Stratford’s Chief Academic Officer Jeanne Huybrechts shares some thoughtful advice to help us navigate this unique back-to-school year with our children.

For nearly all school-age children in our country, school year 2020-21 was non-traditional, featuring many months of online learning and/or hybrid school schedules –perhaps ending with a few weeks of in-school programming last spring, but non-traditional, nonetheless. Even in schools that were largely open for learning last year, after-school and other socialization activities were curtailed or eliminated. Many children have not experienced the familiar routines and September-to-June predictability of “regular school” since March of 2020!

Children, particularly younger children, crave the comfort of predictable routines and struggle with transitions – especially any transition that takes them from a cherished activity to one that is perceived as less pleasurable.  (Don’t we all?)  All parents are familiar with power struggles and even temper tantrums that accompany leaving the playground to return home, suspending play to eat dinner (with a hand-washing side trip), the “bedtime” announcement, or the expressed anxiety around any trip to a doctor’s office.  Transitions from one activity to another are often tough – and the return to a full year of “normal” school after 18 months of something else, is likely to be an especially challenging one for many children.  They will adjust, of course – children are more adaptable than most adults – and within weeks, perhaps days, of their return to classrooms, children will settle into new, hopefully pleasurable, routines, while enjoying the company of old and new friends.  This too shall pass, but you can help your child navigate the transition to school-year routines simply by anticipating that there will be some resistance – and accompanying anxiety – and by taking a few preliminary steps to mitigate it.

Recognize which part(s) of the transition to school might be most challenging for your child, and then build a ramp, so to speak, to that activity with some late-summer interventions. For a child who is anxious about navigating social interactions, invite old school friends for play dates in August.  After eighteen months of some level of social distancing, rebuilding social skills – making new friends, navigating team dynamics, fitting in while standing out – may be among the hardest transitions for children and teenagers.  If your child’s school campus is open to visitors in August, consider spending some time there, even if only to walk the perimeter of the building or play on the playground.  If your child has resisted summer reading – not at all unusual – build toward that school-year activity with a scheduled daily reading hour throughout August.  Whenever possible, let your child choose the books, even if not what you might have selected, as the “routine building” part of this is paramount.  If you have the luxury of a neighborhood public library, consider going there for an occasional “reading hour.”  Librarians are famous for helping kids identify books that they will enjoy – and like all of us in the Education business, they are thrilled to be able to return to in-person interactions.

A few more thoughts:

Minimize morning drama. Build a new lifelong habit.

Especially in the early days of the school year, minimize morning drama. As we are still in the throes of a pandemic, most “return to campus” models will include health and safety protocols for children that will impact your morning routine. Under normal circumstances, morning prep for school can be hectic, even stressful, as children are coaxed through the routine of breakfast, grooming, and gathering school supplies.  Added to that are new routines, among them retrieving face masks, packing hand sanitizer, filling water bottles, possibly checking temperatures for fever, and locating and signing the latest set of school documents to be signed.

  • Getting ready for school may take more time this year, but it does not have to be more stressful.  Manage the added workload by getting as much done the night before. Begin asking your child to make/assemble their own lunch and/or clean their backpack, returning to it only what they need for the next day.
  • Create a staging area in the house where everything that needs to go to school the next morning – backpack, art project, umbrella, filled water bottle, permission slips, a clean face mask – is in a designated area, a table or room corner, ready to grab on the way out the door in the morning.
  • Create a bedtime ritual of populating the staging area in preparation for the next day.

“Maslow before Bloom”

One hears this expression a lot in education circles, as most teachers are quite familiar with the work of Benjamin Bloom and Abraham Maslow. Psychologist contemporaries, Bloom and Maslow developed frameworks to describe human understanding – but from different angles. Bloom’s taxonomy described learning goals, including knowledge, comprehension, and understanding. Maslow described a hierarchy of needs – physical and psychological –including safety, belonging, love and esteem. “Maslow before Bloom” implies that basic human needs need to be addressed before learning can occur. Children need to be fed, feel safe, cared for, and loved before they can advance through Bloom’s learning domains. They will only begin learning when they feel protected and loved – at home and in their classrooms.

As we embark upon this school year, “Maslow before Bloom” should be every teacher’s and parent’s mantra.  Whether children are returning to school buildings and friends they have not seen for eighteen months or only three, the first order of business should be building comfort and trust – partly in the form of predictable routines, and more so, through our overt expressions of support and affection for the children in our care. Trust-building should be a first-day priority and developed throughout the year.

  • Early in the school year, reach out to your child’s teacher and introduce yourself and your family. Share family stories, values, your child’s learning experience last year (Remote? Hybrid? Something else?), and your child’s feelings about the return to school.
  • Given that you were almost certainly your young child’s second teacher last school year, share what you learned about how he/she learns. What excited your child, what was motivating or challenging? Ask your child’s teacher how you can help reinforce social and emotional learning goals he/she is promoting in the classroom.
  • In the best schools, teachers and parents partner and reinforce each other, and that has never been more important than now. You and your child’s teacher can learn from each other, and that amplification of learning will benefit your child.