Back to School: Let’s Focus on These 5 Things

(What else would you add to this list?)

Every year back-to-school feels both reassuring and slightly ominous. There is comfort and relief in the traditions of finding schedules, organizing supplies, and packing backpacks. But beside these familiar routines there is the inevitable buzz of uncertainty and anticipation. Our kids are considering small, and very important, questions like, “Who will I sit with at lunch?” or, “What will my teacher be like?” 

This year, that buzz might feel more like a roar for some families and educators. Many of us are asking big, and also important, questions like, “Will this year be more reliable and consistent?” and, “Will we have opportunities to heal, learn, and grow?” 

We would be wise to attend to this buzz (or roar) this fall. It helps us to slow down and pay attention to what’s needed as we return to learning together. In the flurry of sharpening pencils and readjusting to school schedules it can be helpful to name the less tangible things that are just as important to our success. 

Here’s a start from my own list as we head back to school. 

Let’s tell the stories.

Schooling has been far from smooth and linear for most kids and teens recently. Instead it has been full of stops, starts, pauses, conflict. shifts in the plot line, new characters, and unanticipated surprises. This school year is certainly an opportunity for a fresh start and a new story. 

But an important part of metabolizing stressful experiences is being able to name and make sense of them. Researchers who look at post-traumatic growth note that being able to “story experiences in new ways” helps us acknowledge grief and loss while re-asserting a new sense of purpose. 

Rather than just starting from a blank slate this year, we would be wise to give our kids opportunities to add meaningful chapters to our family and school stories. We can ask questions like, “What do we remember about school the last two years? What do we remember about the hardest parts? The best parts? What did we learn about ourselves? What do we want this year to be like? How will we integrate what we’ve learned?”

Let’s talk about worry and stress.

Heading into what we hope will be a more “normal” school year, it is tempting to respond to the buzz of anticipation with ongoing reassurance that, “Everything is going to be perfect!” and “It’s going to be a GREAT year!” 

Positivity is essential and there is nothing wrong with starting out with an optimistic frame. But many kids bring valid concerns into this school year and sidestepping them or providing constant reassurance can inadvertently make them more anxious. 

Instead, we can normalize distress and communicate confidence that our kids can build skills to handle it. “It sounds like you are worried about your new teacher. That makes sense! You’ve never had him before. What’s one thing you can do when worry takes over?” 

Let’s do everything we can to buffer kids from toxic stress and prioritize mental health supports for all kids. Let’s also explain that some stress can be healthy and befriend the range of feelings that come with everyday distress.

Let’s play and experience joy.

The learning we are about to engage in at school and at home is serious business. And that’s exactly why we need to play this year. Play strengthens connections, builds brains, and protects mental health.

We need to watch that the pressure of needing to “catch up” doesn’t sideline play, playfulness, and joy. Research shows that playful interactions are not just some frivolous diversion from important goals like academic achievement or emotional regulation. Instead, play fuels them. We do not need to choose between high and rigorous expectations and playful learning.

After a rocky couple of years, kids and teens need to know that we don’t just want them to succeed academically. They need to know that we like them, enjoy them, and experience delight with them.

They need to experience that learning and relating to others can be hard but it can also be fun.

Let’s build belonging.

Our core social needs are not met by just being in proximity to others. Our fundamental need is to belong. A sense of belonging at school and at home has been linked to better stress management, stronger relationships, and higher levels of motivation and achievement, and greater feelings of happiness and optimism.

Too often kids try to fit in with their peers or teachers by hiding, downplaying, or altering themselves. This can actually lead to more feelings of loneliness or disconnection. We experience belonging when we share connection with those around us while staying true to ourselves. 

As we head back to school let’s not rely on just “being in the building” as a path towards belonging. Let’s talk about fitting in vs. belonging, tackle the barriers to belonging and give kids and teens opportunities to bring their whole selves to our learning communities.

Let’s learn together.

We know now more than ever that we learn better together.

This school year, young children will learn how to negotiate conflicts that inevitably arise between their own wants and the needs of the group. Children will learn to value the skills of their peers and ask for help when they need it. Teens will explore the intersections between their personal interests and purposeful work in the world. 

The last two years have revealed so much to us about our individual and collective strengths, capacities, and challenges. We’ve seen children build resilience and we’ve watched them struggle with distress. We’ve benefitted from supportive systems and we’ve witnessed systems strain and crack. 

Too often we set up false choices between supporting individuals or changing systems to better support everyone. As we head back into buildings and back towards each other this fall, we can learn together how to do both.

We can advocate for our own kids and participate in collective solutions that help all kids. We can teach individual coping skills and work together to address the sources of the stress. 

It won’t be perfect, but let’s model for kids that grown-ups can learn together too.