After a Stay-At-Home school year, help kids get back on track this fall

Kids may need extra help heading back to the classroom this fall.

The 2020-2021 school year was unlike any other. Millions of students spent part — or most — of the year learning remotely. After months physically away from teachers, classmates and a traditional school day structure, some kids may feel a little out of practice when it comes to tackling the start of a “normal” school year this fall.

Here are some practical tips from educators, administrators and counselors to help students get the school year started off right:

1. Know it’s OK to ask for help.

Encourage your child to ask teachers and other school staff for assistance, whether the issue is simple — like the location of the nearest restroom — or more in-depth, like needing extra help with a school subject or mental health support. This is particularly important for students starting at a different school because simply navigating a new building can feel intimidating. “We want students to know it’s OK to not be OK. It’s OK to ask for help,” says Michelle Sandoval Villegas, a math teacher at Parkland Pre-Engineering Middle School in El Paso, Texas. “We want to reassure students that they’re in a safe haven at school, which is something that’s been lacking for so many students during the pandemic.”

2. Set small, manageable goals

If your student feels anxious about diving back into in-person learning and all it entails — navigating physical class changes, keeping papers organized, interacting with peers — then setting specific, manageable goals for the first days back may help. “Coming back can be a lot for a student, especially if they’ve been out for a year and a half, like some kids,” says Cody Strahan, a robotics teacher at Ramay Junior High School in Fayetteville, Ark. To ease the transition, create micro-goals for the first few days back. Encourage your child to first locate classrooms and learn teacher names and class routines, then prioritize reconnecting with friends, Strahan advises.

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3. Create a morning checklist. 

Let’s face it: Heading to in-person school does require remembering to pack a lot of things, particularly if your kids are doing after-school programs or sports. If your children are feeling rusty about the early morning rush out the door, make a daily backpack checklist using a whiteboard or sticky notes, so they won’t forget any essentials. This system has worked well for Twainna Calhoun, principal of Good Hope Middle School in West Monroe, La., and her fifth grade twins, who use it to double-check that they have grabbed their lunches, classwork and other important items — and that they’ve charged and packed their Chromebooks —  before they leave for school each day.  

4. Do your research. 

In areas of the country where group tours for incoming students aren’t yet possible, schools are finding creative, virtual ways to welcome new students, including YouTube instructional videos, online PowerPoint demonstrations, Zoom chats with counselors, social media posts and more. “We’ve done lots of interactive videos for our incoming sixth graders — from how car drop-off works and what type of bookbag to bring to how to pick up your lunch in the cafeteria,” Calhoun says. Help your child learn the ins and outs of a new school before arriving on campus. Knowing what to expect can help cut down on first-day anxiety.

Experts recommend kids attend orientation events and get involved with school activities.

5. Read emails.

It may feel old-school, since most teens prefer to communicate via apps and texts. But as far as school communications go, email is where it’s at. Make sure your kids’ school-provided email accounts are active and that they monitor them regularly, particularly in the weeks leading up to the start of school. They should look for updates from the guidance counselor, principal and classroom teachers, in particular. 

6. Be present and participate. 

If your children are worried they may have fallen behind after months without in-person learning, encourage them to prioritize being active and engaged in class this year. Excellent attendance is key to closing learning gaps, show up every day committed to giving your  best effort, building relationships and having a curious mindset.

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