Back to School Forms: Who's Doing Them?

It’s that time of year. Time to face this unseen labor.

Posted Aug 29, 2019

Wokandapix / Pixabay
Source: Wokandapix / Pixabay

Back to school! This phrase is likely to elicit a full body groan from any parent of school-age kids. At least any parent who ends up the doer of school forms.

I’m a mother of two young students. One year I received eleven back-to-school forms, not including the extras for anyone whose child has allergies or uses any medication, prescription or OTC—plus the annual calendar featuring the many, many no-school dates. (I have sometimes failed to copy these into my calendar in a timely manner and then been surprised by the seemingly random school closing days without any plan for childcare—which creates even more unpleasant last-minute-panic admin.)

Why so many forms? Some are surely required by law or prudence (like the Department of Health Medical Form; Health Information Form; Daycare Cumulative Health Record; Emergency Card; Authorization for pick-up people; Permission slips). Others are good caretaking (Family Profile), and others aim to involve parents in the school (Parent resource card). Still, others seem to collect data about collecting data: Data confirmation form.

Shutterstock / 1095921515
Source: Shutterstock / 1095921515

The forms themselves often entail secondary labor—like contacting the pediatrician’s office for a physical form while praying the kid has had a physical recently enough and the office won’t charge a fortune to send the completed form in time. Other forms request one or more photos. In a digital era, getting actual physical photos is a hassle for many.

Readers may wonder why this isn’t automated. Surely writing the child's name and the parents' contact information just once in an online portal would be much faster, not to mention saving the school the time of inputting this information upon receipt. 

A portal might be faster. Then again, that depends on the portal….

I have heard lots of horror stories—and lived through several myself—of school-portal technology gone awry. An after-school registration portal that required you to create a new login and password every time you went to sign the kids up each week. A system where teachers sometimes posted information about the class but never told you when the information was posted, requiring you to check frequently.

School-form nightmares come in both high-tech and old-school varieties. And sometimes they hit you from both directions at once.

One year I filled out seemingly endless paper forms, handwriting a wealth of specific details about my child’s preferences, routines, and more; then the classroom teacher asked me to email her almost exactly the same information. When I said I’d just written it all on the form, she said that form was kept in the main office. Oh my.

Research supports what anecdote suggests: women partnered with men do more kid-related life admin, on average. (See the references section for some citations.) Averages aren’t individuals, so every household is different, and there are lots of men out there who do school forms. But from what we know, women do more of these forms.

Filling out these forms sometimes calls to my mind the classic essay by Gloria Steinem, If Men Could Menstruate. Though most of this tragicomic essay predicts the ways menstruation would be understood as powerful and good if the more powerful group did it, Steinem also observes that tampons would be "federally funded and free.” There are surely better analogies to back-to-school forms, but I just keep thinking, if mostly men completed these forms, then they might well be simple and efficient.

An Australian study of blood donation found that increasing the wait time by just 15 minutes led men to donate at significantly lower rates—but not women. Women just kept donating. We might admire women for their persistence (She Persisted—Right Through All That Hassle) but we also might think their persistence isn’t always paying off.

I interviewed some Admin Rebels for my book—people who push back or resist admin. Being an Admin Rebel takes time and usually involves a fair amount of admin, including writing emails, meeting with people, handling what blowback resistance inspires. But their rebellion is often the only way systematic change happens. When they push back in a way that highlights problems, and don’t just seek special exemptions, their work can benefit us all. Thank you, Admin Rebels.

Michal Jarmoluk / Pixabay
Source: Michal Jarmoluk / Pixabay

But, for all the Admin Doers facing back-to-school forms, thinking about the purpose of these forms, and feeling grateful for the care they represent, may help us through. If we have schools that care enough to learn about our kids, teachers who want to understand them, and children who are preparing for another year of learning and growing, then we are pretty fortunate. Schools and teachers are so often underfunded, understaffed, and overworked. Appreciating the teachers—and all the less-visible administrators and assistants—who are doing their best may also be a useful practice (for both giver and receiver).

Don’t misunderstand me, though: These admin problems should be fixed. Poorly designed school forms are certainly minor burdens compared to the admin problems faced by many. But, as I wrote in Let’s Talk About Privilege, just because someone else’s admin is worse than yours—and surely someone’s is—that doesn’t mean yours doesn’t count.

For now, find what works to get you through it with less suffering, whether or not you decide that pushing back is Admin That’s Worth It to you. This year, I may even try doing my forms in an Admin Study Hall. Whatever your preferred method, carve out the time, connect to the meaning, and reward yourself at the end.

This work is real and deserves its due. And back-to-school forms are far from the only form of invisible labor that hits this time of year, as both parents and non-parents know, but this is a topic for another day.

For now, here's to the form Doers and the form Rebels. May the force be with you.


Pew Research Center, “Raising Kids and Running a Household: How Working Parents Share the Load,” November 2015, 3,

Jo A. Meier, Mary McNaughton-Cassill, and Molly Lynch, “The Management of Household and Childcare Tasks and Relationship Satisfaction in Dual-Earner Families,” Marriage and Family Review 40, nos. 2/3 (2006): 70–71, table 1, 72–73, table 2

H. Wesley Perkins and Debra DeMeis, “Gender and Family Effects on the ‘Second-Shift’ Domestic Activity of College-Educated Young Adults,” Gender and Society 10 (1996): 86

“Who Does What in the Modern Family Home,”,

Ashley Craig et al., “Waiting to Give,” IZA discussion paper no. 8491, Institute for the Study of Labor, Bonn, Germany (September 2014): 11–12,

Emmons, Robert A., & McCullough, Michael E. (2003). "Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84(2): 377-389.

Barbara Frederickson, Positivity: Top-Notch Research Reveals the Upward Spiral That Will Change Your Life (New York: Three Rivers, 2009), 41–42, 92–93, 186–87.

Melanie Greenberg, “How Gratitude Leads to a Happier Life,” Psychology Today blog, Nov. 22, 2015.

Elizabeth Emens, Life Admin: How I Learned to Do Less, Do Better, and Live More (NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019) (Chapter 4).