So, it’s June and you have just wrapped up the year with your students. They have made tremendous progress over the course of the year. The routine of the day flows naturally, the expectations about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior is fairly clear to all of them (and to you), and you leave the school year feeling confident that they are ready for the new challenges that lie ahead. You go into the summer months looking forward to a much needed break, but also looking forward to your new group of students in the fall.
Fast forward two months - it’s now August and you have just spent the last few weeks preparing for back to school. You are eagerly anticipating the first day of school where they walk in excited and ready to move into the new school year. You have planned a wonderful first day of school activities and are sure that things are going to go off without a hitch.
The first day of school begins and suddenly you are met with the realization that this is not going as you had planned. Some children come in flying through the door, while others need to be pried away from their parents in hysterics. No one seems to know how to sit at their table, how to walk down the hallway, or how to clean up after an activity. It is suddenly clear to you that this is not at all what you had expected. You think to yourself, “have they all lost their minds?”
The first few days or weeks of a new school year can be rough. Speaking from personal experience, I remember very vividly saying to my friends, “do not talk to me until October!” As much as I loved the back to school experience, I equally despised the exhaustion I felt each day as I left my classroom. Some days I would even leave in tears feeling defeated and as if no one understood what I was going through. If you have ever felt this way, I can assure you that you are not alone.
Just as you enjoyed your summer months with no alarm clock and no real urgency to be anywhere, so did your students. They may have stayed up later than usual, attended camp with many field trips and outings, and had a much more lax schedule. They may have gone on vacation, stayed with friends, and gotten a lot more free time than usual. It is natural and expected that they are going to need some time to acclimate to back to school.
The question is, what can you do to make this transition easier? (OK who am I kidding, it’s not going to be “easy” but there are ways to make it better). Here are four tips for making the back to school transition easier for you and for your students.
As the old saying goes, ‘patience is a virtue.’ Getting angry or upset with your students is not going to do anyone any good. Go into the school year thinking that the process of setting expectations and establishing a routine does not happen overnight. I often times would say to coworkers, “last year’s class was so much more on point,” until one day a co-worker stopped me and said, “you are remembering last year’s group of students in June, try to think back to how they came in August. You will get them there, just breathe.” Those words couldn’t have been more true.
Throughout the school year it is important to be consistent, but never more crucial than during the first few weeks. If you expect your students to adjust to a new routine and expectations, you have to be very clear on what they are. Some days you might feel like a broken record, repeating the same expectation over and over again, but as the students get more acclimated to new classroom norms, you will find yourself not having to repeat yourself so much. Though, I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you that I often thought about creating a product where you could push a button and have different voice prompts, such as “please use walking feet” or “our hands are for helping friends, not hurting."
Nothing is more frustrating to hear than “you are fine” when you know you are really not fine. Your students will be filled with a variety of emotions, some happy, some sad, some frustrated, or maybe all of the above. Acknowledge those emotions and ask them to share why they are feeling that way. The new school year can be a very scary time for children. Are they going to make new friends? Will they know anybody in their class? Will they know where to go when it’s time to be picked up? There is a lot of uncertainty that may leave them feeling anxious about school. Being able to acknowledge all those emotions is important. During my years in the classroom, I would invite my students to write down (or draw pictures) of something that made them happy, sad, scared, etc. This would allow me to get a better understanding of what they were feeling, and was also important in giving children an outlet to express their emotions.
Expecting perfection is not a realistic goal, especially during the back to school period. And you should also not beat yourself up about that. Knowing that some days will be better than others is important. It’s easy to beat ourselves up when things don’t go as planned. I was often guilty of this, until I decided to start journaling. At the end of each school day, I would write down at least one positive thing about the day. Some days I had many things to write down, and other days I would write, “Johnny did not eat the glue stick today." That’s positive, right?
As back to school quickly approaches, I hope that you will find comfort knowing that we are all in this together. Find your happy place and an outlet to decompress. Take time to pamper yourself and disconnect from the stress of your day. Take a long walk outside, soak in the tub, or if you are like me, watch HGTV and drink a glass of wine. But just one, because after all, it is a school night, right?
The time has come for hard conversations.
That’s the feedback we have been receiving from educators across the country. There are plenty of tough conversations educators are trained, taught, or feel equipped to handle with children and families - gently bringing up a developmental concern, facilitating a disagreement between students, or explaining what happened with the classroom goldfish are all part of a day in the life. But in the last year, since the killing of George Floyd and other Black people at the hands of police, educators are increasingly asking for help in communicating more comfortably with young children about diversity and difference.
I was supposed to be an architect, instead I was a teacher of young children; it felt like my calling.
When I started my coursework, they tasked me with visiting multiple classrooms. It overwhelmed me when in some classrooms, children were crying, teachers were frustrated, and no one seemed to enjoy the day. I thought I had made a mistake. Thankfully, I had a professor who inspired me to continue. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by the behaviors I observed in both children and teachers, the professor charged me to uncover the root of those behaviors.
And so, my journey to support social-emotional development began.
This past year of hybrid and virtual learning due to the pandemic highlighted the gaps in learning and the inequities that we already knew existed. It is apparent, now more than ever, that there needs to be a narrow focus on bridging the divides (e.g., digital) that exist and meeting students where they are in order to promote growth and put less emphasis on standardized testing. This would allow teachers to concentrate on curriculum with greater impact, differentiate their instruction, and utilize effective strategies that they know make a difference for children’s outcomes.