How digital tools can manage your kids’ schoolwork and activities

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Binder labeled "The Palindrome: The Missing Manual"

My friend and colleague Darren Barefoot recently asked his Facebook followers how parents manage the endless onslaught of emails from schools, afterschool programs and other kid-related activities. (He forgot the most important one: evite. God forbid we miss a birthday party invitation!) Darren was particularly interested in how two-parent teams share the duty of reading and replying to all these messages.

I had to confess that Rob and I have a pretty un-fancy way of dealing with this stuff: we are both on the email distribution list for Sweetie’s grade 6 class, and we both see all the emails about class activities, hot lunch programs, school events et cetera…which means that we each tend to assume the other person is on top of it, and end up handling everything only after the “you missed the deadline!” messages start to arrive. In the case of afterschool programs and Peanut’s classes, all the email goes to me, which works a little better — at least I know I’m on the hook — but thanks to my brutal email filters, even then I sometimes miss key notifications.

As soon as I posted my response to Darren’s question, I regretted my answer. Here’s what I wish I had claimed instead:

    1. We have a dedicated Gmail account, CottinghamSamuel@gmail.com, that we use for all kid-related correspondence. This is the email address we use for teachers, camp registrations, and classmates.
    2. At the beginning of each year, we choose an email address for each child’s school correspondence that year, based on our basic Gmail address. For example, now that Sweetie is in Grade 6, we use CottinghamSamuel+SG6@gmail.com as the email we gave her teacher.
    3. Our Gmail inbox is organized with nested labels: one for each kid, and then within that, one for each grade plus one for each year’s extracurriculars and one for each year’s summer camps. We use filters to automatically file all incoming messages into the appropriate folder, so any email addressed to CottinghamSamuel+SG6@gmail.com automatically gets filed under /Sweetie/Grade6.
    4. The filter that labels each kid’s class-related correspondence with a Gmail label also forwards that email to Trello. Each of our family members is part of our Trello team, and each kid has their own Trello board labeled “Sweetie school” and “Peanut school”, respectively. When a new email arrives related to Sweetie’s school, it lands in a list on Trello called “emails to review”.
    5. Each kid is responsible for reviewing the Trello board daily, and for identifying any action items related to their own school or class. If it requires action by Mum or Dad, they assign that to one (and only one) of us on Trello. If they are uncertain about who to assign it to, they consult a Google spreadsheet where we have identified our respective responsibilities for each kid and category (e.g. lunches, forms, homework, class trips).
    6. Rob and I each check Trello once a week (which means that the boards get checked twice a week) to ensure that the kids have reviewed their incoming Trello tasks and assigned them appropriately. If there are incoming messages that have not been processed and assigned, that child loses points on their HabitRPG account by having one of us mark the negative habit “forgot to process Trello tasks”. If the child has fully processed all incoming Trello tasks, they gain points in HabitRPG by having one of us mark the positive habit “processed Trello tasks”. HabitRPG points can be redeemed for iTunes or Amazon credit.
    7. If the kids receive paper forms (sadly, still very much part of the school system) they are responsible for immediately shooting the forms with their iPhones and adding them to Evernote. To make this easy, we have installed IFTTT’s Do Camera on each kid’s iPhone, and given them a button that says “add form to family folder”. With one snap, each kid’s forms go to yet another version of our family Gmail address, this time in the form CottinghamSamuel+SG6Form. When the form arrives at that email address, the address triggers a Gmail filter that sends the form to the parent who’s responsible for that kid’s forms (we each take responsibility for one kid’s forms for the year, and switch kids each school year) and also adds the form as a task on that parent’s “Kid stuff” Trello board.
    8. When I’m finding summer camp options for the kids, I create an Evernote note with a big table that has one row for each week of the summer, and a column for each kid.  For each week I find camp options and then hyperlink to the camp descriptions from within Evernote. Then I share the Evernote note with each kid, plus Rob and my mom, so everyone can weigh in on which programs appeal and which ones are manageable logistically. As I register for each one, I indicate that on the table and delete any alternatives for that week.
    9. For all camp and afterschool registrations, we format our Gmail address as CottinghamSamuel+KidInitialYearProgramType. So that means CottinghamSamuel+S2015Camp@Gmail.com for Sweetie’s summer camps this summer, or CottinghamSamuel+P2014AS for Peanut’s 2014/15 afterschool programs. That means we can see all the registrations and correspondence related to each kid’s afterschool or summer programs in one place. Also, any email that goes to one of those addresses and includes the word “receipt” automatically gets labeled with our “receipts” label, which triggers an IFTTT recipe forwarding the receipt to Wave’s Receipts app. Wave does a pretty good job of parsing our incoming receipts, but we still have to manually categorize each one by kid and program type (sports, education, et cetera). That allows us to keep a running total of our program expenses for each kid, and makes it easy for us to compile those expenses at tax time.
    10. We use the CottinghamSamuel address on evite and on all correspondence with classmates. Any incoming invitations from evite get forwarded to me, and I look at whether the kid(s) can attend on the date, and if so, accept and add to our family calendar.
    11. To ensure evites don’t get caught in my email filters, my own Gmail address sends me an SMS notification whenever I receive an email from evite.
    12. To manage schoolwork and deadlines, any major project assignment or deadlines are recorded on a shared family calendar for that child. Both parents subscribe to those schoolwork calendars so we can see upcoming deadlines. Each major project gets its own shared Evernote notebook so that when we are helping a kid on a project, we can add resources to that shared Evernote notebook.  On major projects, we also create a Google spreadsheet we use to list all major deliverables and track deadlines and status.
    13. We use a family Slack channel to handle any questions or discussion about family calendaring and weekend activities, and a separate Slack channel for each kid (plus both parents) to discuss that child’s homework and afterschool programs.
    14. All family policies are documented in the binder that also includes all the info our babysitters and houseguests need (like emergency contact numbers, where to shop or eat in the neighborhood, and how to use the TV.) For any policy where we anticipate future disputes, the kids have to countersign the document.
    15. Any amendments to policy documents (for example those specifying when homework must be completed relative to screen time) must be requested by filing an WorkFront ticket.

That’s what we would do if we were good parents. And a few of them are 100% true: #8, #11, #12 and #14.

But the process of thinking this through has inspired me. Welcome to our new game plan for next year!

1 Comment on this site

  1. Shanaya

    Those digital tools are really very useful for kids but you not think those tools make kids lazy.

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