This Back-to-School Season, Set Kids Up for Success

A popular Staples commercial from 1996 reverently termed the few weeks between late August and early September – also known as Back to School season – as “the most wonderful time of the year.” For many, a box of freshly sharpened colored pencils or a new Scooby Doo lunch box conjure happy memories. But for young children and adolescents, this time of year is notably more complex, full of change and new beginnings. 

 As we usher in a new school year and celebrate the widescale return to in-person learning, we’ll explore the complicated mix of joy and anxiety that might accompany this transition point. For parents and students alike, the range of emotions, challenges, and experiences associated with a new school year are quite varied. For some, back to school will mean redefining the pace of learning, or adopting new strategies for those with ADHD or dyslexia. Others may experience anxiety centered around the experience of returning to school after time spent in a remote learning environment, or starting fresh at a new school. Here are some actionable strategies to help children adapt to learning within these circumstances, so students can thrive all year long. 

Adjusting the Pace of Learning as In-person Classes Resume

While the pandemic had caused widespread disruptions to education, experts report that the majority of students have resumed learning at a normal pace. However, for some students – including those living in rural areas or those from underrepresented populations – these disruptions have exacerbated existing disparities. While last year’s analysis shows learning delays across the board, the data reveals that students in majority-Black schools finished 2021 at a pace six months behind in both math and language arts, while students in majority-White schools ended the year four months, and three months behind, respectively. 

To help ease the return to school, educators are looking to push boundaries and redefine educational standards from a perspective of access, equity, and achievement. To help create a new pace of learning that meets students where they are, schools are accessing new lines of federal funding, and adopting evidence-based approaches that focus on consistent staffing, personalized tutoring, and in-school sessions that provide the benefits of one-on-one attention, without the pressure of attendance for afterschool activities. 

To help reengage students in academic life, consider adopting several of the following high-level guiding principles, which consider children’s emotions, experiences, and bandwidth:

  • Avoid boredom. Studies reveal that when educators focus on re-teaching material, students are easily bored, and less likely to absorb the information. Instead, introduce new subjects that might spark interest, and build on lessons previously learned. You’ll reinforce old concepts within the framework of new, interesting material.  
  • Develop engagement strategies. Consider polling students on interesting subjects or researching ways to connect curricula to current events or popular culture. When students are active participants, they are more likely to engage with material and catch up academically. 
  • Create relevant curricula. Academic material rooted in relevant subjects, community connections, and personal relationships resonates on a deeper level with students, who can better connect with this kind of material. 
  • Rebuild focus. After a myriad disruptions and distractions, routines are helpful for students returning to the rigor of school-life. Consistency is key.

Back to Different Ways of Learning

For kids with a learning disability, such as dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and dysgraphia, heading back to school may be a daunting proposition. Because learning disabilities may alter the way that kids process language, communicate, interact, or pay attention, they may have trouble learning in the same ways their peers do.

Learning disabilities are incredibly common. Up to 20% of students experience difficulty learning or paying attention in the classroom. Parents, counselors, and educators should consider educating themselves about common signs, because once learning differences are identified, the symptoms are highly treatable. It is often helpful to let kids know that there is no correlation between learning disabilities and intelligence; rather, they are a natural result of differences in the way an individual’s brain is wired.

For kids with different ways of learning, returning to the school setting may seem scary, but it is likely to be a beneficial experience. Nationwide, 82% of schools self-reported struggling to provide specialized, hands-on services to students in a remote setting through the pandemic. In person, teachers are better able to provide individualized, one-on-one attention and learning plans for students who need alternate ways to process information.

For these students, it is important to share information – and encouragement – in different ways:

  • Bite-sized lessons. For students with ADHD, focusing on long lectures might prove impossible. Teachers can consider parsing lessons up into smaller steps or phases, with planned breaks in between to allow for natural periods of processing.
  • “Listen” for feedback. When having trouble grasping a concept or mastering a skill, some children may seem reticent. In person, many teachers can pick up on an array of non-verbal cues that can help them tailor lessons. For instance, a lack of eye contact or slumping in a chair may indicate frustration, and that a concept needs to be revisited.
  • Employ tricks. To help reinforce concepts, teachers can employ mind maps and other memory tricks that capture information in alternate ways. Visual representations, like word clouds and simple diagrams, can help link concepts together. Mnemonics can help students capture multiple concepts within an easily recalled word. These tactics are unusual and help make learning fun.
  • Reward effort. Encouraging students with learning disabilities is highly important.  Always emphasize effort over outcome. For many, school may feel like a source of constant struggle and failure, especially if grades are low. Help make it clear that they are making progress and that their efforts to learn are not going unnoticed.

Addressing the First Day of School Jitters

When considering a new school year, many children experience anticipatory anxiety. Heading back to school represents a big life change, one fraught with many unknowns. These “jitters” may be triggered in many ways. For some, the anxiety stems from a changing routine; for others, nerves arise when they consider parting from a beloved caregiver. Some students may feel nervous or alone when thinking about starting fresh at a new school, while others may experience anxiety about how academically challenging a new year might be.

To help ease anxiety and equip kids with coping strategies, consider building a framework of preparatory activities in advance of the first day:

  • Make routines exciting. Several weeks before school starts, begin to gradually re-introduce routines in a positive way. Reward consistent bedtimes with the promise of choosing a fun outfit in the morning and a choice of a special breakfast. Together, these three activities (a regular bedtime, advanced outfit selection, and a healthy morning meal) will help kids adjust – and maybe even embrace – school-year schedules.
  • Showcase the school’s social side. Once class schedules are released, set up playdates with others in the same classes. Research shows that when kids recognize familiar faces, they are more likely to feel engaged and comfortable in the classroom.
  • Go through the motions. Sometimes, the unknown can be frightening. For children who prefer to practice things or know details in advance, going through the motions of a regular school day may prove helpful. Physically go out and visit the school, take a walk inside the building, and go explore the classroom, if possible.
  • Listen. Sometimes, talking through nerves is the best solution for “first day jitters”. Be sure to offer children an open, sympathetic ear and acknowledge their concerns. Allow them to think through their worries and discuss how they might approach certain situations. By encouraging conversation and validating their feelings, you’ll display confidence in their ability to navigate any situation.

This year, help kids kickstart the new school year on a positive note. To help combat anxiety in the face of so much change, emphasize all the exciting things ahead. For instance, rather than fixating on performance or discussing homework, reframe school within a fun social context. Focus on the fact that back-to-school means seeing friends, returning to favorite hobbies and after school sports, and even picking up a new skill in art or music class. Most importantly, emphasize community. Help kids know that everyone is experiencing a difficult time right now, and that talking about how we feel is an excellent way to feel better and move forward. Ultimately, regardless of reading skill, learning disability, or anxiety level, every kid deserves a chance at a fresh start for a wonderful school year ahead.

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