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10 Ways to Master the School Carpool Line » Daily Mom

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When your child heads to elementary school, you have two choices when it comes to transportation: the big yellow school bus OR the family school bus, also known as YOU. We’re going to guess that you’ve decided to drive your child to school, but why do we discuss ways to master the carpool line now with only a few weeks until summer break?

Well, if you’re like many moms, your child is about to graduate preschool and will be going to kindergarten for the first time. While you may be an expert when it comes to stocking up on new clothes and fulfilling a school supply list, chances are that you have little to no practice when it comes to dropping off your kid at the curb. Furthermore, if your child attends a year-round school, you only have a few weeks off until the new year, and there are things you need to know before school starts. Which is why now is a perfect time to give you 10 brilliant ways to help you avoid dirty looks from other parents at your child’s school.

1. Go for a Test Run


If you’re planning to drive your child to school for the first time, you may want to go for a test run before the first day. In fact, try working in that test run NOW while school is still in session so that you’re fully prepared for all that is involved with getting your child to school, including (but not limited to) battling your child over what they’re going to wear, changing a dirty diaper within minutes of needing to be in the car, and rush hour traffic.

Determine what time you need to be at school for drop-off, then set the alarm clock appropriately. We suggest something in the range of 0-dark-thirty to allow yourself some time to get yourself “ready” before you engage the rest of your crew. Get your child up, dressed, and fed. Then load up the car and head out into morning traffic.

Chances are that this first run will include the most obvious route. Go ahead and take it. Pay attention to traffic patterns, speed limits during school hours, and the time it takes you to get from point A to point B. If you get to school on time, congratulations – you’re a quick study, but don’t forget that a typical day in the carpool line often includes a few extra minutes of miscellaneous mayhem, so be sure to plan for that moving forward. If you missed your mark, what happened? Perhaps you need to change your route, or you just need to allocate more time to get out the door.

2. Practice Buckling and Unbuckling


If this is your first stroll through the carpool lane, it may come as a shock to the system when you hear that your child will be expected to get out of the car without assistance. Up until this point, you’ve likely buckled and unbuckled your child into their car seat every single time they’ve ever gotten in or out of the vehicle. Heck, you don’t really want them unbuckling themselves, or do you?

Brace yourself – your kid is growing up, and it’s time to teach the kid how to buckle and unbuckle themselves. And while we are HUGE fans of a 5-point harness, we find that many parents make the switch to a high back booster seat when their child enters kindergarten because it’s often easier to unbuckle than a 5-point harness. Alternatively, you can arrive at school early to help your child unbuckle themselves without disrupting the flow of traffic (and trust us, you don’t want to make those moms in the carpool line wait).

But let’s just say that you’re ready to move your child into a booster seat. Before you take the plunge, be sure that you consider the following:

  1. Is your child at least 5 years old?
  2. Is your child shorter than 4’9”?
  3. Does your child weigh less than 80 pounds?

A standard seat belt is made for people who are at least 4 feet 9 inches tall (or 57 inches). The average 5 year old is somewhere between 41-44 inches. Obviously, a child that small needs more than a car seat alone. In fact, unless the shoulder belt crosses your child’s chest without touching his face or neck, and the lap belt fits low over your child’s hips, your child should remain in some sort of booster seat.

A child who is shorter than 57 inches could be seriously injured in a crash as the belt touches the child’s neck and rests too high on their stomach. A booster seat will provide 75% more protection than a seat belt alone. A high-back booster seat will provide head and neck protection in cars without head restraints. A no back booster seat can be used in cars that have adjustable head restraints or high seat backs.

We have our “big kid” riding in Combi’s Kobuk Air-Thru Booster Seat to school. Used as either a high-back or backless booster, it not only will keep your child safe after he or she outgrows their 5-point harness, but the vented shell allows hot air to escape and cool air to rush in, so your child stays comfortable while riding.

While our vehicle does have high seat backs, we feel that the deep side wings provide even greater head protection than the seat backs alone. Also, the belt guides allow you to adjust the seat belt vertically or horizontally so that you can find the perfect belt position for your child. Designed to accommodate a child 3 years and up, from 33-125 lbs and 33-57″, this high back booster with a height adjustable backrest, armrests, and removable cup holder easily converts to a backless booster to seat your child until they no longer need a car seat to ride in the car.

With all of that in mind, in addition to playing at the pool and enjoying summer break, spend some time teaching your child how to properly buckle and unbuckle their car seat on their own.

3. Reconfigure Your Vehicle


Most schools require children to exit the vehicle from the passenger side of the vehicle. However, you may have other children in your car during drop-off and pick-up.

If you have an infant or toddler, you will need to think of the placement of their car seat as well. Because it will be necessary for your big kid to be on the passenger side for easy drop-off, your younger child will need to be positioned behind the driver or in the middle seat (depending on the configuration of your car). If you’re not already set up this way, go ahead and make the change for a safer and easier drive through the carpool lane.

We particularly like the Coccoro Convertible Car Seat for younger siblings. It is known for being a lightweight, compact car seat that is perfect for smaller vehicles. Its compact design can easily accommodate three of the same car seat in the back seat of most vehicles. It can also be used rear facing (3 to 33 pounds) or forward facing (up to 40 pounds).

4. Be Prepared


Before pulling into the carpool lane, be sure that your child is done eating their breakfast, all backpacks are packed, permission slips are signed, lunch money is handed over, and any other business that has to be done before your child exits the car is dealt with. While it’s totally understandable to forget your kid’s lunchbox during the first week or so, overall, you should have your act together by the time your car pulls up to the curb.

While some schools do offer to help kindergarten or 1st grade students out of the car, the general expectation is that students open the door and exit the vehicle quickly so that cars can continue moving through the line. If your child still needs some help getting in or out of their car seat, you may also want to arrive to school a few minutes earlier to allow yourself some time to unbuckle them before cars start moving, or plan to park and walk your child in.

5. Follow Carpool Etiquette


There are some basic “rules” that every parent should follow when they decide to drive their child to school. Some of these rules are formalized and sent out at the first of the year along with a myriad of other documents meant to make your head spin before the first day of school. Other rules are unspoken, but just as important. Here are a few worth noting:

  1. Please drive in the CORRECT direction – not the opposite direction of everyone else. There are lines for drop-off and pick-up, which often means that you do not come out the same way you came in. Know which is which and get in line. The obvious, clearly posted signs and brightly colored arrows are not suggestions, they are requirements. Just follow all the other cars, and all the parents waiting patiently ahead of you will gladly thank you for adhering to the traffic pattern. On a similar note, if someone else is picking up your child, educate them on how the process works so they don’t cause a jam.
  2. Slow down speed racer! While driving like a bat-out-of he** might be acceptable on the freeway, this is a school zone. As such, there are little people everywhere and most aren’t paying attention to what they are doing because they assume that the moms and dads driving in the area aren’t going to hit them. If you’re running so late that you feel the need to race through the parking lot, perhaps you should set your alarm clock a little earlier.
  3. Don’t socialize – at least not during drop-off and pick-up hours. If you need to have a conversation with another parent for any reason, park the car or schedule some time to chat later in the day. Send them a message via text, email, or Facebook. There are way too many other things going on during carpool to hold other cars up with meaningless banter. The same applies if your child’s teacher helps with carpool. Avoid the temptation to ask about your child’s progress as you are dropping off. Most teachers these days will share their email addresses and phone numbers so that parents can contact them outside of regular school hours.
  4. Get off the phone! We can totally appreciate getting to school early and catching up on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Pinterest. Sometimes it’s the only quiet time we have during our day, but when that lines starts moving, put the phone down and pay attention. 
  5. Do NOT fall asleep. Yes, it happens. Avoid it.
  6. Stay in your car. If you need to assist your child before school in any way (unbuckling, assisting with a coat, etc.), get to school early before the line starts moving to allow yourself time to complete the task. Once that line starts moving, don’t get out or leave your car for any reason.

With all of that said, some schools have specific policies with regard to assisting your child, where to park, if you should walk your child into school, etc. This information is typically sent home before school starts. Be sure to read it thoroughly and respect any requests your child’s school makes as it relates to drop-off and pick-up, as their highest priority is the safety of the children at their school.

6. Treat the Carpool Monitors


Many school employees have dual responsibility. In addition to teaching or assisting in the classroom, staff may be assigned to help with carpool, buses, or the cafeteria. Put yourselves in their shoes. What might brighten their day?

On hot days, consider bringing the carpool monitor (the one who’s walking out and calling names as cars drive up) a cup of ice cold water or sweet tea (if you live in the south). On those cold days, how about a cup of coffee or hot chocolate?

7. Have a Snack Ready


Kids are understandably tired after a full day of school. That hearty breakfast you served at 6:30 am is long gone, and younger students are often the first to eat lunch. Therefore, by the time 3 o’clock hits, your child may be a bit “hangry.” Without an afternoon snack, most kids will crash and burn. Avoid the bad attitude by having a healthy snack waiting for your child as they hop in the car. 

8. Keep Siblings Busy While You Wait


We’ve already established that you may have a younger child or children with you when picking up your elementary-aged child. While drop-off in the morning may move fairly quickly, there’s often a bit of waiting in the afternoon. If you’re lucky, that younger child will take a nap in their car seat while they wait. However, if your luck is anything likes ours, you’ll need to be prepared with some easy sitting activities. Of course, we have a few ideas:

  • Eye Spy and Other Car Games. Depending on the age of your younger child, these types of games are great for teaching colors, numbers, word associations, etc.
  • Coloring Books and Drawing Pads. Keep a backpack or case of some sort filled with drawing materials in the car. When all else fails, coloring has no age limit.
  • Treasure Bag. The treasures may vary from child to child, but bring along a bag full of small treasures that are easy to carry around and don’t take up much space while playing. We particularly like items that encourage imaginative play such as some small plastic animals, matchbox cars, play instruments, etc.
  • Sing Along. You may not always want to have toddler tunes playing in the car, but while waiting, your child may enjoy singing along to their favorite tunes with you.
  • Movie or Screen Time. Along the same lines, if you have a DVD player, there’s no shame in putting on a movie. However, if your child is rear-facing, this obviously won’t be of much use to you unless you have a handheld portable device that your child can watch from that position.
  • Snacks and Water. It goes without saying that you should have a snack and water for your younger child if you expect them to wait any amount of time.

9. Ask Specific Questions


As you pull away from the school, be careful not to overload your kid with too many “how was your day” types of questions. While some children may be quick to tell you everything they did, others may have a big case of the “after school grumpies” and need a little bit of time and food to recharge. Allow them a moment to breathe and relax. Jumping in too soon might ruin your entire afternoon, and quite honestly, your kid just doesn’t have the mental capacity to think just yet.

When you sense that they might be ready to engage in some meaningful conversation, ask questions that are geared toward certain parts of the school day to help them trace back through their memories of the day and focus on specific moments. Here are a few questions that we really like.

  1. What did you do that was kind or helpful today?
  2. What was the best thing that happened?
  3. What was not so good?
  4. What did you do in _______ (if they had a special class such as art, music, technology, PE, etc.)?
  5. What song/craft/game did you do?

10. Calm Down and Be Patient


Just remember that we’re all in this together and we all have one common goal in mind – to drop off or pick up our kid(s) and get back home safely. While it’s entirely too easy to get frustrated when it seems that other parents are just slowing down the process, avoid the temptation to honk or act ugly. Take a deep breath and relax. Our children are watching and they will model our behavior, so let’s all do our part in providing the kids with a good example to replicate. 


Waiting in the carpool line doesn’t have to be a drag. With a lot of patience and the right attitude, you and your child are going to have a great year. You can do it!

Photo Credits: Ashley Sisk, Jessica N., Pixabay


Tags: activities while you wait, back to school, buckle up, carpool, carpool etiquette, carseat safety, Combi, Combi Coccoro, Combi Kobuk, Convertible Car seat, Kobuk Booster, mastering drop off, mastering pick up, Safety, school bus, school drop off, school pick up, school safety, school tips, sibling activities, traffic

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Ashley Sisk

Ashley lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children and Kitty Paw. She’s a work-from-home mom with a natural light photography business and a passion for sharing everything she knows. Since leaving the corporate world, she now spends her time chasing her preschooler, nursing her new baby, writing and finding ways to enjoy life. You can find her on Facebook, Google + or on her website.

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