How to help students go back to school

The following column appeared in a number of APG of East Central Mn newspapers during late August, 2020, including the ABC Newspapers (Anoka/Blaine/Coon Rapids)

How to help students go back to school

This is a first. For 66 years, I’ve approached “back to school” as a student, parent, grandparent and educator. Like most readers, I’ve felt excitement and fear. But nothing like this. None of us in this country have ever faced anything like COVID-19. So for several weeks, I’ve talked with various authorities and read hundreds of pages of articles, books and documents, seeking advice. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

The first is to acknowledge challenges that we’re all feeling this fall. Child psychologist and former UCLA faculty member Dr. Kerby Alvy recently wrote: “Being a parent can be one of the greatest experiences of one’s life. But it’s a demanding job to begin with. During the pandemic it’s even more stressful.”

Second, I’d suggest downloading the free online book “Helping Our Kids Go Back to School Well,”. It’s written by educators and psychologists with a combined more than 275 years’ experience working with youth and families. The book has many wise, helpful insights and suggestions. They include promoting attitudes of compassion, calm, confidence and curiosity.

They encourage families to begin with a neutral sharing of facts about school this fall, whether it will be online, in a school building or a mixture. They suggest asking youngsters to share what they think this will be like. This should include what will they wear on the first day of school (and then making sure that’s what they wear). This helps youngsters develop a sense that there are some things they can control. They write: “This will help them build their calmness, confidence and curiosity.”

They also suggest asking youngsters questions such as “What are you looking forward to? What are you scared about?” They also describe some of the things they’ve done as parents that they found helpful. That includes contacting their youngsters’ schools, which responded with a very helpful list of specific things that will happen as part of going “back to school.”

The book’s second chapter offers advice about addressing fears youngsters may have. After acknowledging that “fear is OK,” the authors encourage families to help think about a time they were afraid of something and how they worked through this. This approach recognizes fear and helps young people learn to move ahead.

The book is full of real life examples that families will recognize and learn from.

Clearly, many of the authors are honest, insightful, practical parents, as well as professionals.

A second suggestion is to find ways to help ourselves and our youngsters understand how people quite different from us are experiencing change this fall. I’ve previously suggested asking if your school, community group or religious institution would consider creating an online exchange with a comparable organization elsewhere in Minnesota. If you’re interested, please let me know. I can help connect folks.

Another way to do this is to read, possibly with teenagers, all or part of a remarkable essay by Carvell Wallace. He’s an author, podcaster and African American based in Oakland, California. Wallace shares some experience that I think every parent understands: “To be asked for life advice in one moment, and to be told you are a bad parent and have ruined your child’s life the next — this is what parenting is.”

He also explains: “It is incredibly sad to admit to your children that you’ve been seeing videos of black men being killed since you were their age and that you haven’t been able to stop it. Why should they listen to us? Look at what we let happen.” Wallace’s funny, sad, powerful essay is online.

Cynthia Kenyon, epidemiologist supervisor at the Minnesota Department of Health, has these requests for youngsters preparing to attend on-site higher education: “Students should start a mini-stay-at-home order at least two-weeks prior to coming to campus. They should reduce the number of individuals they hang out with to just their immediate household. If they do spend time with others, they should make sure it is outside, limit it to only a couple of people, and keep a 6-foot distance between themselves and others, and mask especially if they can’t social distance. They should not be visiting bars, going to social gatherings, or any other situation that would put them at risk of contracting COVID-19.”

Finally, the CDC has suggestions for families, “Beyond School Supplies: Back to School Reminders & Readiness,” posted here. There are separate sections for helping young children and teens as well as advice for students with special needs. The CDC is specific and practical in its offerings for families and professionals.

Hopefully these resources will help reduce family stress and increase students’ success.

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. He has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, and PTA president. Reactions welcome: