Kindergarten and Public Schools 101. What do you wish you knew?
June 7, 2016 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Help me navigate American public schools. What is Teacher Appreciation Day? How do birthday treats and holiday treats work? Do I have to join Pinterest to keep up with the crafts? Tell me how classroom gifts work, and what you wish you knew before your kids started school.

My first child will be entering kindergarten this fall. It's become apparent to me that some things have changed since I was in school. Also, I grew up in a rural small town and my kids will attend school in a more wealthy, larger school school district than I did.
Here's specific things I don't understand:
Teacher Appreciation Day - what is this? A Facebook friend gave her kids' kindergarten teachers and teacher aides rose bushes in pots that she and her kids decorated. I saw a photo of a parent-sponsored Teacher's Appreciation day party that, I'm not kidding, was nicer than my wedding reception. It was sweet, but also a big surprise to me. I have never even heard of Teacher Appreciation Day before. How do I know what's standard in our school?
Bus Drivers - Do they receive gifts? I actually really love our bus driver and think he does an awesome job. Is it appropriate to give him a card or gift? Are the other parents already doing this?
What about gifts for crossing guards?
Birthdays - When does the birthday treat thing end? Our elementary school does have a "don't bring food to share" rule for birthdays. I imagine parents still bring something for each kid. Right? How many years does this last?
Valentine's Day and Halloween - is this the same thing as birthdays? I didn't know until after my kid came home with a huge bucket of stuff that Valentine's Day is a gift-giving day. For instance, they don't jus exchange little cards, they exchange little cards or crafts with a piece of candy or gift taped to the card. Is this true in kindergarten too? When do they age out of this?
Also for birthday parties, at what age do parents start dropping kids off at parties and leaving?
At what age do slumber parties typically start?
With sports, do parents today stay and watch the all the practices? When does carpooling or the kid walks to practice start? (Obviously, please assume this is in a safe neighborhood).
What other things don't I know about? This is my biggest question. Please tell me what I don't know I don't know, or what you wish you knew in advance. And this question is largely devoted to social life and cultural traditions, but if there are academic traditions that I don't know, I'd be glad to hear about them too. (I do know about new math and that there's more homework than I had in grade school).

* I am comfortable setting guidelines for my family, but I can't set those standards if I don't know what the current situation is. For instance, I don't give away candy on birthdays because I try to be sensitive to kids with food allergies. We do stickers or tattoos instead. But if I didn't know about the birthday treat tradition in advance, I wouldn't have been able to set this rule. Also, my kid happens to enjoy giving and making things for her friends or teachers. She does notice if other kids are giving gifts or tokens and wants to participate. So even if its just a card or drawing, she wants to give when a gift may be expected.
posted by areaperson to Education (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Every district and every school is different. Call or email the principal and ask for a meeting.
posted by Etrigan at 8:51 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

You are most likely to have a room mom for your daughter's K class. Ask her to give you the info on what the traditions are for the school.

Birthday parties - usually age 6 or 7 for drop off.
Slumber parties - depends on the child, but usually 2nd-3rd grade.
Sports - Hrm. If you work, carpooling is a must. I found it became much smoother about 4th grade.

You'll be shocked at all of the candy/gift giving things at the school. Leprechaun traps continue to bug me. :)

I think giving stickers for V-day is fine, as well as fun pencils.
posted by heathrowga at 9:00 AM on June 7, 2016

Join the parent/teacher organization. They are the ones who set the rules and bully all the other moms into following them.

I don't follow the trends, by the way. We do what we want, when it feels right, and it's worked out fine for me and my children. The only hard and fast rule we have is that when the school sends out demands for field day money or field trip money, my daughter pays for a friend whose family is living paycheck to paycheck. We also make certain that this friend has a warm jacket and gloves. Just something to keep in mind- even though you are going to a school where most children are wealthy, not all children come from wealthy families. Keep your eyes open for the ones that are struggling. They need your gifts more than the teachers.
posted by myselfasme at 9:01 AM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Every district and every school is different. Call or email the principal and ask for a meeting.

Honestly, I don't think it's standard practice to call the principal of the school and request a meeting to learn about Teacher Appreciation Day.

I think a lot of this will be -- for your first kid starting school -- just winging it. You'll meet parents at pickups and dropoffs that have older children and they will be able to give you the inside scoop. I don't have kids myself, but I honestly know dozens of women who have made lifelong friends among the other mothers in their child's kindergarten class. (I wish I were saying "people" and "mothers and fathers" but honestly, that has not been true in my experience.) If there's a parent group or a committee for the classroom and you have the time to spare, join it. You'll feel much more informed and involved.

For things like birthdays and Valentine's Day, your classroom will have specific rules. Sometimes other parents will break these rules and you will be frustrated because you complied to them. That's hard, especially when you have a kid who, like you said, wants to give gifts, notices what other people are doing, etc.

Also, yes, give your bus driver a gift! The people I know who do bus driver gifts do small gift cards.
posted by kate blank at 9:02 AM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Caveat: my family lives in the Twin Cities metro, in a school district that is considered to be pretty good but not the best.

Teacher Appreciation Day: I don't recall this being a thing, though the elementary school my kid attended did have a "We Appreciate You" week that coincided with parent-teacher conference week; the school asked volunteers to provide treats during the school day and meals during the dinner hours for the teachers, since they were working evenings to meet with parents. It wasn't a huge, fancy, decorated affair.

Teacher gifts: I suppose they were a thing but it never seemed to be the thing. I'm not aware of there being an expectation of gifts. If your child has a particular connection with a teacher, sure. Otherwise I wouldn't sweat it. If you want to do something like this, keep an eye out for the semi-annual bookfair notice; in our school all the teachers had lists of books they'd like for their classroom, and parents could buy those as gifts.

Bus drivers: If the bus driver is particularly great, a note to him/her and a note or call to the bus company would be appreciated. My in-laws drive school buses and though I'm sure they'd appreciate a small gift (like, a gift card for the coffee shop or Target or something), it's not necessary.

Birthdays: I think the sending of treats tapered off in third or fourth grade. My kid's not a big birthday person, though, so that might just be because he didn't want to bother. Certainly it stopped by fifth grade. As for parties and the like, I think drop-off/pick-up began around second or third grade. Slumber parties/sleepovers started around 4th grade.

Holidays: valentine card distribution lasted until fifth grade IIRC. Some of them came with goodies, but some didn't. Halloween parties happened through third or maybe fourth grade. Younger kids were allowed to dress up if Halloween fell on a school day, but older kids were not.

Sports practices: my kid is in 7th grade, and it's only this year that I've noticed many parents dropping kids off at practice and then returning to pick them up.

Overall, though, myselfasme's advice above is spot-on. And really, you'll pick up on what the school's culture for all this stuff is once you've got a kid there.
posted by Janta at 9:09 AM on June 7, 2016

So, this will vary so much from district to district (and even school to school within a district) that nobody can really answer this for you.

At my son's school (here in Maine), the PTO does a very good job of communicating things like you're asking to parents.

Some examples that are true at our school, but may not be at yours:

Teacher Appreciation Day - organized by the PTO as a day to say thanks to the teachers. The PTO brought in early morning breakfast, and we were encouraged (but not required) to have our child send in a letter or drawing about what they love about their teacher. There were also very nice decorations in the school, but, again, they were organized by the PTO with PTO volunteers - it was not every parent for his or her self.

Birthdays - our school explicitly bans all in-school birthday celebrations.

Halloween - No gifts or candy or cards, but kids were allowed to wear their costumes to school.

Valentine's Day - Organized "friendship" day at school. Kids do still do store-bought valentines, and the school discourages candy and tries to encourage handmade valentines, or small gifts (ie: pencils) in lieu of candy, with limited success.

Birthday parties - I think he started going alone in about 3rd grade?

I can't help with sleepovers or sports, sorry.

In general, though, the parent-teacher organization will be your lifeline to the culture of your school.

It will all be ok, I promise.
posted by anastasiav at 9:10 AM on June 7, 2016

Teacher Appreciation Day: Your room parent will probably organize something and will send out a sign-up thing for it. Participate or don't, it's fine.

Bus Drivers: It would be very nice of you to give something to your bus driver. I usually did cookies or a gift card. But only for the ones I liked. Same for crossing guards.

Birthdays: If your school has a "no food to share" policy, follow it. It makes your life easier! You do not have to participate in the "give every kid some plastic crap" train that other parents seem to be on. It will not be social suicide for your kid. Your kid's teacher would be a great person to ask about birthday treats.

Valentine's Day/Halloween: Yes, they do the 'everyone gets a card' thing in Kindergarten but you do not have to participate in the candy aspect. I promise. Some schools don't recognize or celebrate Halloween; you'll probably get an email after the start of school from the room parent stating what's going to happen in the classroom throughout the year. As for aging out of the card-giving thing, for us it was dependent on the teacher. Some teachers just ban cards outright and I loved them for it! Otherwise, go with what your kid wants to do.

Birthday party drop-off: That really is dependent on you, the other parents, and your kid. If all the other parents are hanging around when you bring your five-year-old to a party, you probably shouldn't drop and go. But if you go in and the host parents say, "Okay, see you at 4:00!" and you're comfortable with that, that's fine.

Slumber parties: Again, depends on you and your kid. I think my eldest had his first at age 10/11? His first sleepover (one-on-one) was at 6 or 7, though, and it was his best friend across the street. Same for my youngest.

Sports: I stayed and watched mostly because it wasn't convenient to drop them off for a half hour or an hour and then go do what? I would have had to book it to run errands and going home would have been a wash. If it had been longer practice, I might have. But when they're young, you don't tend to have hours long practices. Carpooling/walking: again, dependent on your kid. I didn't carpool while there were carseats involved. Too much bother. Once all the kids were out of carseats, I carpooled.

The only thing I wish I had known when my kids started elementary school was that I could opt out of everything and it would be okay. I learned that eventually, and I hope you take it to heart. Just do what works for your family! Will people judge you? Probably! But who cares?! They're not worth it if they're judging you for not sending in birthday treats for your kid.

You do you!
posted by cooker girl at 9:16 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm most of the way through the school year with a kindergartner now, and I'd say the biggest things are finding a local active mailing list for the school your child is going to, and finding parents of older kids in your neighborhood to find out about local standards. Most of the school stuff you are talking about has gotten back to me via daily paperwork in the backpack or mailings the summer before the school year started. For example, our elementary school does not allow any Halloween activities during the school day at all, other elementary schools in the same town allow everything but weapons and/or face covering masks and/or candy and/or peanut-containing treats. The teacher appreciation activities went out via the PTA mailing list, as have requests for bake sales and things. A lot of it is optional, too; my kid got candy from about half his class on Valentine's Day and cards from about 3/4 of them. Only 1-2 kids have invited the whole class to their birthdays.

I've found that our kindergarten teacher has also been hugely helpful on this front; they are on the front lines and are well-acquainted with both the expectations and with the fact that parents with kindergarten kids don't know local customs. My kid's birthday was early in the school year and she was able to tell me that birthday treats were fine for the afternoon snack that day.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:29 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

Your Elementary school probably has a parent handbook. At the very least, I would expect it to lay out the official guidelines for birthday celebrations and (sharing with the class) food policies.
posted by oceano at 9:33 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Every district and every school is different. Call or email the principal and ask for a meeting.

Honestly, I don't think it's standard practice to call the principal of the school and request a meeting to learn about Teacher Appreciation Day.


I'm an admin and a teacher and a parent. If a parent of an incoming Kindergartner called and wanted to meet about this stuff, I would compartmentalize you as a handful. You don't want to do that.

Your kid's class will probably have a Room Parent; this is usually a seasoned parent who is the official organizer for parties and events and gift-giving. They'll send out emails and explain how this is all done. But there may not be a Room Parent and in that case, you can get good intel at a PTA meeting. You can also get intel at the playground or pick up/drop off, but be wary of the source. Often the most vocal parents are the least satisfied parents and they want to get recruits for their vendetta against the school. Conversely, vocal parents can be a bit overly committed to helping the school and become bizarrely competitive with who raises the most money, etc. Avoid those parents.

No matter what info you get, you do your thing as you get a sense of cultural norms which vary WILDLY not only from district to district, but from school to school WITHIN a district. Don't feel pressured to join the PTO/PTA or committees or whatever.

And usually there's a $50 limit on gifts that state employees can accept so bear that in mind.

(Yes, Teacher Appreciation Day/Week is A THING. Our parents bought all the teachers a really nice catered lunch and plastic containers to take home leftovers for dinner. It was awesome and one of the reasons I love our parents.)
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 9:42 AM on June 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

In general I found the crafty/gifty-ness of preschool more intense than kindergarten as preschool kids are more likely to have an at-home parent or grandparent (hence preschool rather than all-year daycare) while kindergarten is all the kids.

Also the store bought Valentines boxes of classroom cards come with pencils or stickers or geegaws now, in addition to candy options, as some schools don't allow candy. I just buy the store bought ones.

We pick once a year for teacher gifts (Xmas OR end of year OR teacher appreciation week) and otherwise send heartfelt notes ... teachers get a lot of sentimental junk year after year and many prefer heartfelt notes or gift cards to Pinterest-inspired rosebush cuttings in custom pots.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:01 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

For teacher gifts - my mom teaches elementary school, and most appreciates a) notes/cards from kids and b) gift cards to local bookstores or coffee shops. For everything other than teacher gifts, I think it is fine to ask the teacher or room mom. For some things (i.e. rules against food for birthday parties) there will be school-wide rules, for others it is still nice to follow the teacher's preference, even if other parents do not. I agree with those above who said that things like Halloween, Valentine's Day, etc. will typically have a pretty clear policy to follow. Not all parents will follow it, because people are assholes, but I would do your best to not make their life harder. (I remember one horror story of a parent bringing in a giant birthday cake in the middle of state-mandated standardized testing, completely unannounced, as a "suprise!" for their child. Obviously do not be that parent.)
posted by rainbowbrite at 10:10 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

We gave the crossing guard at school who's there every morning a small thing of chocolates for Christmas, she really appreciated it (props to my husband for that emotional labor, I would not have thought of it at all!).

For holidays and Teacher Appreciation Day, you'll get a note home about those when they're approaching. For Halloween, our K class had parents sign up to bring in various non-sweet treats, a bunch of parents still sent in forbidden sweets anyway. Valentine's Day, we got a list of names of every kid in the class, everyone uses the store bought cards that usually come with stickers/tatoos, ambitious parents tape a piece of candy to the cards instead of the stickers (uh, I am one of those ambitious parents, but only because I like the excuse of having leftover Dove chocolate hearts to eat after I put together those annoying cards). Our PTO organized the Teacher Appreciation Day and had parents sign up to bring in a variety of foods.

I don't have a good sense of what goes down for birthdays, but I don't think anyone typically brings in anything since sweets are not allowed. My son has definitely not come home with anything non-food from another kid's birthday at school.

Hopefully your school will be different, what has been surprising for me is the relative lack of advance notice for a lot of things. Parent-teacher conferences are scheduled with like three days' notice, super hard to deal with when both parents work. Oh, and be prepared for a constant stream of PTO fundraising, which is fine, but I wish at the beginning of the year they'd tell parents they are going to be asking for a minimum of $X throughout the year. They tie the fundraising to events and stuff for kids to potentially win prizes sometimes, I wish there was an option to just fork over a chunk of cash at the beginning of the year and just have the kid entered for whatever prizes when they come around, without having to scramble for cash at random points of the year.
posted by banjo_and_the_pork at 10:21 AM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

As soon as you find out which teacher your child will have, start there: Go to the school open house, talk to the teacher. Find out what the expectations are for your school. That is part of the teacher's job - to help the parents get oriented to the school. My son finishes 1st grade today - his K and 1st grade teacher were awesome, quick to answer questions and alleviate concerns. Don't be worried about seeming like a pushy or overly concerned parent. Feedback we have gotten is that too many parents don't ask about ANYTHING - an involved parent makes the teacher's job easier.

Pro tip: Teachers REALLY like when you ask things like "What can I do to help reinforce the rules and expectations you set for your classroom?" or "How can I help with the field trip?" or "Do you need volunteers for the school carnival?"
posted by caution live frogs at 11:00 AM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

This may come off as snarky, but I am in earnest: I wish I had known that kindergarten attendance was not mandatory in our state. It was an unfortunate experience for us.
posted by heigh-hothederryo at 12:23 PM on June 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

You can't go wrong with the advice of not letting other parents influence you into doing or not doing whatever you want to. If you think your bus driver is great and you'd like to show your appreciation, go for it. If you'd rather gnaw off your own foot than spend a weekend gluing together floral centerpieces for a Teacher Appreciation luncheon, by all means just say no.

You will be bombarded with fundraisers selling some sort of manufactured happy crappy (frozen pizzas, giftwrap, candles, candy...on and on). Some will be sponsored by the school, others by the parents' group (PTA or PTO), still others by the athletics booster clubs. Opt out of all of them. If you can afford it, write a small check directly to the group behind the fundraiser in exchange for their nonprofit tax ID number. The amount you spend doing this will go a lot further at 100% of cash value received than the 20-50% the company supplying the happy crappy will share with the school and you can write off the amount you gave as a charitable monetary donation on your taxes if you happen to itemize.

I found the most helpful and meaningful things you can do is to avoid the parent committees entirely and approach your child's teacher(s) directly. Ask what can you do for them 1:1. If you've got the time, sign up to come help in the classroom (sort through papers, assist with small groups of kids, offer to help set-up/break down the classroom at the beginning and end of the school year, chaperone field trips). Alternatively, approach the front office person and ask if they need help. Offer any special/professional skills you might have but don't be surprised if they are just overwhelmingly happy to have someone willing to answer the phone during their lunch break.

Try to participate in any activity where your child is expected to bring something to share with fellow students (Valentines Day is the main one) so s/he doesn't feel left out. If you can get through the year just making a habit of reading all the flyers your kid will bring home and making sure s/he goes to school with their homework, a sharpened pencil and having eaten breakfast, you'll be good.

/Former PTA and PTO president from K-12, now (thankfully) retired, yay!
posted by jamaro at 12:25 PM on June 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Governance varies its specifics and the amount of local control your community has over its school varies accordingly, but inasmuch as you have any input into the system most policy and curriculum changes take a while to implement.

Why am I telling you this? Because the policies being enacted now, when your child is only in kindergarten, are the ones that will affect your 2rd or 3rd grader (and beyond) and so on throughout K-12 — when your child starts middle school is the time to worry about what’s being planned for your high school.

If you care (not that everybody does) about policy and curriculum there is no point in waking up the the fact that things are not as good as you'd hoped about your kid’s current situation, because policy changes made to their current grade will almost entirely only apply to succeeding generations — your kid will have already moved on. If you want to help influence the outcome for your own kid you have to look ahead.

I know this is hard; you have only just started this journey and it seems at the beginning like you have all the time in the world to worry about this stuff later and you are already overwhelmed by all that’s going on, but the wheels of bureaucracy grind slow so, though it’s tough to worry about 4th grade now, you should at least try to keep an eye on what’s ahead.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 12:50 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

It's okay to say "screw this" to all the gifts and appreciation and such, by the way. There have been a few years that, because of reasons, I wasn't able to give the small presents I usually do. Nothing bad happened as a result. My kids don't bring anything on their birthdays, and don't do much for Valentine's Day (which has become disturbingly like Halloween in terms of candy).

This year I sent one teacher an e-mail saying "I appreciate you! My kid appreciates you! I am bad at doing things like remembering to send in flowers!" and she loved it. She's a veteran teacher -- after 20+ years in the classroom, I highly doubt she needs another coffee mug or crappy crafts project or $5 Starbucks gift card.

I do know about new math

It hasn't been called New Math since, what, the 1970s? So no, you don't. But that's okay. It's all okay. You can figure this out as you go along.

I'm Facebook friends with some of the other parents from my kids' schools, and joined the FB groups for the PTAs. It's a good place to take these kinds of questions.
posted by The corpse in the library at 1:11 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I do know about new math

It hasn't been called New Math since, what, the 1970s? So no, you don't. But that's okay. It's all okay. You can figure this out as you go along.

Common Core math, which is a completely different way of approaching math than any of us were taught, has been used in schools for like two years.
posted by kate blank at 1:27 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Whatever you do, don't volunteer to be room parent with your oldest child. Let the old-timer parents do it, then just sit back and observe. Most of your questions will then answer themselves in time, as the room parents and teachers will send home fliers with this info, including gifts, how to celebrate birthdays, etc.

Only thing I had no guidance on was bus drivers, just check the gift $ limitations for city/county employees and follow that.

Welcome to a whole new world to infiltrate.
posted by rabidsegue at 2:20 PM on June 7, 2016

Bus Drivers - Do they receive gifts?

Generally no but this would be very nice of you.

What about gifts for crossing guards? Also, generally no but it would be very nice.

Birthdays Most schools (I want to say all but you never know) do not allow kids or parents to bring in food for birthdays or holidays, period. Since your school has a "don't bring food to share" rule for birthdays, parents shouldn't try to bend that rule. No food means no food.

Valentine's Day and Halloween Valentine's Day can be as low-key as a multipack of cards for $3 at the drug store. It's fine to keep it to that. Around 3rd or 4th grade giving Valentines to all the kids ends.

Also for birthday parties, at what age do parents start dropping kids off at parties and leaving? This kind of depends but usually Kindergarten. If you're the only parent leaving, you probably shouldn't leave.

At what age do slumber parties typically start? 3rd or 4th grade but kids may want to go home still. And the Golden Rule of inviting kids for a sleepover is NEVER have three girls. It gets very bad very quickly and inevitably two girls will turn on one.

With sports, do parents today stay and watch the all the practices? When does carpooling or the kid walks to practice start? For practices, you can start leaving around 1st or 2nd grade, but again, if all the other parents are staying, you don't want to be the only parent leaving. Carpooling starts as soon as you can get parents to join; but do NOT be surprised if few parents don't want to carpool because parenting is all they have (see next response).

What other things don't I know about? You will probably have to submit to a criminal background check and possibly be fingerprinted in order to volunteer in the school.

Parenting can be a full-time job and competition for some parents. There are many parents who have their kids go to way too many extracurricular activities and sit with them every night and (over)help them with projects and homework. They may try to bully you into buying stupid things you don't want to buy or to join a committee. They go above and beyond giving what they perceive as as every possible advantage to their kid and they love to complain about how very busy they were staying up all night baking cupcakes or hand-sewing costumes or doing something that they really didn't have to do but they want to stress how much they do for their kid.

Also, there are parents who come to pick up their kid from a party or a playdate and plant themselves on your couch and will try to stay for hours. Always have a plan for an errand you need to run as they're picking up their kid, unless you want to hang out with them. And when picking up your kid from hanging out, make a tiny bit of small talk, thank the other parent and leave.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 2:42 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am a veteran elementary school teacher, but not a parent. I have taught in both public (over 10 years ago!) and private. I can't answer all of your questions but:

For teacher appreciation, yes, go along w/ what others do, and/or, if you like the teacher a lot, send the teacher a really nice email (and cc admin, too! we LOVE that!).

For birthday treats, we decided this year to ask parents to come in and read aloud a book of their child's choice, and then have a 2-min dance party if the kid wanted. This was far preferable to treats for a variety of reasons, but you obviously do not have control over this.

The way we taught math at our school was AWESOME! People seem scared of it, but at our school, it was all about the kids supporting their thinking/reasoning...math totally varies, though. So, not sure what it's like at your kid's school.

Nthing that you do NOT have to keep up with other parents. The best thing you can do is support the teacher, let your kid be a kid with plenty of downtime after school, and make sure she gets 10-12 hours of sleep a night and good nutrition. Your teacher will thank you for all of this, regardless of Pinterest-worthy gifts/projects, etc.!
posted by bookworm4125 at 7:31 PM on June 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

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