Testing the Back to School “Hacks”

New year, a new list of the same 10,000 or so DIY Pinterest Instafamous Life Hacks that are supposed to ease all our burdens and make our lives so much simpler. But somehow our end results just never seem to live up to the picture-perfect images we see online. And even if these seemingly foolproof solutions do work initially, they rarely last. So, to cut through the noise, I’ve taken 16 of the Internet’s favorite ‘Back to School Hacks’ to see which (if any) of them actually work.


(1) Refurbished Composition Books

One of the internets’ favorite posts, there are plenty of ‘Hacks’ for cute DIY ways to refurbish composition books. An adorable way to re-use old marble notebooks, reduce waste, and save you money!

Don’t Do It

I get it. It’s frustrating. Most school supply lists call for at least one of these every year and yet, at the end of school, your kid has used only a few pages from each one. Why wouldn’t you want to reuse them?

Marble Composition Books cost about 98 cents each. The most popular items required to ‘refurbish them’ (aka, recover the front) cost an average of about four dollars. The three most common are shown above, and some of them are perfectly valid as crafts. But absolutely none of them will last beyond the first week of being shoved in and out of backpacks. If you really want to re-use a composition book, using white or a pastel color duct tape (one roll will last you years if you hide it from the kids) to cover the title section is quick and easy. If there aren’t many pages left or if the book is actually damaged (water, cover missing, torn) pull out the remaining pages and drop them in a box or drawer to be used as designated scratch paper. You will always need scratch paper.


(2) Labels

Another popular ‘Back to School Hack’ is to organize all of your kids school or craft supplies using adorable hand made or printed labels. You can get these at craft stores or, if you have a printer and sticker paper, make your own custom designs at home!

Don’t Do It

The adorable fonts of ready printed labels are almost illegible for younger readers. Chalk rubs off and tracks onto everything. Stickers from Label Makers don’t always stay stuck. And, quite frankly, sometimes stuff just doesn’t fit where you wanted it to go.

As kids, we had all our crayons in a specially designated labeled drawer. That is until, of course, they didn’t fit. Then they lived in a shoebox, which was where they stayed quite happily for the next four years as we carried the box around from art project to art project. If you really need some kind of labeling system I recommend something that can be easily changed like dry erase markers on vinyl stickers (no residue). But please, leave the cute fonts out of it.


(3) Homework Stations

Especially for younger students, having a place to work on homework together where an adult can be available for occasional and easy access assistance is a must-do. Gather all your kids’ necessary school supplies in one place to use as a cute centerpiece on the family table!

This Actually Works

The adorable photogenic centerpiece that no one will notice isn’t a work of art? Yeah, not so much. But having a designated spot to do homework where an adult can help without hovering is a really great thing. It usually ends up being the kitchen or dining room table, as this leaves space for adults to cook, fold laundry, or work on their own homework too (seriously, we need to support the parents going back to school just as much as we do our kids!). Older kids will eventually need more than one study spot, especially when assignments begin to include long reading sections, flashcards, or computer assignments. But keeping a homework station stocked up with supplies stops the need to wander off in search of a pencil every two minutes.

I like caddies for this (cutlery, kitchen, multipurpose). They have clearly divisible sections made from tough plastic that can easily be tossed in the dishwasher when they get too marked up (or filled with mystery goo).

Depending on the age of the kiddos, standard supplies include; (1) pencils, (2) highlighters/markers, (3) crayons/colored pencils, (4)scissors, a glue stick, and a ruler. Plus, that bin of rescued composition paper nearby for scratch work and maybe a stapler (doubles as a paperweight).


(4) Pinterest Lunches

Want to find a way to give your adorable liddle all the nutritious foods they need for a fun day of learning? Try these cute DIY lunch ideas!

Don’t Do It

Seriously? Seriously? Why are you doing this to yourself? You are a good parent (I’m making some assumptions since you took the time to read an article on helping your kid have a better start to the school year here, but you get my point). I get it, it’s cute. You saw this adorable little school bus shaped sandwich online and just had to try and make it.  But by the time your kid has slung that lunchbox around a few times before finally cracking it open, it is just gonna be a hot mess. 

Really, all you want at the end of the day is for your kid to be happy, healthy, and preferably eat something other than goldfish for three days straight.  So what’s a parent to do? 

Have the kids pack lunch themselves.  I know a lot of parents find joy in packing loving meals for their kids.  But by the time your kid is old enough to go to school, they are old enough to spread peanut butter on bread and put a fist full of grapes in a Ziploc. Will it always be that simple? No. But it’s time worth taking. Having your kid pick out and pack their own lunch is a good way to get kids more involved in the kitchen and interested in food in general. It reinforces positive eating habits, autonomy, and personal responsibility. It also happens to be a great way to spend quality time, one on one, with your kiddos every day.


(5) Marble Pens

Repair broken or damaged pens fast and easy with this super fun DIY project! Just wrap your pen in several colors of modeling clay, swirl and roll smooth for a pen with style!

Don’t Do It

I have seen multiple online videos for this. The premise is just plain weird. Do you just happen to have multiple colors of modeling clay in your backpack at school? Why? Why did you have that? And in what world is any clay going to harden well enough that when you put it in your backpack a few minutes later it won’t become instantly stuck to all the ten million little pieces of dust and crumbs rolling around in the bottom of your bag?

This is a decent craft idea. But most clay requires baking, which you just can’t do with a pen in the middle and expect it to still work. If you do want to try this at home make sure you use air-hardened clay and that you give it enough time to set before picking it up, rolling it occasionally to keep the sides smooth as it dried (otherwise it will have one permanently flat side). But don’t believe the ‘easy fix’ tip.


(6) Crafting Stations

For our little ones, art and learning go hand in hand! So much of their homework requires crayons or other art supplies on a daily basis. Keep everything on hand in a neatly organized crafting station.

This Actually Works

First off, this is supposed to be a ‘Back to School’ list, not Crafts. But every single back to school hack list out there has some version or another of this, and that’s for a reason. Clear up through elementary school, I needed crayons and glue sticks more often than I needed highlighters or pens.

Art supplies can easily get out of control. Far too often most of what you are doing is sorting through dried up glue sticks or paints to find one that still works, so cutting down on the clutter is the first step. But to expect an elementary school-aged kid to be able to keep a super organized designated station like the ones above is absolutely absurd. And to expect you to spend an hour cleaning up after them every day is insulting to you and just takes time away from your family. Keeping art supplies in one place is still the best way to go. Beyond that, the simplest storage solutions are usually the best.

I’m fond of tackle or tool boxes (essential to any self respecting baker) because they can be moved from one area to another depending on where you are working and are self contained. You can find them at most hardware stores. Don’t skimp out on this, find a sturdy box and will last until your youngest is off in college. Most have small compartments on top to fill with the odds and ends you never seem to know what to do with; sequins, buttons, feathers, beads, etc. The large bottom compartment is perfect for paint bottles, brushes, and other big items. Paired with a stocked homework station (see number 3) and you should have everything you need readily accesible.

The tool box method is also a great way to minimize clutter. Craft stuff goes in the tool box. If it doesn’t fit, we need to clean it out (there’s probably a few dried up paints in there anyway). Want something new? Then we need to get rid of something old. One in, one out.


(7) Bed Pockets

What better way to keep all of your child’s favorite things within reach at bedtime than with these handy bed pockets? Perfect for books and stuffed animals, these handy pockets will safely store all your child’s favorite bedtime items!

Don’t Do It

I hate Bed Pockets. Not dislike, not ‘bothered by’. No. I hate them. And yet, on the ‘Back to School Hacks’ list, there they are. Under ‘Making Bedtime a Breeze!’ Why are they so excited? These things are awful.

Marketed as a convenient place to store your child’s favorite stuffed animal and bedtime book, do you know what else they store? Dust bunnies, hairballs, cheerios, goldfish, cracker crumbs, permanent markers, old gummies they thought you didn’t know about which are now stuck to the one bedtime book you were supposed to have in there in the first place or hopelessly tangled into their favorite stuffed animal’s hair… 

Don’t do it.  Just, save yourself the headache, and stickiness, and don’t do it.


(8) Snack Stations

Organize all of your children’s favorite nutritious snacks in one place so they are easy for your little ones to reach! This also helps to keep track of which snacks need restocking and which ones might not be their favorites anymore.

This Actually Works

Okay, so while the grocery store shelf display isn’t exactly my style, yes, this actually helps a lot. Keeping all of the kids’ snacks together makes it easier to keep track of what you’re running low on, easier for kids to feed themselves and pack their own lunches, and leads to less time spent starring at cans of baked beans while looking for goldfish. It also helps prevent accidental discoveries, aka – “but you said we were out of pop-tarts!” … we weren’t out, I just didn’t want them to find those…

My favorite version of this is the ‘Lunchbox Station’. Use either a lower and easy to reach cupboard or a section of the pantry to store all of the kids’ snacks, lunch boxes, thermoses, Tupperware, Ziplocs, granola bars, etc. My babysitting family had an entire stand-alone pantry wedged into the corner of their kitchen which was just kids’ foods. It made getting lunches put together a breeze. Putting a fruit basket on the counter is an easy way to incorporate fresh fruit.


(9) Do a Back to School Deep Clean!

There is so much to keep track of during the school year, and often times summer fun can lead to messy homes. Get the school year off on the right foot by getting your house back in order before the first day!

This Actually Works

Unfortunately, this is probably the single best suggestion on any back to school list, ever. It may not be as exciting as DIY binder art, but this really is the one thing you can do that will make the biggest difference in all of your lives a few weeks down the line. The most important areas to hit are; closets, bathrooms, kitchens, and study areas. Thankfully, most of these spaces are already addressed by some of the other ‘Hacks’ (3, 6, 8, 10)

  • Before ‘Back to School’ clothes shopping, most of us will have the kids go through to see what still fits and what doesn’t from last year. Pull out what’s too small, damaged, or they’ve otherwise outgrown. Then take that extra step to try and put some semblance of a system in place. School shirts here, sweaters in the back, shorts in this drawer. It’s a lot easier now than it will be in three months.
  • Bathrooms are more important for older kids, and girls especially. It is important they have their own space to put things so there’s no excuse for leaving the counters a cluttered mess. Shower caddies work well for this in compact bathrooms with limited storage.
  • Kitchens are mostly adult domains, so this one is on you. But setting up a snack station or lunchbox station can help contain the chaos. If you do, make sure to involve the kids in the process so they know where everything is and have some say in the matter.
  • Study Areas for younger kids are relatively simple. Between a homework station on the dining room table and a crafting box, you are pretty much all set. Older grade school kids might share desk space, but by the teenage years, they really should have their own study zone. Encouraging them to go through it before you do the back to school shopping is easier for some than it is with other, so bribery might be required for some teens. Starbucks, anyone?

(10) Daily Clothes Drawers

Get your kids dressed and out the door in the morning with minimal fuss or hassle by laying out their clothes for the whole week ahead of time! Lay the clothes out Sunday evening to create an easy stress-free environment and alleviate much of the morning chaos.

Don’t Do It

How much spare closet space do you actually have? Can I have some of it? And what magical app are you using that gives you accurate weather predictions for an entire week? Trying to get a week’s worth of outfits picked out ahead of time is almost as stressful as the morning scramble it is trying to alleviate.

However… picking out the next days clothes the night before is actually really great advice for both kids and adults. It reduces the amount of thinking required and turns getting dressed into an ‘autopilot’ situation. Having a designated spot to put those clothes is even better. A nightstand or on top of a chair is a great idea. As long as the spot is consistent and everything is in one spot (socks and shoes too). This eliminates the need for decision making before brains are fully active.


(11) School Savings Apps

Wrack up the savings by using this handy app!… says every single back to school ad ever. I can’t even be bothered to feign enthusiasm for this one.

Don’t Do It

Every year you get handed a list of back to school supplies about a half a mile long and every year you furrow your brow and cringe at the headache and cost. It is very easy to be tempted by the promise of savings and easing some of that financial burden.

Look, some of these apps work and some of these don’t, but most aren’t even worth your time. Between downloading a new app, learning how to use it, and comparing prices you will have spent more time than is worth the money you saved. If you are already the thrifty type then you probably have a preferred store where you know the prices are a little better and you’ve probably been keeping an eye on the ‘Back to School Sales’ since July.

Even if you aren’t scrounging the sales before you go shopping take a look at that list, and instead scrounge through what you already have in your house right now. Assemble back to school kits from what is already in your home. Nobody is going to care if you are using last year’s or this year’s highlighter as long as it works. And I guarantee you there are at least three fully functional highlighters in your house right now (plus a few duds you should probably toss). You do not need to buy a brand new six-pack at the start of each term.


(12) School Cubby / DIY Mudroom

Keep the kids’ school things organized and ready to go with these adorable cubbies!  Or create your own DIY mudroom so that book bags and lunchboxes are always in the right place!

This Actually Works

Okay, forget the architecture and spacious front hall, but having a designated spot for all the kids’ stuff ready to roll on out the door is a huge help in keeping the chaos down. It doesn’t have to be fancy, as long as there is a place for everything and for everything a place. If there isn’t enough room in your front hall, the living room, dining room, or even garage all work fine, just so long as it’s on your way in or out the door.

Some good ideas use either IKEA furniture, like the cabinet shown here, to create self-contained cubicles. Others use a square slot bookshelf, the kind you can put storage baskets in, lain on its side. Color coordinating sections for each kid can help make them ‘theirs’ but I don’t recommend patterns or themes they will grow out of. Each section should have the following; a double hook for their backpack and sweater, a bin for their shoes, and space for their lunchbox. Keep it simple and resist the urge to use anything with closed cabinet doors. If high school lockers have taught us anything, it is that out of sight means out of mind.


(13) Tackling the School Supply List

Use cute new school supplies to get your child excited for the new school year! A stylish new backpack, sleek new pencil case, or cute notebook can be just the incentive your child needs to get back in the swing of things!

Don’t Do It / This Actually Works

Confused yet? Yeah, sorry about the mixed messages there, but this one actually is both. Remember when addressing the Savings Apps I pointed out that you probably have plenty of the supplies you need already at home. I wasn’t kidding. Shoved into desk drawers, in the kitchen, under beds, and in random ‘sort through later’ bins you probably have a broad assortment of pencils, art supplies, rubber bands, staples (be careful), and more perfectly re-usable folders than you realize. As kids move into middle school and high school teachers will prefer different supplies; folder, binder, notebook with pockets, binder section, flashcards, etc. Look at the supply lists you have been given and fill in the supplies from what you already have at home first.

However, there will always be gaps. And sometimes certain items need updating. The Hello Kitty backpack of Kindergarten isn’t so cool in 4th grade. Fill in the holes where needed and then pick a couple of big-ticket items to buy new. A new pencil case or notebook (I love the feeling of a fresh clean notebook myself) really can help get kids excited for the new year, but there is no reason to buy the farm just to get a few eggs.


(14) Resetting the Sleep Schedule

A full night’s rest is the most important thing we can do to help recharge our kids constantly learning brains! Get them back on track by resetting your family’s sleep schedule a full 1-2 week prior to the start of school.

This Actually Works

YES. Absolutely. Do This. I cannot stress it enough.

All of our regular routines tend to go out the window during summer vacation. Kids stay up later, whether by coincidence or by design and are usually not required to spring out of bed first thing in the morning. The end result is that all of our regular sleep schedules end up getting off track by about an average of 1-2 hours. Starting to reset the clock a few weeks in advance is a great way to ease into things, it takes at least eight days to reset your circadian rhythm. By the week before school, regular bedtimes should be restored.

It helps to try and enjoy the last few days of summer by taking the kids out and running them around in the hot sun. Nothing wipes a kid out for bedtime like a day at the water park or even just an afternoon on a trampoline.


(15) Establish Clear ‘Protocols’

Try making an itinerary for all of the things you need to get done during an average school day. Be realistic about how long each item will take for you child to do.

Sometimes our summer routine means changing the rules. Kids should have fun after all! But it is a good idea to remind your children of all of the rules they may have forgotten over the summer. Clearly established boundaries can ease lines of communication and prevent battles over TV before homework as the school year kicks off.

This Actually Works

I have a slight tweak for this one. The word ‘Rules’ can be like triggering a fight or flight instinct in some kids. It automatically means they don’t get to do something they wanted to do. As a result, I tend to avoid the word. Instead, I use ‘Protocols’ or, my personal favorite ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ or ‘S.O.P’. I like these terms because they do not focus on what is and is not allowed but just looks at the best way to do things. Also, the word ‘Standard’ implies that there will be times when things need to be moved around to accommodate things like after school activities.

Turn this into a group discussion and let the kids suggest their own ‘SOP’s’. My babysitting girls hate it when the first thing we ask as they walk in the door is how much homework they have. So they instituted their own Protocol; no one is to ask about homework for at least the first half-hour they are home. The only time this changes if they had an event right after school and thus get home much later with less time to do things. Another caveat is if there is a big project or they need to go get something to do their homework(posterboard, library trip, index cards, etc), it is their responsibility to tell us first. This gap allows them time to take a mental break and reset their brains.

I mean really, who likes being reminded about work the moment they walk in through the door anyways?


(16) Plan Something Fun

Make sure to plan something extra special after their first week back! Just because school is back in session doesn’t mean the fun has to stop!

Actually Works

Sometimes going back to school can feel like a funeral march, especially for older kids who know the piles of homework and projects that will await their future.  Scheduling something fun is a great way to remind kids that their lives haven’t ended just because school kicked off again.  Discuss it as a family and look online to see what local events might be taking place. 

Make sure not to treat it as a reward for going back to school, but just as a chance to spend time together.  It helps if the activity isn’t something you did over the summer, as that can focus memories on long summer days now gone, but is something new that you’ve been meaning to do together and now finally have the chance.


Well, we’ve Hacked the Hacks, gone through the lists, and tackled the top 16 most recommended things on the ‘Back to School’ itinerary.

But just because schools back in session doesn’t mean the party has to stop. So yeah, go through your closets and desks before you do the back to school shopping. Reset your body clock by turning in to bed earlier. Set up the rules and protocols you are going to follow for the coming school year.

But you know what else you should do?

Grab an ice-cream while you’re out buying that new book-bag, with extra sprinkles! Crash into bed early because you spent ALL DAY at the bike park. Make your own rules about getting 30 extra minutes of TV time if you help fold and put away your own laundry

The school year is yours, you just have to reach out and take it.


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