Easier parent-teacher communication and planning are at your fingertips with these new and improved back to school apps. Plus, a quick rundown of the best computers and gadgets for students.

By Dan Tynan • Illustrations Mario Wagner

The latest mobile apps empower parents to take a more active role in their kids’ education. Today you can connect with teachers, view your kids’ schoolwork and even volunteer, all from your smartphone.

Staying connected to your kids’ classrooms matters more than you might think. Academic studies show that frequent parent-teacher communication slashes dropout rates and increases classroom participation.

The goal is to get teachers and parents to work as a team, says Sam Chaudhary, cofounder of ClassDojo. Used in 90% of U.S. K–8 schools and more than 180 countries, ClassDojo connects parents with teachers and lets them see what their kids are up to every day.

It’s also a great way to spark conversation at the dinner table, says Chaudhary. Instead of asking your kids, “What did you do in school?” and them muttering, “Nothing,” you can say, “I saw you guys worked on that dinosaur project today.” That makes actual dialogue more likely to happen.

Other apps can also help keep you in the loop, says former teacher Jeff Knutson, senior producer and content strategist for Common Sense Education.

For example, ClassTag’s motto is “Turn parents into partners.” The app lets teachers invite parents to class activities, schedule conferences and send out newsletters. Remind is a private messaging tool that lets educators connect with students and parents without having to share mobile phone numbers. Bloomz is a social network–style app that functions in a similar way.

Digital portfolios like Seesaw and FreshGrade make it easy for students to share their work with their families and facilitates teacher-parent-student communication, says Knutson. “These apps let you talk about the work the students are producing in a positive way,” he says. “The more you let students lead that discussion, the more successful it will be.”

And when school is done for the day, you can use apps to supplement your kids’ education, particularly in science, technology, engineering and math, notes Danny Wagner, Common Sense Education’s manager of STEM education content.

He recommends the New York Hall of Science Noticing Tools, five iPad apps that help younger students engage with the world around them. Also good for young kids are apps from Tinybop and Edoki Academy, while tweens and teens will appreciate the Exploratorium’s suite of free interactive titles.

“The best tools are the ones that get them solving problems in their lives and demonstrate that STEM can be a force for change,” says Wagner.

Having the tech talk with teachers

Ultimately, though, it’s up to teachers to adopt most of these tools. “You can have an honest discussion with them around tech, and even mention tools you think are good,” he says. “But be aware that teachers may have restraints placed on them that makes implementing tech difficult.”

Wagner says if that’s the case, a better approach is to find out what they’re covering in class, and then find apps to enhance learning at home.

If nothing else, having the tech talk with your kids’ educators provides an opportunity to reach out and connect, says Monica Burns, EdD, education consultant and founder of ClassTechTips.com.

“My advice for parents is to jump in and ask questions,” she says. “Don’t just peek at what your kids have on their iPad or what’s in their Google Classroom. Really engage with your child’s teachers to see what you can do to support their academics at home.”

5 Smart Tech Picks for Kids

1. Tablet

Amazon’s basic Fire 7 Kids Edition ($100) and beefier Fire HD 8 Kids Edition ($130) tablets are perfect for early school-age kids and have easy-to-use parental controls plus tons of age-appropriate content.

2. Chromebook

More useful than tablets but cheaper than laptops, Chromebooks are a great call for grades 3 through 5. All you need is an Internet connection: Everything runs inside a Web browser, including a word processor, email and other Google apps.

Acer’s Chromebook 11 N7 ($230 to $280) features an 11.6-inch screen and an impact- and spill-resistant case.

Samsung’s Chromebook Plus ($450) has a gorgeous high-res screen and switches from touchscreen tablet to keyboard-driven laptop in a snap.

3. Laptop

Middle schoolers and beyond need a classic notebook PC or a 2-in-1 machine that doubles as a tablet or a laptop.

Dell’s Inspiron 11 3000 2-in-1 machine has an 11.6-inch HD touchscreen, enough power to handle homework and a base price of just $210.

Lenovo’s new convertible, the Yoga 720, comes with Windows 10, a full HD display and the horsepower to edit videos and (shhh!) play graphics-intensive games. 13-inch screen, from $860; 15-inch screen, $1,120.

For years Apple’s laptops have set the standard for engineering, elegance and expense. The 12-inch MacBook is no exception. It’s packed with cutting-edge features—and at $1,299 to $1,599, it ought to be.

4. Headphones and earbuds

Noise-canceling headphones help tune out loud siblings when it’s time for homework. Plantronics’ BackBeat PRO 2 ($200) balances quiet and cost.

Here One earbuds ($300) also let kids easily amplify teachers’ lectures.

5. Smartpen

As students jot notes, Livescribe’s smartpens ($180) record audio so they never miss a word. The Livescribe 3 saves recordings to Android and iOS smartphones; Livescribe Echo works with PCs and Macs.