As a mother of four children, three of whom are school-aged, I can empathize with the roller coaster of emotions that caregivers and educators are feeling at this time of year. Not only are we faced with the whirlwind that is back-to-school season, but we are still in the peak of a pandemic, which continues to create quite a bit of anxiety in society as a whole. I am torn–on one hand, I am overjoyed that our kids are returning to school in person with their peers after 18 months of distance learning. On the other hand, however, I am terrified for several reasons. I am sure that we are all facing this to some degree. Will our children feel safe? Will our children have the tools that they need to re-engage with their peers? Will learners be able to focus in a classroom while thinking about protocols and risks? Well, we can only control what we can control, so here I will discuss how my family is processing all of these variables in the hope you will find some reprieve in your own journey.
Our kids need structure and routine in their lives, as most kids do. As parents, we are able to perform at our best when we follow a schedule ourselves. To achieve this level of stability, we have created a routine in our family that helps our children feel secure. They know what to expect and when to expect it so they have one less thing to worry about. The timing of their daily activities does not cause them stress or angst. In fact, it creates the direct opposite. Our schedule remains relatively the same every day. From the time that they wake up to the space where they complete their homework, each of our kiddos can breathe a little easier throughout the day. We have learned to create a visual schedule at the start of the school year and a checklist of sorts for their morning/night routine so that they also feel a sense of independence each day. This boost of confidence launches each of our children into feelings of success so that they can approach the day with a layer of bravado and confidence.
As challenging as it is, the importance of modeling positivity, growth mindsets and finding joy are, without a doubt, at the top of our priority list as parents. Children need to feel validated when they experience emotions, no doubt, and they need to see people who they trust counteract those big feelings with optimism. One day, their internal voice will replay the scene or conversation that you had with them when they felt this same way in the past. “What did Mama do when she felt disappointed?” “Mama always says that I am strong enough to handle this.” Whatever the situation, modeling your emotions and sparking a conversation during an organic moment (at the dinner table, while playing a family game, driving in the car, etc.) helps children feel like they are not alone and that what they are facing is expected, thus, relieving any unnecessary stress from the adversity itself (it is stressful enough, right?).
Oof, this one is probably the most difficult of them all. Striking a level of balance between work and play, serious and lighthearted, excitement and calmness take quite a bit of reflection and time. My partner and I have had many conversations about this element of our family (and personal) life. We want our children to grow up with appropriate expectations of themselves, to live life to the fullest, and to work towards their goals wholeheartedly. As caregivers and educators, we are the first ones to let go of our self-care because the nature of our roles in life are selfless. Without balance in our own lives, it is nearly impossible to establish balance in our children’s lives. Even if you only have ten minutes a day to yourself, you are then better equipped to handle challenges as they come your way and you are better able to model balance and positivity now when our children need it the most.
Yes, our children deserve an education and yes, our children need socialization. In order for them to maximize the time that they have in the classroom this year, they also deserve and need structure, tools, validation, and balance. This is your calling, your chance to reframe this back-to-school season as an opportunity to set your learners on the path to victory by providing these layers of support at home and beyond.
And they’re off! Most of our children have returned to the classroom after much anticipation and are now faced with socializing with (some new, some familiar) peers without much practice for the past 12 to 18 months. We thought it only right to provide you, caregivers and educators, with some quick tips and reminders as to how to reshape social skills, collaborative play, and social problem-solving in your learners after a potential hiatus!
Review: Social Emotional Learning
First, let’s review the five key SEL components of social-emotional learning that the majority of educational environments do a brilliant job of addressing all school year long.
Self Awareness–to consider your own thoughts and emotions, and understand how they impact others.
Self Management–the ability to regulate and control your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors.
Responsible Decision Making–to consider consequences, know capabilities and seek help as needed.
Relationship Skills–ability to make positive connections and sustain healthy relationships.
Social Awareness–ability to empathize, take perspective, understand the impact on others and act accordingly.
Even before the pandemic, SEL was a major focal point in classrooms nationwide. Learners require repetition and constant review, especially at the beginning of the school year, so it makes sense to start here, lay the foundation. Then, tap into the next resources as mediums to develop each of these skills in your learners.
Books as Activators
Stories and narratives are the perfect tools for modeling social norms as they are not only engaging, dynamic, and colorful, but they also take the pressure off of learners. This way, you can spark a discussion through these ideal conversation starters that, then, leads learners to reflect and to make connections. For learners who need more explicit, direct modeling in socialization, Carol Gray’s Social Stories are phenomenal tools for accomplishing this goal! By definition, “Social Stories are a social learning tool that supports the safe and meaningful exchange of information between parents, professionals, and people with autism of all ages.” Gray has created such brilliant, simplistic stories for learners (not solely for those on the Autism Spectrum) who benefit from step-by-step directions as to how to initiate conversation, ask for help, and so forth. Our learners who are feeling overwhelmed with socializing now or at any point, have books to guide them through these challenging situations.
Incorporating movement and acting adds an element of fun that some learners are more likely to retain and hold onto, so why not act it out? PBS Conflict Resolution includes a few engaging methods for role-playing a variety of social obstacles. Modeling a diversity of scenarios and responsible solutions to each problem will help children feel more equipped to handle obstacles on their own in the future. When learners, then, encounter a similar scenario that they have already acted out, they will be able to tap into their memory as a resource and feel more comfortable and, thus, confident to embrace the challenge as an opportunity to grow. When in doubt, we can always teach our kids to ask for help. Role-playing when, why, and how to seek support is of great benefit!
Play Dates are Back!
What is a playdate? Some of us are asking just that, it has been so long since some of our children have enjoyed time with their friends outside of school or while being socially distanced. Taking the proper safety precautions is still necessary, of course, but hosting playdates in a secure way allows you to facilitate and model social problem solving and collaboration. Be prepared for your children to feel a bit lost and unsure as to what to do since they have been without this level of social stimulation for quite some time. Inspire creativity, ignite imagination, orchestrate games – providing several options for engagement can ease kids into play and relieve some of the stress that they might feel having to generate ideas on their own. Check out USA Today’s article, “6 ways to create fun, healthy playdates for kids during the pandemic” for more guidance.
At the end of the day, children learn a lot about themselves through play and social interaction. As trusted adults in their lives, it is our responsibility to support them socially and by allowing them access to tools such as books, role-playing activities, and fun-filled playdates, we are setting them up for success socially and emotionally!
It’s that time of year again, back to school season, when we send our learners to a new classroom full of possibilities. For some, that means immediate feelings of excitement and intrigue, while others are full of worry and angst. There are steps that you, as caregivers, can take in order to help ease your child back into all that the school year will hold – most involve establishing structure and routine that they can depend on before and after school. Let’s dig into some simple steps that we can all take (this mom of four included!) to set our children and ourselves up for success all year long!
Schedule, Schedule, Schedule
We all know how hard it can be to remain consistent and loyal to a set schedule and completely understand that there are times when we must veer from the plan. That said, we strongly encourage you to create a visual schedule for your kiddos for the week as a whole as well as each individual day so that everyone in your family knows exactly what to expect. This sense of security relieves a bit of tension as your learners head into each day/week which means they are much more likely to embrace the school day. I have also found that having a morning routine checklist by the door helps build their feelings of independence, strengthens their Executive Functioning, and alleviates that anxiety you feel every morning as you rush out of the door. Hey, you could even post one for the afternoon/evening routine too, why not? Check out these sampleschedules and a morning routine checklist and feel free to make them your own!
Praise & Incentivize
Always (and I mean always) start with the positive, find something to praise your learner for prior to giving feedback or suggestions. Research substantiates this notion that children are more receptive to your insight when they feel heard and seen first. Give them a little boost of self-confidence and self-worth by pumping them up first so that they are more willing to follow through with some of the challenges that come their way academically or social-emotionally. Sometimes our learners also need a little physical encouragement such as a high five or a pat on the back (cue our blog on The Five Love Languages!). If all else fails, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a good ol’ fashion incentive system such as a sticker chart or the like. Earning a little extra screen time or tallies towards bigger rewards down the line can fuel some learners’ fire towards completing their homework and approaching each day with the mindset that they need to thrive!
Clear Space, Clear Mind
Clearing your learner’s homework space and creating a clutter-free nook can also clear their minds so that they can fully engage with the work that comes home each day. Visual noise is real, I speak from experience. Even if you or your learners are not aware of how disorganization is negatively affecting your ability to sustain attention, I promise it does to some extent. Establishing a reliable workspace, then mentoring your learner to maintain the organization provides them with the upper hand cognitively, so that they can spend their energy where it is needed – learning! For some inspiration, check out The Spruce’s list of ideas! Also, quick tip – your learner can help set up their desk with supplies that they might need each afternoon while doing their homework to further develop their planning and organizational skills. As an aside, please make sure that they have a folder strictly for carrying their homework back and forth from school, you’d be surprised how many times they don’t!
Communication is Key
Keeping open lines of communication with your learner and their teaching team can prevent surprises and, thus, unnecessary stress down the line. Helping your kiddo feel comfortable talking with you and their educators can create channels of trust and stability that allow them to seek support and guidance when they need it the most. By modeling how to speak with adults and their peers during casual, organic moments such as at the dinner table or driving in the car, you are putting your child on a positive path to lean into discomfort and secure their social-emotional health at the same time.
As expert Barbara Colorso believes, “Our children are counting on us to provide two things: consistency and structure. Children need parents who say what they mean, mean what they say, and do what they say they are going to do.” Whether it is a visual schedule, a colorful chart, or some fun desk organizers – every step you take to set your family up for success will not go unnoticed. Sometimes, all it takes is for you, the caregiver, to get excited about a new process or system, for the trickle-down effect to come alive!
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