Back to School Priorities

“How are you feeling about going back to school?” I asked my youngest over breakfast.

“I’m excited!” he responded quickly. I was grateful for the enthusiasm but realized that there might be more to the story. 

Sure enough, the same child was on the verge of emotional collapse five minutes later. He was beside himself because his water bottle didn’t fit into his backpack. 

That’s the thing about going back to school – a single feeling rarely captures the emotional complexity of the moment. Parents, educators, and students alike have all kinds of changing and conflicting emotions. Excitement, yes. But also anticipation, anxiety, relief, nervousness, gratitude, eagerness, and on and on. 

In the midst of this whirlwind of feelings it’s easy to focus our attention on the tangible things that fit into backpacks. Things like water bottles, notebooks and school supplies. But as we move through the feelings of back-to-school we would be wise to look up from our backpacks and towards each other as we consider what to prioritize this year. None of us are, after all, “brains on sticks” and learning happens through relationships. So what can we focus on this year that takes this into account? Here are a few things on my list: 

Kids getting on school bus

Let’s build belonging.

Going back to school means that we will be back, in the words of psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour, in “each other’s social traffic patterns.” But just because students and educators will be back at school together, doesn’t mean that they will experience a sense of belonging there. This has enormous implications for mental health and learning alike. A sense of belonging at school has been linked to better stress management, greater feelings of happiness and optimism, and higher levels of motivation and achievement.

Many of us worry that our kids won’t “fit in” at school. Yet it’s clear from the research that fitting in is far less important than belonging. Indeed, fitting in can get in the way if it means that our kids are concealing or diminishing important parts of themselves to do so. We experience belonging when we share a connection with those around us while staying true to ourselves. 

Let’s not rely on traffic patterns alone to build belonging. Let’s talk about fitting in versus belonging, tackle the barriers to belonging, and ensure that students and educators alike can bring their whole selves to our learning communities.

Let’s cultivate mindsets for challenge.

We have known for a long time that a “growth mindset” can help students tackle challenges and work hard to achieve their goals. But that isn’t the only essential mindset for a new school year. It turns out that coupling a growth mindset with the understanding that our physiological response to challenge can be an asset (stress-can-be-enhancing mindset) is very protective for mental health. This is particularly true for adolescents. 

Why is this dual message so powerful? If students interpret any signs of distress as an indication of failure, pathology, or inadequacy they are far more likely to avoid the very experiences they need to learn and grow. To be clear, these kinds of interventions are not about reframing or putting a “positive spin” on toxic stress or trauma. We know from a mountain of research that these kinds of persistent and significant stressors can have cascading lifelong negative impacts on health and well-being. Re-framing stress about racism, abuse, or bullying as “helpful” is not only harmful; it is downright dangerous.

That’s why synergistic mindset work demands that we turn our attention to systems as well. Telling students to work hard and reappraise the demands of big challenges without equitable access to the resources, supports, and opportunities for success can simply reinforce entrenched inequities. Individual mindset interventions are transformative when we build systems that allow every student to flourish. 

Let’s give kids room to roam and play.

Warm and caring connections with adults are powerful protective factors for student mental health. But that doesn’t mean that kids need to be constantly under direct supervision and instruction. Yet most are. The freedom to engage in independent activities has declined significantly over the last four or five decades. This includes things like unstructured outdoor play during the school day as well as activities like biking or walking to school or engaging in the community independently. 

Free play and independent activities aren’t just fun. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they are essential to kids’ health and development. They give kids and teens the chance to practice skills like emotional regulation, risk management, and creative problem-solving. Playing, roaming, and contributing also make kids feel better.

Students who attend high-pressure schools suffer from anxiety and depression at higher levels than teens in lower-pressure schools. This could be due to the pressure to succeed, the near elimination of free and unstructured time, or both. For most kids, regardless of where they attend school, homework time has gone up while recess time has gone down. Kids certainly benefit from high expectations and structured activities in and out of school. But we can also keep their need for freedom and autonomy in mind as we make choices about when to step in and when to step back.

The list of things that kids and teens are capable of doing is endless. If only we let them discover it.

Let’s listen to and prioritize student voice.

We are coming into this school year with a lot on our minds. From toxic political divisions to a summer of wildfire smoke, many students are likely to bring profound social awareness (and stress) into the building this fall. 

It’s tempting to write off students’ concerns or to respond with simple reassurance that everything will be okay. But adults can do something far more helpful. We can make sure that students have voice in the decisions and systems that impact them. Research shows that student voice can cultivate a sense of motivation, engagement, and purpose. This is no small thing. Young people who experience purpose, for example, are better able to manage stress and are more resilient, optimistic, and motivated to learn. 

We can’t deliver purpose and agency through lectures or assign it after school. We have to build adult capacity to listen to young people and create meaningful opportunities for impact. Students can practice by shaping their classroom learning environment, sharing opinions about school problems with educators or administrators, or participating directly in decision-making. They can explore their passions in sports, arts, community or cultural groups, afterschool programs, online or offline. These tasks don’t involve a prescribed outcome or context. But they do need to be authentic. 

Let’s turn towards each other.

To say that there is a lot of attention right now on student social media and tech use is an understatement. In the wake of the Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health, everyone is eager for clear guidance on next steps. Fortunately, there are strategies for digital wellbeing around which there is a lot of agreement. These include prioritizing focus, protecting sleep, encouraging movement, and paying close attention to the content that populates our kids’ feeds.

If there was ever a time to step meaningfully into the digital lives of our kids, this is it. Not just to protect them from harm, but to ensure that we are investing in the biggest protective factor of all: Our ability to stay connected as their digital worlds expand. Students deserve more than just “on-off” regulators in their digital lives. They need digital mentors who can practice both/and thinking when it comes to well-being and media use. They need us to hold social media platforms accountable and teach individual coping skills. They need us to delight in their digital strengths and watch for signs of struggle. They need us to take an interest in their favorite YouTubers and draw protective boundaries for learning and connection.

In our haste to address our concerns related to tech and mental health this year, let’s not focus solely on the absence or presence of phones. Let’s turn towards each other and better understand the evolving needs of the kids who use them.