Back to School: Know Before You Go

By Dr. Sean Gaston

When it comes to going back to school, thoughts of excitement and anticipation are probably the first things that come to mind. However, the children of resource parents may not feel the same way. As their caregiver, being attentive to your child’s social emotional needs can prepare them for the best possible outcome. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent virtual learning, having a return-to-campus plan for your child is a vital part of their success.

I blended my personal experiences with those of other resource parents, support providers, school counselors and mental health workers to compile a list of priorities for back-to-school preparation.

Adapting to change: A critical topic for foster youth in 2021 is adaptability to change. Consider that some children will return to in-person instruction for the first time in almost two years, while others will be in classrooms where the rules have changed repeatedly, from requiring masks and social distancing to almost no COVID safeguards. Distance learning has made its impact and is now more widely received as a viable option.

Making a massive shift without preparation may trigger some youth who have had to deal with unexpected significant changes most of their lives. The anxiety that can come with returning to a comprehensive school experience may elicit behaviors that were not as prevalent during the pandemic’s stay-at-home orders. Some simple activity planning and discussion about school could make the difference to getting off to a good start.
For example, take your children school shopping. If you are like me, I always had a closet or drawer with “extras,” as I would buy in bulk to limit the number of shopping trips I had to make. Although I still have bulk items ready to go, I will take my kids school shopping for some items to create the conversation and excitement about returning to school. I can also gauge where they are emotionally about the return. I can then share my informal evaluation with their support providers.

Continue, or seek, mental health therapy or counseling: Support providers should focus on developing the “mind your mind” mentality, or being intentional about dismissing toxic thoughts and patterns of behavior that sabotage positive growth. Additionally, they should also address skills such as “listening to internal noise” and paying attention to how your body feels when stressed. “Noise” such as fear, depression, anger and over excitement, are internal distractions that can inhibit communication. Ask mental health providers to strategize on topics about returning to school and coping skills.

Get involved: As a school administrator, I stress the importance of making a connection to the school by joining a club, activity or sport. Popular research continuously shows that joining a school club or organization promotes student achievement and fosters positive mental health. When a child can focus on a constructive activity, there is less time and motivation for negative thoughts and distractions. Getting students involved also encourages a positive school climate and academic achievement. This element is especially important for underserved and low-performing schools. Schools that have strong student engagement, tend to have strong literacy performance and decreased absenteeism. Can you imagine your child excited to return to school to see their friends on the baseball team or in the leadership class?

Review your school’s activity roster and auxiliary groups. Take advantage of the school sponsored opportunities to sign up for clubs and organizations. Determine what is available and encourage your child to select an activity or club. I caution parents to not enroll them and drop them off. Take time to see them through the transition of starting something new. If the selection is not a good fit, try something else.

Set realistic goals: Have you ever heard a child say they don’t like school or that school is boring? If you hear these words, do not disagree with them. Find out what their expectations of school are. There are some unlikable aspects of school. It can be a bit much for the disconnected student and overwhelming for the disinterested.

Try sitting down away from school or home, in a neutral environment, to review expectations. Then do some simple goal-setting and teach skills for engagement. Develop some non-negotiables and some collective agreements with your child, such as behavior, organization and homework.

If goal setting comes across as too formal, try discussing school over a meal or at play. Pick a time or activity where your child is most talkative and ask about school. Share how schooling has changed over the years since you were in school. The more funny the story, the more they may be interested in the conversation. Topics such as attendance, grades and participation must be a staple in goal setting. You should also include self-management, making friends (and enemies) and conflict resolution.

Set health boundaries: Managing general health and well-being has a major impact on one’s ability to cope with stress. Eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise contributes to efficient cognitive functioning. The popular cliché “you are what you eat” will always ring true. A balance of healthy foods and regular hours for eating, activity and rest should be incorporated into a daily routine. If a child can articulate the routine at home, then adjusting to school routines is not a stretch.

Journaling: You do not have to be a Pulitzer-Prize winner to write your thoughts down. You could even draw a picture. Purchase bound or spiral journals for writing or drawing. (Bound notebooks reduce the amount of loose paper to be picked up around the house.) Encourage your child to express their feelings and have a little fun at the same time. It can be astonishing and eye opening to see what a child will express through writing or drawing. This can also inform your insight on a child’s thinking process. You can pick topics together or let them choose. For more independent children, you may need to set some ground rules for journaling and sharing. If your child feels safe and comfortable sharing, make time to talk about their entries together.

Bullying: Think about this: If you were bullied at school before the pandemic closure, then returning to in-person instruction will be frightening. So, be proactive. Every school and district has a published anti-bullying policy. Are you familiar with it? Is your child familiar with it? Everyone on campus has a right to a safe environment free of bullying, staff included. Review the school’s policy, responses and your expectations about bullying and other anti-social behavior. Beyond the policy, research the campus climate about bullying among the staff and other families. You want to know how the school responds to bullying and communicate the policy with your child. If bullying is a concern, hopefully your child has had an opportunity to learn and build confidence and skills to navigate school free of bullying. Make sure your child knows where the on-campus resources are and who can assist in this matter.

Grades: Regardless of your child’s academic success, thinking about the new teacher or school and grading can be distressing for them. Feelings of inadequacy and not being able to measure up to the new school or teacher may be traumatic. This could lead to self-sabotage and behavior problems. In 17 months of school closure, your child may have transitioned from elementary to middle school, or middle to high school. Take time to discuss the differences in schools and systems. Explain the differences between elementary and secondary grading. Use a calendar to agree on check-in times with them between grade reporting periods, and follow up with their progress before grades are issued.

After reading this article, you probably have a list of 20 more topics that could be addressed. All of them are worthy of addressing. As you assess where your child stands on returning to school, remember to acknowledge and validate how they feel. Their fear is real. Your job is to help them better distinguish between realistic and unrealistic fears and how to cope with change. Eventually, you will have created an atmosphere of openness where feelings, thoughts and attitudes can be discussed. Your child will better understand the role they play in effecting change in themselves and at school to make it a meaningful experience. •

Dr. Sean Gaston is a licensed resource parent and a high school principal. He earned a doctorate of education in educational leadership in 2013 from Azusa Pacific University. He has begun to integrate best practices learned in the foster care system with teaching practices to help teachers understand and meet the needs of an increasing foster care population in schools.

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