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Duxbury author unpacks knotty school issues for parents

“This is the book I wish I had,” says ML Nichols, author of “The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5.”

ML Nichols

“This is the book I wish I had,” says ML Nichols, author of “The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten through Grade 5.”

When education consultant ML Nichols sees parents of younger children at her talks, she knows to expect a lot of questions. Now she has packed a lot of answers into her new book, “The Parent Backpack for Kindergarten Through Grade 5.”

“This is the book I wish I had,” said the Duxbury mother of two. “I remember those years when kids start school and you have no idea what to expect. There’s so much that’s unknown. I just hope [the book] is helpful for them.”

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Author, consultant, speaker, and founder of The Parent Connection, a nonprofit parent education group serving parents and teachers in the region south of Boston and beyond, Nichols’s study of how parenting intersects with teaching and learning led her to launch a consultancy that helps parents connect productively with their child’s education. Now it has led to her book, published in late July.

Early reviews such as Kristen Kemp’s piece for Parents magazine’s “Moms Must Read” column have called it indispensable.

“Every so often, I run across a book so good it belongs on every family’s shelf,” Kemp wrote, describing the book as “a guide for surviving and thriving in elementary school. . . . She outlines what to expect academically at different ages, defines fancy edu-terms, and offers advice for advocating for your child.”

Childhood author Edward Hallowell called Nichols’s book “a smart, wise, and practical book every parent of a young child should own.” Jim Trelease, author of the “The Read-Aloud Handbook,” a widely cited authority on getting children hooked on reading, praised the book as a “a long-overdue map through the ‘minefield’ of elementary education.”

Nichols’s road map through the “minefield” caused by the increasing emphasis on early education emphasizes good communication between home and school. Nichols devotes a chapter to “Words That Work With Teachers,” using concrete examples of what doesn’t work when parents e-mail their dissatisfactions to teachers. “When blame and accusations seep into our words,” she writes, “educators feel the need to defend themselves” rather than address a parent’s concerns.

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The problem with e-mail communication between home and school, Nichols said last week, is that it’s too easy to vent. It’s easy to sit down and spell out all your dissatisfactions, a process that might even be psychologically helpful, but “just don’t press ‘send,’ ” she said. Wait a day or two, then bring up your concern in a brief message to the teacher requesting a face-to-face meeting.

What does work is being positive (“begin with an optimistic, collaborative attitude”), professional, and persistent. Nichols summarizes her practical approach as “The Power of P3,” drawing on her advertising background to produce an easy-to-recall slogan.

Another chapter deals with preventing “homework meltdowns.” Homework became a national issue — provoking some writers to attack the whole concept — when the push to raise students’ achievement levels led teachers to give more of it.

“I tend to think of it as a good thing,” Nichols said. “It instills discipline and responsibility.” Not only do students have to do it, they have to remember to put it in their backpack and deposit it in the homework bin. It also gives teachers feedback on students’ progress.

While some children do homework best in their own space, Nichols said that in the earlier grades when children have a lot of questions it makes sense to sit them at the dining room table where the parent can remain within earshot.

Nichols’s practical, problem-solving approach to K-5 issues comes from her own experience, from focus groups with parents and teachers, from her interactions and interviews with educators, and from her seven years experience with The Parent Connection.

Bringing influential educational theorists and writers to speak or lead workshops for The Parent Connection led to her selection as a delegate to the Moms Congress in Washington, D.C., last year, where she met with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Her book led to a recent appearance on the Fox News TV morning news show, where a five-minute live interview ran over, in part because the hostess was asking how to cope with children’s homework.

At her upcoming book talks next month in Hanover, Cohasset, and Mansfield — and in Kingston, Cambridge, Hingham, Lexington, and Wellesley in October — she will introduce the book and read from parts such as her chapter on learning to read. Children don’t suddenly learn how to read, she writes. It takes years for the “reading synapses to gel in the brain.” But you can help those synapses get ready by reading to children daily and exposing them to human society’s “waterfall of words.”

Given that inevitable flood, “The Parent Backpack” provides aids to navigation.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.

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