BY NICOLE A. HARRIS
It goes without saying that last school year was tough, and that is certainly an understatement. Aside from massive learning loss, families faced circumstances that came with hard and sudden changes. Some faced the loss of a way of life they had always known while others faced already difficult situations that only worsened due to the pandemic. As things begin to return to a time that now seems like an unfamiliar distant past, it can be disorienting to sort out what the next steps should be for your child as they head back to fully open schools. Here are 5 tips to help move you from merely surviving to thriving in the next school year.
1. LOSE THE GUILT, EMBRACE ACCEPTANCE
You may have read the title and are skeptical if this article is worth your read. Perhaps you were expecting advice on more practical matters such as ensuring good grades for your child or a strategy to tackle the purchase of school supplies for multiple kids in different grade levels. That type of advice will come later, I promise. For now, consider this: the pandemic has done a number on all of us and we need to heal from far more than COVID-19. As a parent, you’re reading this because you want your child to be happy and healthy. Pause and take a breath. I’m serious. Do it. If you weren’t doing the best you can, you would not be doing everything you can in this moment to help your child recover from the effects of the pandemic, but you need to recover as well.
During the school year, logging into another Zoom session might have been too much on some days where you didn’t have enough energy to enforce that your child engage because you faced your own challenges. Maybe that led to a less than stellar performance for your child, or was it the opposite? You may be feeling guilty because you pushed your child so much that they performed well academically, but being pushed beyond their limits took a toll on them mentally. In any case, it is likely that you were doing the best that you knew in such unprecedented times (‘unprecedented’ – that’s a word we’d all like to never hear again, am I right?)
Embrace that, like you, millions of parents all over the globe had to make the same decisions with little guidance. Find comfort in the collective journey of figuring it out and embrace that if you are still here today, you have an opportunity to move forward fruitfully, no matter how slow the process. Do you owe your child an apology?
Embrace that and know that though uncomfortable, you teach your child the greatest lesson by modeling how to take responsibility and be held accountable. Is the playroom the messiest it’s ever been, so much so, that you’re embarrassed to have guests over? Commit to two toys in place a day, one dusted shelf, so on and so forth. Been ordering takeout more than you’d like to admit? Plan for one cooked meal and slowly reintegrate that practice into your life. Incremental progress is better than none. Slow and steady wins the race. You got this (even on the days where it doesn’t feel like it)!
2. COMMUNICATION AND ACCOUNTABILITY LEADS TO RESILIENCE
One of my biggest pet peeves as a teacher was the expectation that I could remedy situations I was not informed about. Remember, there is no shame in admitting that you need help. If you know that your child has experienced significant learning loss, it is not a mark on their intelligence. There was a pandemic (I will keep reminding you of this for the duration of this article, you’re welcome). If you noticed that your once-a-math-whiz daughter no longer understands concepts as quickly as she once did or that your son who loved being in the band hasn’t picked up his instrument in months, tell their teacher from the beginning.
The students in my classes that did the best were the ones whose parents voiced their concerns early and together, we worked on a plan for their child’s success at the top of the school year. With that said, remember that teachers are experiencing their own personal and professional journey to recovery as well so kindness is the rule. If you have older kids on the secondary level, consider how powerful it is to have your child self-advocate for issues they are having in school. During parent-student meetings, allow for at least one moment where they get to speak up about their needs, even if they are in elementary school. Have a conversation with them at home before the meeting so they won’t be caught off guard and feel anxious. Being given the autonomy to respectfully share concerns with adults is truly empowering.
For parents of older children, meet with your tween or teen to discuss healthy conflict resolution and what it means to take ownership of their shortcomings and learning. As you pull back and allow your kids to speak up about their own learning and communicate about difficulties they are having in a timely manner, you are setting them up for resilience beyond the classroom. This does not mean that you never step in as their parent. They will always need you, but scaffolding responsibility as they age is vital for their growth. If there was any time to build the muscle of problem solving, this is it! Furthermore, even if some circumstances are beyond the teacher’s capacity to help, it is likely that they can point you to services and additional resources that can help your child succeed!
3. GET INTO THE GROOVE OF RHYTHM AND FLOW
One thing for sure that the pandemic contributed to was the disruption of all our routines. Where’s the line between at home relaxation when work and school now happens from the couch or the bedroom? How does the playgroup connect when it’s now through a screen? So many questions, so little answers.
Before the school year starts, consider a gradual release of activity. Your child may not be ready to jump right into the five afterschool activities they were once a part of even if they have been begging to return and you can’t wait for them to do so. It’s no different than when they want another helping of dessert or to avoid bedtime. They may not have a clear sense of boundaries yet, but as their parent, you can best assess how much they are truly able to handle.
In a lot of ways, this school year will be the “third shift.” First, kids had to deal with their school year shifting immediately into a completely virtual space. Next, they were put in the middle of a hybrid teaching model. Now, they are entering the classroom where there will be an attempt at normalcy in a world that seemingly won’t ever be the same again. Essentially, your child has had to start over three times! Think about how hard that is as an adult, much less in the formative years. While there may not be much you can control still in your personal circumstances, one area to look into is creating a schedule that provides safety and structure when stability seems unattainable. If you’re a meticulous planner where every second of your day is planned, evaluate how rigid you really need to be and the ways you can have your kids play a role in their own planning process so they can build their own organization skills and build in moments to breathe. Perhaps you’re a parent that has so much going on, you don’t know the first thing about keeping a consistent planner. Start searching online and experiment with different planning styles that work for you. Go into the process knowing the first three attempts are trial and error. Call it a discovery phase and fully embrace it if you need to start over. Do you need the calendar to be all digital with alerts on your phone? Are you more visual and need large colorful displays around the house? Whatever route you take, you want the kids to develop intrinsic motivation and know the difference between taking a break and giving up entirely. When they have a consistent reference point of how certain blocks of time should be spent, it will become second nature and time to work on school will seem less daunting if they know there are planned and scheduled times to hang out with friends or to snuggle up with mommy and daddy. No matter what is happening at school or the world around them, your child will know what’s coming next by the simple action of sticking to a routine. When life does throw curveballs and you must deviate from these established norms, it will serve as a hopeful roadmap to get back on track.
4. BUILD CULTURAL CAPITAL
I would be remiss if I wrote an entire article on tips to succeed when returning to the school year without addressing the global shift that took place not only because of COVID-19, but socially and politically. Sending children to school has always been a place where they have been exposed to new people and new ideas but so often that happens passively. Now, more than ever, your child will encounter people that are vocal on a variety of issues. Even homeschooled children will experience media that opens a portal to the larger world. Rather than run away from this, think about ways this can be an enriching experience. Now, I won’t pretend that every other parent is planning to instill a kind approach in their household and this reality will come with very hard discussions at times. This isn’t as black and white as a debate on Critical Race Theory or choosing which political party to join. I’m talking about an expansive look at the world to build kindness, compassion and empathy. As a family, you all will be able to grow together if learning about the world becomes a family affair. I’ll take a page from my own mother’s playbook. When I was a kid, my mom was intentional about exposing me to music from all over the globe and learning about the countries, cultures and customs and not just the news headlines. If I took an affinity to a certain part of the world, I was given books to study it further or was able to watch documentaries or children’s programming about my interest. I was placed in environments where I had to do creative projects with people who thought differently than me and was encouraged to read many genres of books. For older kids, viewing perspectives that are different than what you believe is an opportunity to think critically while possibly still holding on to the views and values that your family holds dear. I can say that my existence as an adult is far more enlightening because I had a mom that believed in giving me a global outlook on the world beyond my own hometown of Miami. It reinforced that we are all a small piece of the puzzle that can do our part to make this world better.
Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist who coined the term cultural capital. Much of the conversation around this concept is centered around its ability to ensure upward mobility as a person with cultural capital could make connections in a job interview, be marketable and build a network. But that is not the only piece of this arguably important part of a child’s development. Cognitively, children who actively learn about the world around them can make connections
in a classroom setting and build background knowledge in a variety of academic subjects. But, perhaps the most crucial part is developing individuals that are empathetic citizens who want to give back in various ways even if that is at the most basic level of being a good friend on the playground.
We are fortunate to live in an area where there are endless community events that are often free! Check out your city’s community calendar and get out there!
5. BE INTENTIONAL ABOUT WELLNESS
This time has brought on some new ways of life we wish we did not have to live with, but still, in some other ways it has beckoned us to return to ways that we had forgotten before the pandemic. As restrictions lift and we return to some semblance of normalcy, don’t let it make you forget all the lessons along the way. As the world still groans of “birth pains,” so to speak, remember to always re-center. Our lifestyles have become more sedentary than ever. Numerous studies support the tremendous impact movement has on mental health and learning. Make it a point to incorporate movement through YouTube channels like GoNoodle or simply a walk around the neighborhood. Furthermore, try weekly check- ins with your child and ask them 1) what they feel their biggest victories were 2) areas where they need help and 3) both their apprehensions and what makes them hopeful for the week ahead. Saying daily affirmations out loud are a great way to get the entire family involved in reframing challenges into opportunities. Talking through these areas on a consistent basis will give your child security to know that they can move into the new school year with procedures in place to not only get ahead of problems, but to celebrate wins.
“A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.” – GEORGE SANTAYANA