It's a Family Affair: Tips for Parents and Spouses Who Return to School

Are you thinking about going back to college? Don't worry. You aren't alone. There are more adult students enrolling in postsecondary education now than ever.

Adult students often face different challenges than their younger counterparts, since many adults are required to juggle family, work and community commitments along with their schoolwork. Making time for school and a family can sometimes be difficult, but you can earn your degree and have a happy family life!

Here are a few tricks and tips for success:


Whether you're 18 years old and living with mom and dad, or 40 years old and ARE the mom or dad, the decision to attend college affects your entire family. That's why it is important to involve your loved ones - particularly your spouse or partner - in every step of the process. Keeping your family in the loop will remind them that they are important to you and their support will be an invaluable resource for you as you work toward achieving your educational goals.

Be sure to communicate your reasons for wanting to pursue your degree, and clearly explain both the benefits as well as the challenges of attending college. Ask for their feedback, and encourage them to voice their concerns. Then identify ways everyone can work together to overcome any obstacles.

Be up front in asking for their support as you work toward your goals, and let them know you value higher education and the opportunities it can provide for your family.

Create a Family Study Hall or Find a Study Buddy

If you're not the only student in your family, you may want to create a family "study hall." Clear room on the kitchen table and work on your homework while your kids do theirs. That way, you can provide each other with "moral support," and the subjects you are each exploring can provide great family conversation starters. Of course, your commitment to your studies will also set a great example for your children.

Don't have kids? Join a study group, or simply set aside time with your spouse or partner to learn together. You can tackle homework and class projects, and he or she can explore the internet, read a book or magazine or practice a hobby. If you prefer to study on your own, find a comfortable place and let your family know you need some quiet time to focus.

If you attend classes on campus, you may want to take advantage of study spaces available at the library or student center. Most schools also offer free tutoring, so ask your RBA coordinator if you'd like extra help in a particular class.

Time Management

While you don't have to plan every minute of your day, it is important to block out time for specific things you need to accomplish. To-do lists are great tools and maintaining an organized family calendar is a great way to keep track of your family, work, community and school commitments. Making lists and calendaring important events, deadlines and activities will help you take inventory of your responsibilities and make it easier to set goals. If you start feeling overwhelmed by everything you've written down, create an action plan and break big projects or tasks into smaller, more manageable steps. And remember, sometimes you will simply have to say "no" to requests that don't fall in line with your priorities.

Set priorities

Many adult students have more than homework on their minds. If today's to-do list is getting out of control, take a breather and then spend five minutes prioritizing. Consider how much time you have left in the day, and then identify the top three most important tasks left on your list. Take note of any items that aren't so important (maybe cleaning out your car can wait until the weekend). Do your best to accomplish your top three, and then reschedule what's left.

Learn how to say "no"

Adult students are often very committed individuals - many have active family, professional and community lives. Sometimes, you'll simply have to say "no" to taking on commitments or responsibilities that fall outside of your priorities (and remember, homework is a priority too!). Of course, sometimes that's easier said than done. Here are some tips to help you "politely decline" invitations or requests:

  • Be up front: Sometimes it seems nicer to say "maybe" than "no," but in fact, most people would rather have a clear answer than be unsure of whether or not you will come through. Don't be afraid to say, "I'm sorry, but I just can't take anything else on right now," or "Unfortunately I'm not available that day."
  • Strike a deal: Let's say it's your turn to make cookies for the kids' 4-H meeting, but you've got an exam this week and need to spend time studying. Don't be shy about asking another parent to help - but offer them something in return. For example "If you'll make cookies for the meeting this week, I'll volunteer to help you sell raffle tickets at the fundraiser this summer."
  • Don't over-explain: If you need to tell someone "no," don't feel the need to provide them with every detail of your busy schedule in order to justify your response. Be confident that you are doing what's best for you and your family, and leave it at that.
  • Don't feel guilty: All you can do is your best, and you shouldn't feel guilty about setting priorities and sticking to them. And remember, taking care of YOU is important too - so if you can't help sell concessions at the football game because you just need a night to rest, don't feel bad about it.

Write it down and talk it through

Write down any concern (big or small) that you have about returning to school. After prioritizing the items on your list, create an action plan to address these obstacles and identify resources that are available to assist you. Then tackle challenges piece by piece, until your concern is no longer an issue.

This process will help you sort through challenges, and identifying ways to solve problems will help you take greater control of your education - and your life!

Get support at work

When you decide to go back to school, talk to your employer about your decision. Explain how advancing your education will assist you in your job and ultimately increase your value as an employee. Many employers offer support for adult students, so talk to your supervisor or your human resources manager about ways your company or organization can help. Employers may be able to:

  • Offer you an alternative work schedule for exam weeks.
  • Allow you to use a work computer for your academic assignments outside of regular work hours (ex. during lunch breaks, in the evenings or on weekends).
  • Offer tuition reimbursement or stipend programs.

Keep in mind that employers are not required to accommodate adult learners. But remember, you can always pursue a degree on your own time!

Stay focused on your goals

Every student faces obstacles, but don't let them derail your plans. Go back to your list of goals and stay focused. Obtaining your degree is important to you and your family. When things feel difficult, talk to your family and friends about how you are feeling and make a plan to overcome challenges.

And remember to reflect on your achievements and celebrate successes. Make an A on a test? Order pizza with the family to celebrate!

Now what?

So what are you waiting for? There's never been a better time to go back to school. But you've got to take the first step. Talk to an RBA coordinator today!

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