This fall, I’m getting my youngest settled for his first year of college, but I remember clearly his first day of kindergarten and all the first days after that. While some things changed—the Buzz Lightyear backpack swapped out for a plain grey one, funky sweaters replaced hoodies, the route to school—we kept traditions too, because rituals matter.

Our first day of school tradition started early. We checked the cabinet for school supplies, and then I took each kid on their own excursion to buy what was missing, have a special lunch and then, when we got home, organize their backpack just how they liked it. Maybe it wasn’t efficient to do it that way with three kids, but it allowed each kid the time to express what they were excited or nervous about in the coming school year and for me to ask what they hoped for in that year. The morning of the first day, I made pancakes, blueberry for Matt, chocolate chip for Anne and Douglas, and slipped a Have a Fabulous Day note into their lunch.

As these first days slide into memory, they stick with me and my kids too. Listen to this story from NPR about first day of school traditions and you’ll hear those embedded memories from parents and what they do for their kids, what adults did as kids themselves, and from teachers. I’ve heard from people in their 70s who remember the home movies made when they were kids on the first day of school. Traditions for milestones like this stick with us.

Creating Your Own Back to School Traditions

What are your kids going to remember about the first day of school? Even if your kids have been in school for a while, it’s not too late to start a tradition. I know there is a lot of pressure on parents today to make a magical childhood for their kids. I’m not suggesting that you exhaust yourself to create the perfect back to school traditions. Start where you are, and look at what you already do. Think simple.

Keep Back to School Traditions Simple

Whether it’s back to school preparations, the morning of the first day, or after school, a simple ritual has meaning.

Preparing for the First Day

  • Use a countdown to school calendar
  • Make back to school shopping a special time for you and each child—go to lunch or stop for a snack and enjoy the time together.
  • Host an end of summer/back to school party the night before (start early so you can get a good start to the year)
  • At bedtime, say one worry and one wish for the year ahead
  • Write a legacy letter about what you hope for your kids in the coming school year

Morning of the First Day of School

  • Take a picture in the same place each year so that you can see how things change both in your kids and in your home or neighborhood
  • Let your kids do their own silly pose each year for a first day of school picture
  • Serve the same special breakfast food—a hardboiled egg with a smiley face on the shell or a pancake in the shape of the grade number for each kid
  • Do a family cheer for a great school year before going out to meet the bus
  • Slip a have a great year note into your child’s backpack

After School on the First Day

  • Go out for ice cream or serve a favorite snack when your kids get home from school
  • Interview your kids, like they are a celebrity, about the first day of school (here’s a questionnaire to get you started)
  • Have a special back to school dinner—serve the same thing every year or let everybody choose one favorite thing

Most of these things are not complicated and don’t take a lot of time. Sure, you can find a lot of cute (and elaborate) ideas on Pinterest for back to school pictures. If that’s your thing, go for it, but don’t get caught up in the pressure of doing it “right.” The best back to school traditions feel comfortable, not forced.

Let Back to School Traditions Evolve

Back to school traditions can adapt over time. My daughter developed a gluten intolerance and couldn’t eat the pancakes I usually made for the first day of school, so I found a new recipe. Or your kids end up in different schools with different start times, so you take two separate pictures. Your back to school traditions can change as you need them to.

Don’t, however, assume that your kids want to quit a tradition because they are “too big.” Let them tell you if they don’t want to do something any more. Maybe your middle schooler would rather do your usual hug and high five in the house instead of at the bus stop, but they might still miss it if you stopped (even if they don’t want to admit it).

Start Your Own Tradition

Don’t get overwhelmed by the idea of starting a new tradition from scratch.

You can tap into something you loved as a kid. It could be as simple as new socks and pencils or getting the number of hugs that match your grade.

You can ask your kids what would feel special for the first day of school. Maybe they’d like to have you drop them off even if they usually take the bus or have donuts that usually aren’t an option for breakfast.

You can ask others about their ideas and then choose or create something that feels meaningful to you.

And sometimes traditions just develop over time. One mom I talked to found herself watching her neighbor’s kids head off to school, even though her own kids were too young. The bus stop was right outside her house, so she offered her neighbor coffee. The next year, she baked muffins. Coffee and banana chocolate chip muffins became their tradition, one that stayed as her own kids took their turn climbing on the school bus for the first time.

That tradition developed naturally—and changed as the situation changed. When her neighbor’s older daughter moved on to the high school and an earlier bus, she brought a muffin down early on the first day, because traditions matter.  

What you do for back to school traditions doesn’t matter so much as that you have something, however simple, that you and your kids know will happen as part of this annual milestone. Those little things we do over and over again stick with us and connect us.

What are your back to school traditions? I’d love to hear about them in comments.

One meaningful back to school tradition is to write your child a legacy letter each year for the start of school.

Legacy letters last a lifetime and help you express just how much you care for the people in your life. I invite you to grab a copy of Deepening Connections with Legacy Letters where I show you how to craft one from the heart.