Mom volunteeringWhenever I volunteer at my son’s school, I notice his awareness of my presence and his pride in seeing me help out in his classroom. The benefits for me include the chance to get to know his teachers and his friends, have fun, and learn more about how he spends his days.

If you volunteer at school, you’ve probably had similar experiences. What you may not know is how strongly research supports such humble volunteerism. Kelly Golden, PTA president at University Heights Elementary School in Hamilton, says: “Studies have shown that parents who are active in their child’s education means that child is going to do better in school.”

But who has the time to devote to an unpaid gig on a regular basis, when family finances are stretched thin and time is a precious commodity?

“I can’t speak for all schools, but I know with ours, it seems that volunteerism goes down each year. More and more families are double-income at this point, so women are out working full-time jobs and it’s hard for them to volunteer,” says Golden.

If you’d like to pitch in at your child’s school this year, but just don’t know how you’ll be able to manage it, here are some tips from the experts:

Make it Official

To tap into available programs and resources, “become a member of the Parent Teacher Association,” says Nancy Merrill, president of the Union County Council of PTAs. (Some schools have PTAs, which are affiliated with the National PTA. Others have PTOs, unaffiliated parent-teacher organizations.)

Set Realistic Goals

You can do more than dip your toe in, says Tim Sullivan, editor of PTO Today magazine, but remember the goal: “It’s not your job to save the school.” He advises “picking a few spots and doing a good job on those. And know that’s good enough.”

“With New Jersey PTA,” says Golden, “there’s a program called ‘Three for Me.’ And all we ask is three hours of your time throughout the year. If you feel like you can do more, that’s fine. But if not, three hours is a big help.”

Lose the guilt trip and perfectionism, says Merrill. Busy at work when the bake sale looms? “Buy it. Didn’t say you had to bake it. I don’t have time to bake, either.”

Keep It in Perspective

Ever seen a friend lose it because the Fall Fair was swallowing her alive? Type A personalities, says Sullivan, may need to self-monitor more during the year. Besides stress, warning signs could include your partner asking, “Is there one night you could be home for supper?”

Don’t be Shy—Ask for Help

“The ones who get in over their heads are the people who don’t ask for help,” says Merrill. But with a strong PTA behind you, she adds, “you have a lot of people you can go to, so ask for assistance.”

If she sees a volunteer struggling, Golden says she might suggest, “Let’s get you a co-chair. Let’s make sure that you have a committee set up” so you can delegate tasks and feel less frazzled.

Work “Smart”

Effective groups, says Sullivan, “fundraise less often, and they do a more positive, bigger job of it when they do it. They raise more money and yet they get less pushback.” Avoid being “in the parents’ pocket every week,” says Sullivan. “Parents eventually, very naturally, say ‘Whoa, come on.’”

Sometimes drama—not workload—is the real drain. Sullivan says a well-functioning group has fun together, strong teamwork, and good communication. By comparison, if a group is “angst-filled, fighting, and debating, you might do a quarter as much work and think you’re overloaded.”

Have Fun

Volunteering, says Sullivan, should be “a positive in your life.” Golden advises choosing activities that match your skills and interests. “Speak to a PTA representative; I’m sure there’s a spot for you that will not take up too much of your time and that you will enjoy.”

Golden says success looks different from person to person. Eyeing her second term as PTA president, she laughs about her many volunteer hours. “I try not to give it a lot of thought!” But involvement—whether countless hours or just three of them—is the thing, Golden insists. “It’s worth it. You get so much more out of it than you put into it.”

Connie Jeske Crane is a freelance writer who specializes in parenting, health and wellness, and green living topics. She has one son.