Back to School: How to Start the Year Off Right

  • The lingering effects of the pandemic, including the ongoing risk of infection from newer strains of the disease, the ongoing financial strain experienced by many families, and coping with the many losses associated with it.
  • Gun violence, including both the very real safety concerns within our schools and the social divisiveness about how to address the problem.
  • Social unrest fueled by extreme political views, racism, and a growing lack of respect and tolerance for those with different opinions, perspectives, experiences, etc.
  • The still not fully understood effects of growing up in a world dominated by electronic devices and the participation in social media.
  • Grief associated with both pandemic-related and other losses.
  • Difficult home circumstances and living in dangerous/deprived communities.
  • Insecurity and feelings of disconnection from both peers and teachers, especially in the context of extensive social media involvement and the long period of pandemic-imposed isolation.
  • School personnel should reassure students that health and safety protocols are still in place, and frequently remind them about good health practices like handwashing, etc.
  • Teachers can ask both students and caregivers about what pandemic-related losses and ongoing stressors have affected their families and encourage students to share their questions and feelings as they come up.
  • Despite occasional disruptions still to come, school personnel should establish and closely follow routines and structures to help ground uneasy students.
  • The beginning of the school year brings with it the opportunity to review school security procedures and to re-train both students and staff about safety protocols.
  • The district’s protocols and resources for conducting crisis evaluations and threat assessments should be updated and communicated.
  • Relationships with community ER and mental health agencies and with local law enforcement leaders can be revisited and renewed.
  • Administrators can re-assess Tier 1 MTSS services, expanding and/or refining screening measures where appropriate.
  • Professional development about how to talk to children about gun violence can be offered.
  • Tolerance/appreciation for differences, listening skills, and conflict resolution skills can be incorporated throughout the curriculum.
  • Schools can sponsor cultural appreciation events and teachers can invite students to share their cultural traditions in the context of classroom discussions/activities.
  • Since current social unrest can undermine a sense of safety, it is critical that districts revisit anti-bullying protocols, and ensure that they are vigorously enforced.
  • Experts on the benefits and pitfalls of technology can be invited to address both parents and students.
  • Workshops to help parents learn how to monitor their children’s devices and social media usage can be offered.
  • Local law enforcement officials can be invited to speak with students about the risks and laws associated with electronically sharing sexually explicit material.
  • A curriculum to teach students responsible, safe, and balanced use of technology can be developed.
  • School personnel can have discussions about what they model for students regarding the use of phones and other devices with a goal of being more intentional about it. What boundaries or lack of boundaries are being modeled? Teachers can plan “unplugged” segments of each class when all electronic devices are shut down while individuals talk to one another about the day’s lesson. Some class assignments can be crafted in such a way that specifically require other ways of communicating and gathering information.
  • Teachers can make a point to inquire about deaths or other recent losses experienced by each student and invite the student to share memories and feelings as they emerge.
  • As part of the school’s Tier 2 MTSS services, short term groups can be offered on grief and loss for selected at-risk youth.
  • An assembly and/or mental health newsletter can be created for parents and for children that discusses common grief reactions and emphasizes that not everyone grieves in the same way.
  • Teachers and other school personnel can take the time to acknowledge their own experiences of grief, especially those related to the challenges of the pandemic.
  • Knowing about a students’ difficult home and/or neighborhood environment can be extremely challenging and frustrating for teachers whose ability to impact these circumstances is severely limited or non-existent. That said, administrators and teachers should do whatever they can to remind each other that simply being themselves, that is, being a caring and consistent presence in the lives of each student, goes a very long way.
  • Processes for reporting suspected abuse as well as the defined criteria for making such a report within their communities should be reviewed early in the year.
  • Awareness of a student’s home environment can help teachers be more sensitive to the challenges that the student might have in completing assignments, etc. With this knowledge, the teacher is in a better position to help the student problem solve.
  • Information about resources for families with food insecurity or other financial pressures should be regularly distributed to parents and teachers.
  • Given the large number of students who have experienced adverse childhood events (ACES), incorporating or refreshing professional development activities about trauma-informed practices are essential.
  • As reported by NASSP, education researchers consistently point to students’ sense of belonging to the school community as a key predictor of academic engagement/achievement, positive social functioning, and both emotional and physical well-being. When students feel they belong to the school community, they are more likely to thrive and ultimately to graduate. The pandemic has taken a toll on students’ connectedness to both peers and teachers. According to new research released by Qualtrics in early August, only 51% of high school students feel a sense of belonging at their schools. Likewise, only about a third of students feel comfortable approaching a teacher about a personal issue or are confident that the teacher would be sensitive to their issues.
  • Teachers can promote a sense of belonging by activating student empowerment in the classroom. They can engage students in developing and enforcing classroom structure and rituals, promote collaborative problem solving, adopt classroom “mantras” for self-acceptance, forgiveness, and encouragement, and emphasize effort over outcomes.
  • Encouraging both verbal and other forms of expression within the classroom can boost students’ sense of belonging.
  • Teachers can be encouraged to reframe children’s behavior as responses to stress and a communication of needs rather than as oppositional or naughty behavior. Various trauma informed approaches and behavioral strategies such as the Nurtured Heart® model can be adopted to provide guidance for teachers.
  • The district can facilitate connection by refreshing its clubs and after school activities and taking a more proactive approach to connecting students with similar interests.
  • The district can create or revitalize school-based family activities that help boost a sense of belonging among parents and other caregivers.
  • In early August, Edutopia published an article outlining 6 questions that teachers can ask students to help them sort through and cope with everyday stressors. This simple list of questions, if repeatedly presented to students, can promote cognitive flexibility, and can teach them a problem-solving strategy that will have life-long implications.

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Effective School Solutions

Effective School Solutions

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Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.