September 1, 2014 at 1:00 am

Working parents share kids' back-to-school stresses

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Kareem Anguin gripped his daughter’s hand and walked her through the bustling hallway to her first-grade classroom at Lincoln-Marti School in Miami.

Full of first-day jitters, 7-year-old Andrea peppered him with questions: Would he have to work late? Would he be around to help with homework?

His response was one muttered often by working parents: “I’ll do my best.”

As we embark on another school year, there’s no denying that back-to-school worries can be as stressful for working dads and moms as they are for kids. We find ourselves scurrying to buy supplies and adopt new routines to blend our children’s school schedules and activities with our work hours — and can only try to do our best.

Getting the right arrangements in place can be crucial to our job performance and our child’s school success. Many parents adjust strategies yearly, tweaking for new school hours or tapping new resources. Still, getting it right can be a challenge. In a new Pew Research Center survey, 56 percent of working moms and 50 percent of working dads said they find it very or somewhat difficult to juggle work and family life.

Those who can tap work flexibility are fortunate. Last school year, Anguin, a single father and an executive chef, hired a sous chef to help in his restaurant’s kitchen and allow him to get home earlier to go over homework and put his daughter to bed. While his goal was to be home by 7 p.m. and take a day off midweek, it didn’t always happen.

This school year, he has an additional sous chef and plans to try harder to be home to supervise homework, pop out to take his daughter to ballet class, and have a weekday off. If he succeeds, he wants to use that day to volunteer at his daughter’s school: “I am hoping to cook for the kids or teach them about preparing food.”

Many parents are still working out the kinks in after-school arrangements. Last year, Patricia Brown, an administrative assistant, sent her 13-year-old daughter to after-school care at the local community center. But almost every afternoon at work, she got a text message from the child saying she was bored and begging to be picked up early.

This year, she is letting her daughter go home on the bus. She has created a routine for her to follow — snack, homework, free time: “I think it’s going to be less stressful for me.”

After-school challenges

Experts say after-school child care often is working parents’ biggest stressor. Parents miss an average of five days of work per year because of a lack of after-school care, and their afternoon productivity is affected, too, according to a 2006 study of 1,755 employed parents by Catalyst, a nonprofit group that focuses on women’s issues, and Brandeis University. The scramble typically begins with the transition to higher grades, where on-site after-school care is no longer available.

Vivian Conterio’s daughter, Gianna, started at a middle school this year where after-school care isn’t offered. For now, Conterio and her husband, both consultants, are taking turns picking up their daughter at 3 p.m. They do have a strategy, though: “We are hoping to get her involved in as many clubs or sports as possible that have after-school practices or meetings.”

Extracurricular activities often present a challenge, too. Some parents believe busy kids are accomplished kids. Yet getting children to and from sports practices or piano lessons can create work conflicts for parents.

Working parents like Katie Gilden, a CPA and mother of children ages 8, 6 and 4, have made an effort not to over-schedule them. Last year, Gilden limited her kids to two activities each and negotiated flexibility at work to drive them around. This year, she will do the same.

However, instead of stressing about whether they have too much homework to go to activities, she plans to let them be responsible for their schedules. “My older two in elementary school usually know what their homework is on Monday for the entire week,” she said, “so I’m encouraging them to get work done ahead of time where possible and learn to manage their stress load.”

Keep abreast of progress

Another key area where parents often readjust is educational involvement.

Last year, Liz Garcia marked her calendars with important school meeting dates, and attended the open house at the beginning of the school year. As the school year rolled on and work became busier, she assumed all was going well. It took until the last month of school for her to realize her son was struggling horribly in math.

This year, she plans to email to her son’s math teacher early in the year to request regular early-morning conferences on his progress: “It’s going to be tricky with my work schedule, but I know I need to be more on top of his grades.”

Through trial and error, Kerri Medina, a college adviser, has found that making a plan with her 15-year-old son, Elias, at the beginning of the year for activities, homework, volunteer opportunities and study time increases the chance of a better academic outcome.

She recommends that parents of high school students approach the new school year with a plan of action, too. She also urges getting involved in course choice, scheduling a meeting with the guidance counselor, and talking with teens about their interests: “You want to ensure what they are doing falls in line with future plans.”

For fathers, being involved in a child’s education can be particularly tricky, said Holly Zwerling, president of the Fatherhood Task Force of South Florida. Men often are reluctant to ask for the work/life accommodations to participate in a teacher conference or handle a problem in the principal’s office.

The simplest way for working parents to set their kids up for success is to talk to them daily for at least five quality minutes, regardless of how exhausted you might be, Zwerling said.

“Asking how school was is not a good question. Think of another question or share something that happened during your day and engage your child in problem-solving,” she said. Electronic conversations work, too. “Take a few minutes to send a text wishing them a good day at school. Little things go a long way.”