably used to having a leisurely routine of brushing their teeth and getting ready," McAbee said. "Starting with those morning routines is sometimes an easier way to get them back into the school schedule."
Castro, whose son Pablo is entering third grade, said she tries to keep him intellectually challenged all summer so he's not behind when school starts. A Spanish teacher at Wheeling High School, Castro has Pablo work on about 20 math problems a day. The youngster also participates in a summer reading program and recently completed the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" series.
Parents also can refresh young minds by incorporating math and reading into the back-to-school shopping experience, said Beth Blaetz, director of teaching and learning for Quest Academy in Palatine. Have kids go through sales fliers and compare prices on school supplies, she said. Encourage them to add up how much back-to-school shopping is going to cost.
"Buying the supplies is a fun thing," Blaetz said. "That's a great way to start talking about math for second- and third-graders."
Carrie Larson and her son Jay, 5, both are looking forward to the first day of kindergarten. The Larson family recently moved to a new neighborhood in Naperville.
"I still have days when I'm emotional about him starting school for the rest of his life, but I love our neighborhood and I'm excited for him to go and learn," Larson said. "He's a learner."
Children's literature is an excellent way to alleviate any nervousness children might have as the first day approaches, McAbee said. She recommends reading stories with youngsters that address some of the social dynamics and various issues that come up at school, such as making new friends or bullying.
"A couple of other things that can help with some of the jitters, especially if it's a new school, is to go over there and play on the playground if it's accessible, or drive by or walk around," McAbee said. "Find out where the bus stop is."
As a high school teacher, Castro recommends that parents start a routine of putting away teen's phones and devices at night -- a prime time for online drama on social media.
But no matter what a child's age, the key a positive school experience is good communication between parents and kids, Castro said. It's something she practices regularly with her son.
"Try to have conversations about what's going on," Castro said. "Ask very specific questions -- 'Who did you eat lunch with?'"