Yet again, principal Cindy Conley was surprised by something her post-lockdown students were doing. At an end-of-year celebration in June for eighth-graders at Irving Middle School in Springfield, Va., a group of boys began playing duck, duck, goose. Soon, more than 50 boys were playing the game, one that is usually enjoyed by much younger children. “That never happened pre-pandemic,” Conley said. “But some of these kids left in sixth grade and came back as instant eighth-graders, and I don’t think I anticipated how much the elementary part was still in them.”
The 2021-2022 school year upended conventional notions about what students can or should be able to do by a certain age or grade. Teachers, principals and parents were all caught off guard by some of the trickle-down effects they saw on children returning to in-person schooling.
But this is a new school year, and parents and educators are going into it with more realistic expectations and a better understanding of what children need to be successful. As kids start a new school year in a time still characterized by uncertainty and deep division, here are five ways caregivers can help them learn, connect with others and maintain a strong sense of self.
Some children thought things would be “normal” last year and were blindsided when they struggled in unexpected ways, such as not completing assignments or feeling more sensitive to criticism.
To help kids stay positive when things go awry, “interrupt the concept of normal,” said Christopher Emdin, a professor of education at the University of Southern California and the author of “Ratchetdemic.” “Plant the idea that the pandemic is a restart, an opportunity to dream about how you want things to be. ‘When you went through school before, did you like it all? No. Based on what things were before, how do you want it to be now?’ ”
Even subtle changes to a child’s physical environment “can radically change the learning experience,” Emdin said. When he was scholar-in-residence at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 2021, he partnered with students to build prototype post-pandemic classrooms. “I wanted them to feel like it can’t look like what it looked like before.” They swapped out fluorescent lights for blue bulbs, brought in planters of grass and piped in music.
Parents can make similar tweaks to a child’s workspace at home. “The schoolwork learning corner has to be special — the most comfortable, beautiful space in the home — so that you start training the mind to see the educational work as fun,” Emdin said. “When you bring in flowers and grasses, change the lighting, the sounds, the seating, it invokes relaxation and helps kids associate reading or homework as, ‘This is when I’m chilling.’ ”
Before the year gets underway, ask your child questions such as “What are your biggest worries about going back to school?” and “What are you most looking forward to doing this year?” Explicitly acknowledge that the past few years have been tough, said Jason Ablin, a school consultant in Los Angeles and the author of “The Gender Equation in Schools.” “Say, ‘We want you to feel great about going to school every day, and if you feel like things are going off the rails, we’re here for you.’ ”
Get creative if they don’t open up. “A friend of ours had four teen sons, and one of the things she would do is put food out at 10 p.m.,” Ablin said. “As if they were in a trance, the kids would smell the food and come down together and start eating, and she was able to use that time to start a dialogue.” Sometimes it was about nothing, he added, “but other times, they were powerful conversations.”
It’s helpful to know a child’s baseline stress level, said Michelle Hoffman, a licensed counselor at Granite Academy, a therapeutic school in Braintree, Mass. If they tell you they’re worried about a test or a fight with a friend, ask them to rate the stress on a scale of one to five. The number itself is less important than what it tells you about their perception of the situation and their capacity to cope with it.
“Once you have a basis for comparison, you can have a conversation about what might lower their stress,” Hoffman said. Validate their concerns, even if they seem overblown, she added. “You might feel the pandemic is over and your kid should be able to handle more pressure, but stress is additive. Kids are resilient, but they’ve used up their reserves.”
When you know what’s troubling them, you can help them reframe the situation and think about next steps. Emily Kircher-Morris, a counselor in Missouri and the author of “Raising Twice-Exceptional Children,” recommends walking children through the best-case, worst-case and most-likely scenarios, then devising a plan. If they’re worried about missing an assignment, for instance, Kircher-Morris might ask: “Who can you go to for help? How can you communicate with them?” If the issue relates to social anxiety, she might suggest writing a letter to their teacher early in the school year to say: “I feel uncomfortable making a presentation to the class, so is it okay if I videotape myself instead?”
Children can feel powerless, because they have little control over things, such as when they eat lunch at school or whether they take math in sixth grade, but parents can give them back a sense of agency by having them set and work toward personal goals. Encourage them to commit their goals to paper, because research shows that people are 42 percent more likely to reach their goals if they write them down and monitor their progress regularly.
Every year, Larry Haynes, the principal of Oak Mountain Middle School in Birmingham, Ala., recruits 35 professionals from the community to mentor eighth-graders. At the end of each grading period, the mentors meet with their mentees to discuss their report cards, their progress and their goals. Afterward, the students write their goals on a reflection sheet.
“I tell them to display their goals in a prominent place where they will see it, because that keeps it fresh in their mind and serves as a motivator,” Haynes said, adding that he always tells the students about Thomas Holloway, a former student who stated in middle school that his goal was to play football at West Point. “Thomas graduated from West Point in 2014,” Haynes tells them.
Setting goals also can ease kids’ anxiety related to events in the news. To help them, shift the focus away from the state of the world and back to their own lives.
“If you zoom out to space and everything on Earth looks tiny, then it can seem like there’s no meaning to any of it, and that can feel really overwhelming,” Kircher-Morris said. “But if you zoom back in, you get to decide what your meaning and purpose is.” That could be a goal such as doing better in a class or making a new friend.
After the turmoil of the past few years, many children are focused on friendships, but their skills are rusty.
Research shows that connecting with others can improve mental health, and children need the practice, but they may need an assist. If they’re too anxious to host a friend at home, suggest a structured activity such as bowling or basketball at the park. Encourage them to sign up for at least one after-school club that reflects their interests, too. “If a child who likes anime joins the anime club, they’re more likely to meet [like-minded] classmates and find their footing,” Conley said.
The idea is to find low-pressure opportunities where kids can practice making eye contact and resolving conflict, Haynes said. He offers alternate activities for kids at school dances, for example. He might have board games in the cafeteria or a kickball tournament outside.
“We talk about kids almost in monthly terms: Academically they should be here, their social-emotional development should be here,” Ablin said. “But when things are as disrupted as they have been, we need to see kids where they actually are; be calm, loving and thoughtful about that; and really believe that, eventually, the child will be just fine.”
That means letting go of the idea that children have “fallen behind.” As Ablin noted: “It diminishes children and kills the joy in learning. When we say, ‘You’re not where you’re supposed to be,’ we’re also saying, ‘You’re not who you’re supposed to be.’ ”
Instead, emphasize that growing up in an unprecedented time is why they will be change-makers. “I tell kids: ‘Fifty years from now, who will be the legacy-builders, the young people who pushed back when the world went crazy? It will be you,” Emdin said.
Focus on the strengths children bring to the table now, not the skills they haven’t acquired. “The most brilliant people of our times were skeptics — curious, evidence-based thinkers who could think in metaphorical terms — and if you’ve gone through covid, you’ve done all of that,” Emdin said. “If you survived the last two years, and you’re present in classrooms and ready to learn, you have resilience and fortitude and are equipped to be successful academically. Parents and schools have to keep telling kids that.”
Phyllis L. Fagell, a licensed clinical professional counselor, is the author of “Middle School Matters,” the school counselor at Sheridan School and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group. She tweets @pfagell and blogs at phyllisfagell.com.
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