“Back-to-school” can be a mixed bag of emotions: from enthusiasm for new learning and opportunities to gloom at saying goodbye to long, lazy summer days. For some students, the start of a new academic year can be especially fraught, bringing up feelings of anxiety and fear of the unknown. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a widespread decrease in public school enrollment last year, and this fall may be especially nerve-wracking as restrictions in physical distancing and masking ease.
As you set your agenda for 2021-2022, remember to prioritize the mental health of your community. Now, more than ever, schools and districts can be hubs for community wellness. Here are some tips on leading your staff, families, and students to a confident, exciting approach to this school year.
Be candid and proactive.
The relative isolation of the last three academic terms means many students have been disconnected from their usual communities and support network, even if their schools mostly remained open. Some, especially children who rely on school for most of their social engagement, may feel alone with their struggle. Let your students, their families, and your staff know they have your support before they even have to reach out. Reassure them that they’re not alone.
Specifically, be upfront about the fact that anxiety is a normal, expected response to a new school year in the best of times, and even more so after a long period of uncertainty. Make self-care and mental wellness a normal part of your vocabulary when engaging with all of your community, not just those in crisis. Remind everyone they have resources through the school district and their communities, and that there’s no shame in seeking that support.
Frequent, two-way communication.
People around the world are dealing with profound loss, and members of your community may have been hit especially hard. Of course you must provide district and school news to all families, but it’s also important for your team to invite communication.
Platforms like Remind can help you reach out to families in advance of classes starting and provide them an easy way to reach school leaders and teachers. Ask your teachers, counselors, and social workers to reach out to parents to get a sense of how their children are coping or if they experienced any major challenges last year. Prepare your team to offer extra emotional support, be it for grief or anxiety, to those who need it.
Before the school year begins, make information readily available for your district staff and families. Ease any specific “what-if” anxieties with clear information about the health and safety procedures you have in place to protect students and staff from exposure to COVID-19, and keep them updated as the situation evolves. Let them know who to contact to answer questions. Consider creating a Google Drive folder of these resources, share them via Remind, and provide printouts on the first day.
This outreach is another opportunity to be proactive about mental wellness. Share articles about back-to-school anxiety, like these from the New York Times, the Child Mind Institute, and Cedars-Sinai hospitals.
Seek expert help.
While many with uncertainty about back-to-school can manage with extra attention and simple interventions, sometimes more is needed. If anyone seems to need specific individual support, don’t hesitate to turn to experts. Talk to your school psychologists, nurses, and social workers about maintaining lists of mental health professionals they can recommend. If a specific class, team, or school is facing a specific challenge, providing expert workshops and curricula can make a big difference.
The coming academic year shouldn’t be a source of dread. Don’t let anxiety define this back-to-school experience for your students, their families, and their school systems. More than ever, schools need to feel like safe, exciting havens of learning and activity. These tips are a start, but continue to invest in mental wellness to lead your students to success.
Learn more about supporting your district to take a proactive approach to connecting with families all school year with Remind here.