For me – and I suspect for many other people, as well – that dramatic affair in January is nothing but a party; the REAL New Year comes when it's time to go back to school. Even though it's been years since I've been a student myself, there's something about early September that promises a new start. Post-Labor Day is when I make my real resolutions, just as when I was an earnest fourth-grader: this year I will stay organized from the very beginning, this year I will do my very best, this is the year I'll RULE!
Of course even though I'M not in school anymore, in my house September still means “back to school” in a literal sense. Since Joy started preschool I've gotten each of six kids ready for a new year a total of 71 times, and I've learned a few things along the way.
Don't invest a lot of money in a binder. Your child may fall in love with that complex, inordinately expensive organizational system (with a pocket for everything, separate sections for notebook and graph paper and a built-in calculator) only to find out on the first day of school that they're not “doing” binders this year and are instead being required to have a manila envelope for each class and are forbidden to bring binders into the room. Unless you can get your hands on a Classroom Supplies List ahead of time, send her to school with a spiral notebook and a pencil that first day. Wait to buy a lot of supplies until you know exactly what she needs.
Don't personalize bulk supplies. In these days of deep budget cuts many teachers add general necessities such as Kleenex and crayons to the classroom supply list, so when your child brings in his package of #2 pencils it may be added to the general fund of pencils in the closet. Unless you know the things are for your child's personal use don't put his name on them.
DO personalize their own items. Schools are chaotic places and many coats, hats, lunchboxes and backpacks look identical. Label things clearly and plainly by writing your child's last name, school name and classroom number on the inside of the item with permanent ink (white or metallic if the item is dark). Don't use the full name or your home phone number or address.
Speaking of backpacks, buy the sturdiest backpack you can afford. Kids are incredibly rough on their backpacks, and one of those cute plastic packs will be ripped to shreds in no time flat. Look for canvas or tough rip-stop fabric, double seams, padded shoulders and zippers with fabric tapes and metal teeth. It should have adjustable straps so that it can sit high on your child's shoulders with the bottom hitting the small of her back at the lowest. Kids in middle-school age and above will have a heavy load to carry (despite the constant warnings from the medical community about how bad that is for their backs), so see if you can get them to agree to one of those wheeled packs with a handle that you can roll like a piece of carry-on luggage. I never could; sometimes they'll go for an across-the-body bag, though, and that relieves some of the strain.
Don't buy a lot of clothing. Yes, everybody needs new socks and undies, and it's nice to be wearing “new” from the skin out on that all-important First Day of School – but sure as you're sitting there, if you buy your kid ten pairs of Levis in August “They” will only be wearing Gap in September and you'll have ten pairs of jeans hanging unworn in your kid's closet. Pick up a couple of good basic things over the summer but give your kid a week or so to look around, see what people are really wearing and decide what he actually wants. Then buy him about a third of that, because he's going to be having another growth spurt before December.
Take your child with you. They might hate it, you might hate it, but you won't hate it as much as forking out thirty bucks for a Scooby Doo lunch box you think they'll love and having them refuse to take it to school. Actually I've always kinda loved back-to-school shopping and I think my kids do, too; we either make it a gala sort of occasion complete with lunch out, or turn it into a competition. One particularly lean year we had a contest to see which kid could put together the cheapest back-to-school outfit; Sassy won by spending $3.39 on the cutest little skirt and t-shirt combo you ever saw (that kid is the best bargain shopper I have ever met). I forget what she won but I'm pretty sure it cost more than her whole outfit.
Shop late unless you're shopping early. Another advantage to waiting until after school starts to do your shopping is that most everything goes on sale after Labor Day. However, you should keep an eye on the ads from the 4th of July on; each week in the “Buy Now for Back-to-School!” frenzy there should be a loss-leader that you can't afford to miss. Yesterday we found spiral notebooks for 15 cents, and last week it was 4 glue sticks for a dollar – you can do a lot of stocking-up at those prices.
Finally, include a treat. I am the Tradition Queen, and so we have traditions for the first day of school like we do for everything else. One tradition is that each student gets a tiny back-to-school gift on his breakfast plate, something like a fancy pencil or a goofy eraser or a teensy notebook. This way they start their day with a smile, and that bodes well for the entire year.
We also take their picture by the door that morning, backpack, new outfit and all; because a New Year deserves documentation!