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School Volunteer Guidelines

Here's how to avoid burnout helping the PTA.



When Kristina Loper’s oldest daughter started Kindergarten, the mom of two wasted no time signing up for the school’s PTO. “When parents are involved at school, it helps create a stronger community that benefits the kids,” she says.

She’s right. According to the nonprofit research center Child Trends, parent involvement is linked to better grades and fewer behavior problems, particularly in elementary-aged students. Parent involvement also boosts teachers’ job satisfaction. And it’s on the rise: Parent participation in school events has increased nearly 10 percent since the dawn of the millennium.

But there’s a downside: Parent volunteering can quickly snowball from a few hours here and there to an avalanche of emails, committee meetings and late nights sewing 24 bluebird costumes for the spring carnival. Some volunteers, like Loper — who served two years as PTO president and logged hundreds of hours at the school — get buried . . . and burned out. 

Happily, it’s possible to find balance as a volunteer, whether you have hundreds of hours to give or just a few minutes. 

1. Set boundaries.

School volunteer duties have a way of ballooning, so it’s essential to set boundaries, especially for officers, room parents and others in time-intensive roles. Loper learned the hard way: “I saw all these needs and tried to fill them all.” 

For her trouble, she became inundated with parent questions about meetings, events and other school business — fielding queries day and night, in person at the playground and at home via email, text and phone.

Burnout buster: Set limits on your time and energy — because nobody else will do it for you. Time-management expert Rivka Caroline, mom of seven and author of From Frazzled to Focused: The Ultimate Guide for Moms (and Dads) Who Want to Reclaim Their Time, Their Sanity and Their Lives, recommends sticking to a set number of monthly “pro bono” hours: “Once those hours are used up, you know that volunteering has to wait until next month.” 

2. Keep eyes on the prize.

If you feel as though the parent-volunteer pressure has been mounting, you’re not alone. “In our constant quest to make every event in our kids’ lives unforgettable, we’re creating a whole lot of work for ourselves,” says Lela Davidson, mom of two and author of Blacklisted from the PTA, a collection of essays about, among other things, her love-hate relationship with school volunteering. 

“At a recent high school PTO meeting, an organizer asked for help with a theme, food, music and games for the after-prom party,” she says. “When we were kids, that was called the prom.”

Burnout buster: Prioritize volunteer activities that have the biggest impact on your child’s success in school. That might mean spending less time assisting with the track team and more supervising the lunchroom (or vice versa). 

3. Banish guilt.

Maybe fundraising isn’t your thing or you can’t leave work to help your child’s class make risotto. Don’t waste time and energy feeling bad about it, Caroline says. “Either volunteer or don’t, but there’s never room for guilt.”

Burnout buster: Find the one volunteer activity you really enjoy — or at least, don’t hate — and play to your strengths and schedule. Tech-savvy parents can update the PTA website or facilitate a class Facebook page; those who can’t get away until after the kids are in bed can help clean up after a school event, instead of working the entire thing.

4. Dip a toe in.

After she was “swept into” the role of PTA treasurer and then co-president, mom of two Lisa Steele Haberly noticed something: The Kindergarten classes at her children’s elementary school had plenty of parent help, but not the upper grades. “I realized that the parents of the older kids were burned out,” she says. “They’d put in their time.”

That kind of thinking is common, but upper elementary and secondary grades need parent help, too, says Loper. School volunteering takes a different shape as kids get older — think chaperoning dances instead of reading picture books — but as Child Trends notes, parent volunteering benefits kids in middle and high school, too.

Burnout buster: Think of parent volunteering as a marathon, not a sprint, Loper says. Instead of signing up for everything at that first PTA meeting, try out a single committee commitment. Pace yourself, and you’ll be better prepared to serve your kid’s school community for the long haul.

Malia Jacobson is an award-winning health and parenting journalist and mom of three. 
Her latest book is Sleep Tight, Every Night. 

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