The Five Stages of a School Year

Five Stage of the School Year_CoverThe end of the school year has finally arrived and as usual, the kids and I are dragging ourselves across the finish line. Most of us have been done since early January with the last towel being thrown in by my youngest, the eternal optimist, mid-April. It’s a cycle I’ve seen repeat year after year, barring the one year my oldest cried on the last day of kindergarten because she was going to miss school so much. Those were the early years and we all still had our innocence intact.

In looking back over the stages of the school year – from the start when we’re all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed fresh off the euphoric effects of summer vacation to the to end when we’re like the walking dead – and I realized that the stages of the school year are not unlike the Stages of Grief. Not to make a macabre comparison, but hey, if the shoe fits.

My moment of enlightenment came recently as I stumbled across pictures from the first day of school. Every so often I’ll come across an old photo of myself, usually one from before I had kids and definitely before I had teenagers, and I’ll be struck by how young I once was. In these photos, there are no dark circles under my eyes, no wrinkles on my forehead or in the corners of my eyes, and most of all, I look so light and carefree. This was, of course, before life had slapped me around a bit. For a brief moment, I can convince myself that it’s really me, that I haven’t changed. I like to keep my driver’s license photo on hand for such occasions to snap myself back into reality. But the other day when I found my kids’ pictures from the start of the school year, I realized that their school year decline is pretty much the same.

And so I sat for a bit and thought about how we could all go so quickly (despite the fact that each school year feels like seven years in real-time) from one end of the spectrum to the other…see reference to bright-eyed and bushy-tailed vs. walking dead above. That’s when I realized that it’s not an overnight process. Rather, it happens in stages. So let’s take a look at the breakdown…

The Five Stages of the School Year

 Stage One: Denial (August – October)

This stage could also be referred to as delusion. Either way, it’s the start of the school year, beginning as early as a couple of weeks before the first bell actually rings. This is a time when we’re all caught in the throes of back-to-school shopping. There are fresh notebooks, new pencils, shiny white tennis shoes, coordinated outfits, and lunchboxes that don’t yet contain the mashed remains of Goldfish crackers made soggy by a spilled juice box.

These are the days when we truly believe that THIS is the year when we’re going to stay on track and not have one single day where we get a call from a child asking us to bring the permission slip for the field trip that’s departing in five minutes. We’ve got our planner ready and color-coded. We’ve read all of the back-to-school notices and completed all of the beginning of the year forms. We’re ready for Open House and the first parent teacher conference. In fact, we even show up at parent teacher night with our OWN notes. The kids are excited to see their friends. Classes are new and engaging. Life is good. That’s when the next stage kicks in.


Stage Two: Anger (November – December)

By mid-October, we start to see a shift in our attitudes. We have now attended three different back-to-school nights, three different open-houses, and approximately 47 parent teacher conferences because heaven forbid our kids should all go to the same school or have only one teacher. There are holidays looming on the horizon, which means a never-ending parade of school parties and winter concerts. This also means that we are now responsible for supplying enough cupcakes to feed a small army; and inevitably, not one single person can find the red turtleneck they had to wear in last year’s winter concert and we now have to find an identical turtleneck 12 hours out from show time (hello, Walmart at midnight). Fall sports are in full swing and everyone’s practice ends at the same time – in three different places.

Nevermind that this is the year your in-laws have decided that they’re spending the holidays at your house and a child just came home with lice 10 days before the start of winter break. All you can do is stare blankly at your life and rage against the forces that brought you to this place.

Stage Three: Bargaining (January-March)

By the end of Christmas break, you’ve reached a new resolve. You survived the holidays. However, now you have that long stretch from January until the beginning of April before the next “break” comes in the form of Spring Break. It’s all your kids can talk about. You have to remind them that they still have three months. This is the time when you decide that there’s nothing to do but just put your shoulder down and power through. It’s go time. You got this. But a few compromises will need to be made in order to ensure the survival of all parties. And so you start making deals with your kids, such as:

  • Everyone can do an after-school activity, but only one
  • If homework is completed by a certain hour, TV time (which you valiantly disavowed back in your denial stage) will be reinstated
  • Grades = $ (i.e., you no longer have the strength to incite greatness by the sheer force of your motherly love and encouragement alone)
  • Yes, they can stay up a little later. This is not a compromise; you just don’t care anymore.
  • You promise that if they’ll just keep it together for a few more weeks, you’ll do something really great for spring break, like a fun vacation or a cool camp.

It is this last bargain that tends to sink the whole ship. Thanks to all of the other compromises you’ve made in the interest of survival, you now have to tell the kids that when you said “fun vacation,” you meant a visit to the grandparents because your budget is shot thanks to holidays and dance class tuition. Or you were too late to get them into the cool rocket camp they wanted to go to, so they’ll be living it up at chess camp instead. And thus, we enter the next phase…


Stage Four: Depression (April-May)

Oh, these are dark days indeed. By the end of April, you’ve pretty much all lost your will to go on. Summer break is a shimmering mirage on the horizon, but you’re still so deep in the desert, you’re not sure you’ll ever get there. Spring break was anything but a “break,” you’ve got 43 sports banquets, awards ceremonies, and end-of-the-year class parties to look forward to…at least you think you do. You’re not totally sure, because you haven’t been able to find your planner since early March and everything is written on post-it notes now. I’m not going to dwell on this stage. It is what it is and you all know what I’m talking about. But don’t worry, because there is a light at the end of the tunnel.


Stage Five: Acceptance (June until the cycle repeats itself)

June brings with it a new feeling – a feeling that is both freeing and sobering at the same time. June is when you realize that this is simply who you are now. You’ve gone from having kids who picked out their outfits the night before to kids who may or may not be wearing pants – and you don’t really mind either way. As for yourself, you haven’t worn anything other than pajama pants to the bus stop for more than two months. You long ago forgave yourself for not making homemade cupcakes for the class parties and now send in two bags of Doritos and some leftover birthday napkins from your youngest’s birthday party in April.

Speaking of food, school lunches, which started off containing a healthy representation of the food pyramid and a cute note with smiley faces and hearts, have deteriorated to whatever is left in the pantry. I would love to say something hilarious here about how I sent my kids to school with three grapes, a graham cracker, and some string cheese, but I’ll be honest. I stopped making lunches around mid-March. My kids are now officially hobo-like foragers. Do they take lunch? Don’t know. Was there half a pan of brownies on the counter that is now gone? Yep, so one can assume they’re eating something. I accept that.

Acceptance, however, is not such a bad place to be. It’s a state where we finally allow ourselves to let go of the myriad of other emotions that come with parenting any time of the year. We finally recognize that perfection does not equal happiness. Because all we have to do is look at our kids who are floating on an end-of-the-school year cloud, fueled by brownies and the promise of summer break, to realize that it’s ok if their outfits don’t match and their beginning of the year shiny white sneakers are covered in field day mud.

Acceptance is the stage that we ride through summer. We can let go, get a little lazy, and know that it’s ok, because August is coming….and maybe THIS is the year we’re going to stay on track. There’s always hope, right?

For more essays on the ups and down of parenting life, be sure to check out our entire Parent Life series!