Back to School Blues

*due to the myriad of family, caregiver, and support roles that young people have in their lives, I use the terms “student”, “young person”, and “child” interchangeably in this article. You are welcome to stick with the word that is most meaningful to you* 

By now, the vast majority of American students are back to school. This is likely a welcome return to “normalcy” although there are still partial disruptions and covid-related protocols in place to ensure the safety our young people. For students, this has likely been an exciting start to the school year, coupled with some anxiety and a wide range of feelings. As a parent, teacher, or other supportive person in a students’ life, you may have observed one or more of the following over the past few weeks: 

Excitement: “YAY! Back to school! I am so happy to be back in person with all of my friends and teachers.” 

Frustration: “How do I do this? This (subject, skill) used to be easy for me! Why am I struggling?” 

Exhaustion: “Can’t I just stay home today? Last year I stayed home all year and I did fine!” 

Overwhelmed: “There’s too much to do between school, homework, and after school activities.”

Social Anxiety: “I forgot how to socialize! I haven’t been with my friends in so long! It’s hard to be in school all day.”

“I wish I could just do school remotely (or hybrid)!” 

Students have not experienced traditional classroom learning in 18 months. For many students, this may be a significant portion of their academic careers. For all young people, routines become habitual and the process of substituting an old routine (remote or hybrid learning) for a new one can be uncomfortable. Students became accustomed to different sleep and wake schedules, and frequent breaks throughout the day. The concept of being in school and away from home all day can be daunting and lead to an increase in student anxiety.

Academic & Executive Functioning Setbacks

Additionally, learning in a classroom environment requires significantly more attention and stamina than remote learning. For the past year and a half, students had an unprecedented level of autonomy throughout their school day. For better and for worse, students weren’t as exposed to their classmates and thus much of the typical non-academic skills that are learned at school lapsed. Now that our young people are back in the traditional school setting, there are dynamics and nuances that they will be exposed to and need to navigate. Students can now compare progress to classmates more easily: this may be a source of pride or frustration depending on the student. Students’ executive functioning or “study skills” likely deteriorated over the pandemic due to lack of reinforcement in the school environment. 

Executive functioning skills are strategies that help students with task initiation, time management, organization, planning & prioritizing, cognitive flexibility, impulse control, emotion regulation & working memory. This may show up as difficulty finding the books or resources they need to complete assignments, a messy backpack, forgetting their homework or lunch, challenges in the classroom with sustaining attention and appropriate behavior, and/or poor time management. Skills that may not have been difficult for students pre-pandemic may now be more of a challenge as a result of the academic disruption. Set aside time to review these skills with your student, or seek out support from an executive functioning coach. 

Implementing routines (bonus points if they’re written out in a place your student can easily access!) is always a key to success, however it is essential during this transitional time. Routines help convey expectations and serve as a way for young people to build their intrinsic motivation while simultaneously receiving positive reinforcement from their parents. Tasks such as waking up, brushing teeth, having breakfast and packing the backpack before school can seem mundane, however if incorporated into a morning routine checklist, completing these activities can set students up to feel successful before they even leave the house! 

Managing Social Anxiety

Some students will be overjoyed to be back in school with their friends and teachers, and some students will feel anxious or overwhelmed with the social expectations that the school day requires. On the whole, students have not had to be “on” socially for 8+ hours in a long time. For all young people, and especially those who are more introverted, this can feel daunting. Expect conflicts and “incidents” to come up, as they are normal and typically resolve by the end of the school day. If there seems to be a situation that lingers longer than one or two days, inquire with your student, their teacher, or other school support staff. A proactive approach shows your student that you care, and models how to seek help in an appropriate way. 

Normalize your students’ experience – encourage them to ask for a break when they need one and show empathy towards the changes they are going through. Phrases such as, “it must be a big change to be surrounded by other kids all day long” and “how do you manage when you’re feeling overwhelmed or tired at school?” demonstrate genuine interest and concern for your child’s overall wellbeing. Facilitating dialogue around these topics will foster a relationship full of open communication between you and your student.

Opening the Dialogue

Maintaining fluid communication is perhaps the most critical tool parents and caregivers can utilize. This skill can be used in across all ages and stages of life and how you set the tone can determine the type of relationship you have with your children. Model sharing experiences with your children to give them an idea of how to express themselves in a genuine and respectful way. For example, sharing about how the transitions during covid have affected you will help your child feel comfortable to share their perspective with you in return. Validating their emotions and experience demonstrates that it’s okay to have and share uncomfortable feelings with trusted loved ones. Helping young people feel empowered by sharing ideas while maintaining realistic expectations signals to them that we can be both optimistic and practical. 

If you are noticing that your child is rather closed off to communication, especially regarding sensitive topics, don’t force it! It can be tempting to ask questions until you get a response, however this effort will likely not encourage your child to be forthcoming in the future. I recommend a strategy routed in Motivational Interviewing called “Roll with the Resistance”. Resistance occurs when we expect or push for conversation the child/student isn’t ready for. When you notice your student is resisting communication with you, try one of these phrases: 

“I’m here if and when you want to talk about it more” 

“I understand that I may never understand what it’s like for you”

“Talking about this with me is your choice”

Reminding the young person that they are in control of what, when, and how they share their experiences with you inadvertently invites them to do so when they feel ready. The most significant information will come from a willing participant, and rolling with their resistance helps to break down the barriers that young people build up when they don’t feel ready to talk.

Communicating Constructively

Once you find yourself and your child in a dialogue, at times, it can be difficult to know what to say. Young people in today’s culture face obstacles that are unique to the digital world we live in, and you may feel that your life experiences have not prepared you to respond to some of the challenges that your child is faced with. You can’t go wrong with an open reflection; simply rephrasing or reflecting what you hear your student saying can help them to hear how they are feeling from a different voice. Some examples of reflective responses are included below: 

Reflect the statement: “You don’t like this idea”, “It seems like the teacher is being unfair”

Reflect ambivalence: “On the one hand you ____ and on the other you ___”

Acknowledge the resistance: “We seem to be arguing”, “I’ve gotten us off track here”

The key here is not to position yourself as the expert, but rather a sympathetic ear to listen to the grievances of your student. Oftentimes, young people aren’t looking for a response or answer to their problems, they simply want to be heard out and felt understood. Providing this kind of support shows your student that you can be there for them on their terms, and will encourage them to seek you out when they want to talk about something in the future. 

If you would like to talk to a professional about how to maximize your effectiveness when talking with your student, contact us to set up a call. We are passionate about helping foster meaningful relationships between young people and their caregivers, and would love to assist you in any way that we can.