-- Contributed by Nadja N. Reilly, Ph.D., Associate Director of the Freedman Center for Child and Family Development at William James College and the author of Anxiety and Depression in the Classroom: A Teacher's Guide to Fostering Self-Regulation in Young Students - Newton, MA
Back to school is a time of significant transition and growth – new classes, subjects, and learning opportunities abound and the question on everyone’s mind is how to best prepare to succeed during this new academic year. There are many structural supports that will help students academically – use of technology, experiential learning, and rich, well-developed lessons. There is one support that trumps all academic structure, however, and one which may have the largest impact on a student’s successful back to school transition: relationships. As students begin a new academic year, they are also undergoing developmental changes related to their social and emotional well-being. They need to rely on supportive relationships that can facilitate their academic and developmental growth.
So how can we facilitate learning and growth in both areas?
1. Active listening. Students of all ages, despite their familiarity with a school setting, will have some questions about what their next grade will be like. Mixed emotions are expected. Instead of reassuring only the positive, such as “don’t worry, everything will be ok,” take time to listen to the range of different emotions a child may have related to returning to school. Listening and reflecting back what you hear can be more powerful than trying to dismiss worries or offer problem solving without allowing the child an opportunity to express and share all emotions related to this transition.
2. Preparation beyond school supplies. Ask the child what he/she may need to feel better about starting the school year more confidently. For example, would walking through the school before the year begins be helpful? Would planning on carpooling with a good friend the first week feel more reassuring?
3. Allowing time for building relationships. Initial time spent on relationship building in the classroom can have significant positive long term effects on student outcomes. Teacher-student relationships play a critical role in children’s school achievement. Research indicates that children with higher quality teacher-student relationships demonstrate higher levels of achievement and cognitive skills in elementary school than those children with lower quality teacher-student relationships (Immordino-Yang & Damasio, 2007; O’Connor & McCartney, 2007). Additionally, children who report strong relationships with their teachers are more engaged in school and participate more in the classroom and school community.
4. Allowing time for assessing the child’s social emotional skills. A natural consequence of taking the time to build relationships with students is that teachers will be able to assess the social emotional aspects of the child and which skills may need additional support. Important areas to assess include:
- Is the child demonstrating age appropriate emotion regulation skills? Self -regulation is inextricably tied to academic success. Therefore, if a child needs academic support, inclusion of self-regulation skills will be a necessary component of his/her plan.
- Does the student demonstrate self-awareness? Students who are more aware of how their words and actions impact their mood and relationships have stronger social emotional skills.
- Does the student demonstrate resilience? Resilience refers to the ability to bounce back from adversity. Resilience does not mean that a child will never experience a negative emotion or difficulty. Instead, it means that when a child experiences a negative emotion or difficulty, she is able to use coping skills to help her manage her feelings, learn from the situation, and resume functioning.
- Does the student demonstrate flexibility? Flexibility as the ability to find alternative ways to examine a situation and/or develop different possible solutions. If Plan A does not work, does the student have a Plan B, or even Plan C, or will she get stuck and fall apart if Plan A does not happen exactly as expected? Students who demonstrate greater flexibility are able to better regulate emotions and to find appropriate coping skills for different situations.
- Does the student demonstrate a growth or a fixed mindset? Carol Dweck (2006) defines mindset as “the view that you adopt for yourself” (p. 6). She identifies two types of mindset: growth mindset is the belief that your basic qualities are things that you can cultivate through your efforts, while the fixed mindset is the belief that your qualities are carved in stone (p. 6). When a student approaches learning from a fixed mindset, she focuses on proving her intelligence or skills, is afraid of seeming incompetent, and does not take risks for fear of failing. In contrast, when a student approaches learning from a growth mindset, he is fueled by the challenge of something difficult and views that as an opportunity to achieve a goal. He is not afraid of mistakes, and sees how external circumstances may play a role in unexpected outcomes. A fixed mindset may lead a student to be more vulnerable to anxiety and helplessness, whereas a growth mindset may lead a student to be more flexible and hopeful.
5. Allowing time for consistent practice to build social emotional skills. Both parents and teachers can offer opportunities for children to develop social emotional skills. These opportunities do not need to take extensive amounts of time, yet the consistent interest and intent behind each opportunity gives the child a very clear message of its importance.
- Share direct and indirect messages that emotions matter and that emotional well-being is as important as academic success - how success is described at home and the classroom is critical. Success should not be outcome driven only (e.g., “did you get an A?”) but process oriented (e.g., “I’m really proud of how much time and effort you’re putting into your assignment.”)
- Allow daily opportunities to develop an emotional vocabulary – this may include non-verbal ways of expressing emotions – allow drawing, music, or movement as alternatives
- Educate students about what factors impact their mood – when discussing how to best study, include learning about healthy sleeping, exercising, and taking care of mood
- Set the stage for mindfulness – even 2 minutes of deep breathing as a transition between classes can help students take a moment to shift more mindfully and intentionally, bringing their attention more fully to the task at hand
Finally, make sure this intentional attention to social emotional well-being is not limited to the first week back at school. Building these skills daily will significantly, and positively impact students’ academic and emotional success.