The Big Pivot: Preparing Your Community for an Unusual Back-to-School Transition

August 14, 2020 Sharon Saline

This has certainly been the strangest of times. The combination of changes wrought by COVID-19 and socio-political protests have disrupted life for students, families, and school communities across the world. Canceled summer programs, internships, jobs, and vacations intensified everybody's disappointment, frustration, and worry. It's tough to think about next week, let alone the beginning of the next academic year. 

Nevertheless, schools are reopening for the fall semester, and some are opting for a hybrid learning model. School retention is tied to your student outcomes and engagement. Each community must adapt to these changes in its own unique way, and as educators and administrators reimagining education in this new COVID environment, you'll need to address the social and emotional factors of these shifts with your students and their parents to give them a level of comfort to return to your school and be able to trust that their safety is your top priority. By focusing on three aspects of excellence — Expectations, Engagement, Encouragement — you can assist your students, their families, and your faculty in making a successful transition to whatever adjustments autumn brings while instilling confidence that your school has their best interests in mind. 

Before we address what our future might hold, we need to first understand the emotional toll the spring pivot placed on our students. As educators across the country scrambled to re-create learning options and shift to online classrooms, students faced significant adjustments and losses of daily routines that kept them on track and organized; extracurricular activities that brought them joy, self-confidence, and fitness; and regular social interactions with peers and caring adults. Instead of nurturing their growing autonomy, they were stuck with online learning and constant parental supervision. Marco, 15, missed his friends and was fed up with the isolation: "I'm over this. It wears on you. I'd rather go back to school in one of those suits than keep doing this." For kids who are alternative learners — those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorders (ASD), and learning disabilities (LD) — their parents became their teachers, tutors, and school counselors. Marla, age 13 with ADHD, really disliked online school and struggled with distractedness: "Staring at a screen so long and listening to someone talk hurts my head. I'll just look out my window until it's over."

With little to no control over what was happening in their lives, teens felt angry, discouraged, and lonely. While worried about how the coronavirus would affect their families and how to keep up with schoolwork, teens also struggled with having a dedicated place to study and trying to stay connected to each other while being apart.1 Screen time, although necessary for learning, became a source of intense family conflict as teens used social media, gaming, and texting to initiate and/or maintain contact with friends or to relax. Adolescents complained about Zoom fatigue for school or work but seemed to have enough energy for online fun stuff. Academic motivation fluctuated as many schools switched their grading policies to pass/fail options. Tensions ran high for families across the board, arguments increased, and cooperation seemed to decrease.2 For many, summer, at least the end of classes, couldn't arrive fast enough. 

Now, it's time to pivot again, and the social and emotional aspects of the "new normal" model will be significant in retaining and preparing families for a successful year, as well as supporting staff as they navigate new processes and protocols. Many are feeling anxious — worried about safety measures, juggling various responsibilities, and understanding their roles in the COVID learning landscape — and they need clear, specific directions; increased compassion; and consistency about what to expect, how to participate, what's good enough, and how to stay positive. 

Establish Clear Expectations

As a community that fosters academic, social, and emotional development for adolescents, clarifying and explaining your school's expectations is paramount. This means redefining education for your faculty and your community at large in terms of delivery of services and accessibility of resources. Kids who are alternative learners will likely need extra support in all areas as well. Ask yourselves these questions, among others:

  • What are the revised educational goals we now have for students and their families?
  • How much do we want parents to be involved in their teen's daily learning experience?
  • How are we planning to address mental health issues related to increased anxiety, depression, isolation, and lethargy?
  • How will we deal with motivational issues such as sluggishness, perfectionism, or avoidance?

The more transparency there is about expectations, the better off your students and their parents will be. Teens benefit from knowing what's being asked of them and what's coming next so they can gauge their decisions and behavior accordingly. Parents want to grasp what their new roles are and how they can best help their kids. Luanne, mother of two teens, said: "I've been balancing being a mom, a teacher, and a referee. That can't continue in the fall. I need more help from the school." Clear guidelines about academic coursework and the format of hybrid learning (if your school is doing this) reduces everybody's anxiety and prepares their expectations. Parents and kids need strategies and support for how to participate appropriately. Working together with families to start the year on the right foot models collaborative learning for students and shows parents that you are available for support. Initial conversations between students and their advisers (as well as parents) should cover typical topics related to the transition back to school, but they also should address the following issues: 

  • A routine for online classes: (if you are having them) and doing homework, including how long to study online before taking a break (90 minutes maximum and then your brain needs a break to integrate).
  • Inefficiency of media multitasking and how to avoid it: (different browsers for school and fun stuff, printing out some assignments to avoid switching between tabs).
  • Anxiety about weaker academic skills: due to the spring disruption (fear that they will be behind other students or at a disadvantage with colleges).
  • Worry about social dynamics: (concern about fitting in or being around peers after being isolated).
  • Clarify academic standards related to what's good enough: and review their performance in the spring (talk about what they hope for themselves and what you and their parents believe is possible for them). 
  • Identify appropriate supports: that the student might need for success and how to access them (after-school meetings with teachers, study groups, learning specialists, etc.).
  • The importance of a specific, quiet place to study: (preferably not in the bedroom with the door closed where parents can't monitor if they are actually working).

Improve Student Engagement

Preparation for learning this fall means assessing how your school accomplished learning this spring and the level of student participation you achieved in your classes. For hybrid education to be successful, there must be a balance of didactic and experiential instruction, opportunities for active participation, self-paced learning, and regular check-ins with teachers. This balance is especially important for alternative learners who may face challenges with distractibility, focus, reading, writing, or mathematics. Mateo, age 14, told me that his school's learning specialist checked in daily, which had a positive impact on him: "We meet every day at 12 and go over my assignments, any questions I have, and what my plan is. Sometimes I do my work while she's there or we do it together."

Many teens are motivated by gratification, and while this differs from person to person, interest stimulates their ability to get started on a task and stick with it until completion. When something is fundamentally unrewarding or uninteresting, they will struggle more with doing it unless the external reward of finishing is clear and meaningful. Paying attention to an online class is harder than attending one in person. The quality of our attention is different: we overfocus on a few available visual cues and can't read body language as well.3 Kids with ADHD, LD, or ASD also lack the valuable, in-person signals from peers about concentration, persistence, and group behavior. This means that online learning has to be engaging for it to be useful. Here are some tools to increase and sustain on-screen student participation:

  • Verbalize the transition to the start of class: Help students arrive in the class by welcoming them, reviewing the supplies they will need for class, and having a quick check-in. Maybe go around and ask them about what they ate for breakfast, a color that would describe how they are feeling, or what time they went to bed. Your connection with your students is especially important now. Get a quick read on how they are doing that day. If you sense that a student isn't doing well, take action. Teens are more fragile than they may seem right now. 
  • Keep Zoom interesting: Use polling, chats, and if it's appropriate, quick break-out rooms with specific tasks — anything you can do that combines listening with action. Diversify how students can give their responses. Teens may not raise their hands on Zoom even though they have something to say. Sometimes, it can be less awkward to write a comment and let you read it than for them to speak it. Give them a pause or two in your lecture to integrate what you've said. Then ask them to write down an important point and share it so you can see they are absorbing the material. Remember, paying attention on screens truly is fatiguing. 
  • Plan for home study times: Review and brainstorm how students will use their time when they are not physically in class. Define the learning goal of the day. Discuss their accountability for assignments, break down their plans for productivity, and go over their daily routines on those days. Shifting between in-person classes and virtual learning is as new for them as it is for you. But while some teens are flexible and shift from one setting to another easily, others cannot. It never hurts any teens to talk about organization and planning as a group, and it will really help those kids who struggle more with these executive functioning skills. 
  • Acknowledge effort: Kids may not reach their full potential or function at the level that they did before the coronavirus. In times of crisis or prolonged stress, they will regress both cognitively and emotionally. It's common to see them act younger than they are or resort to ineffective coping mechanisms. They may have lost confidence in some of their abilities and be worried about safety and certainty more than before. Listen with compassion, reflect back on what you hear, and work together on finding solutions. Validate their efforts academically and socially without putting too much pressure on the outcomes. Their participation in the process of learning is what's most important here. We want them to keep trying.

Make Time for Encouragement: Supporting Parents with Their Teens

While parental involvement in the new learning model for the fall is critical for its success, we simultaneously want to avoid over-involvement. Kids still need to be responsible for their education as much as possible. But many parents are overwhelmed with their own concerns about work, money, health, and safety in addition to feeding their kids, cleaning their homes, and managing sick or aging relatives. They are worn down. With so much on their plates, parents turn to the school community for assistance with their teens. They seek guidance about managing a variety of issues, including home-learning, screen overuse, back-talk, and social isolation. Chad, father of Aliyah, age 15, said: "You make it up as you go along and, even though it's the best you've got, you still feel like you're failing." As schools formulate their fall semesters, you need to consider how to assist parents to adapt to this changing environment. 

Most parents believe that they are helping kids get stuff done, while teens actually feel nagged and annoyed. Sometimes, parents say they will do one thing but don't follow through — they're too inconsistent or permissive. Families of teens are wrestling with how to negotiate social contact and supervision of school, work, or chores. They're getting into power struggles and arguments more than anyone wants. With the shift back to school amidst the threat of COVID contagion, we can expect that these challenges will persist into autumn and beyond. Practical, empathic recommendations are what's called for: parents need your encouragement that they're not failing and tools to help their families stay connected and reduce conflict. Recommend these steps:

  • Schedule weekly family meetings to check-in: Kids hate to feel nagged, and parents dislike feeling like "reminder machines." Alter this pattern by setting up weekly meetings to discuss important issues. This is a time for parents and kids to talk about what's going well, what could be different, and how to make those changes. These meetings are not opportunities for parents to lecture their teens. Instead, it's a chance to brainstorm ideas about challenges and work together for solutions. When decisions are made that include teens in the process, there's more buy-in and more success for any agreed-upon plan. Of course, parents have the final say, particularly about issues related to safety and health, but by incorporating something that matters to an adolescent, they feel included and valuable. It helps them feel empowered, which then motivates them to cooperate. 
  • Create and post a weekly schedule: Kids, especially those with learning challenges, benefit from visual cues. Routines nurture critical executive functioning skills like planning, organization, goal-directed persistence, and focus, and kids find them comforting. Routines also reduce anxiety and stress. But parents and kids have to work collaboratively to set up this routine. When adults force kids to do things their way, it never works. Instead, everybody reflects on their goals for each day or each week and sets up a schedule together. Include specific times for waking up and going to bed, doing homework, fun screen time, chores, and personal hygiene. Discuss the importance of sleep for the teen brain to consolidate new information. 
  • Use incentives to motivate, not threats: Adolescents naturally desire autonomy, but they still are dependent on their families for food, clothing, shelter, education, health, security, and love. We want to assist them in developing their independent living skills and cooperation with incentives. Incentives are not bribes: they motivate kids for unpleasant or unsatisfying tasks until internal reward systems mature in the late teens to early twenties. The goal is to link "have-to's" to "want-to's" and establish a system of earning privileges that makes sense to their brains, as well as to yours. Parents often forget that they not only hold the keys to the car (so to speak) but also the reins of technology, the purse strings, and social privileges. They need assistance figuring out how to create incentive-based plans that motivate instead of punishments, which don't teach any lasting skills. Of course, since teens will probably challenge or try to weasel out of any agreements at some point, parents will have to include noncooperation and acting out clauses into whatever agreement the family makes. 
  • Stay out of homework unless asked: Students need their homework to be their own, and sometimes this is difficult for parents. Many parents want to help their kids manifest their potential and believe that assisting them in doing their work or correcting it will aid their learning. More often than not, this negatively affects the parent-child relationship and doesn't achieve the desired goal. Plus, teachers can neither get a sense of what a student is actually producing nor see their challenges. Rather than intervene with the homework itself, encourage parents to set up a homework plan for success. This would include where to do the homework (if the student needs supervision, I recommend family work time at the kitchen table), when to study (set aside into realistic, timed periods), and how to get started (reduce the size of an assignment by breaking it down into smaller chunks). These tools address this issue of homework without interfering in the completion of the homework itself. If a teen asks for assistance, then a parent may try to work with them. But if things get testy, it's best to turn the academics over to the educators.
  • Focus more on the positive: Kids want and need more positivity. They soak up authentic praise for big and small accomplishments as well as their efforts along the way. Teens are equally interested in the process of learning as well as the outcome. Share the positive aspects of your students with their families. Share with parents some things their kids are doing well and encourage them to offer positive, specific feedback in the home as well. Emphasize that nurturing the parent-child relationship is ultimately much more important than arguing over how to edit a student's essay. When parents notice and acknowledge what's working, they counteract the negativity bias in their teen's brain and build self-confidence. 

Educating and raising adolescents requires vision, flexibility, and fortitude. This is certainly an unprecedented time. There's a lot to be worried about, and changes to school because of the coronavirus have been disconcerting to adults and adolescents alike. Parents depend on their school community for guidance in these changing times, and kids need clear, specific instructions for how to adapt their learning styles. By focusing on the three pillars of excellence — Expectations, Engagement, and Encouragement — you will reduce anxiety for kids and parents, clarify the path for effective education, and offer essential tools to assist families in this transition. What most parents want to know is that their kids will be alright: they'll mature into successful, independent adults who make good choices and have sound judgment. While schools can't predict the future amidst these major changes, they can reimagine what education looks like, support students and their parents to adjust to this new vision, and offer effective guidance to strengthen family connections. Working together as a community, you'll forge a stronger future. 

Footnotes

1.     Wronski, L. (2020). Common Sense Media: SurveyMonkey poll: Coronavirus and teenagers. SurveyMonkey

2.     Lee, S. J., & Ward, K. P. (2020). Stress and Parenting During the Coronavirus Pandemic. Parenting in Context Research Lab. 

3.     Hickman, S. (2020, April 6). Zoom Exhaustion Is Real. Here Are Six Ways to Find Balance and Stay Connected. Mindful. 

About the Author

Sharon Saline

Sharon Saline, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and author who specializes in working with kids, young adults, and families living with ADHD, learning disabilities, and mental health issues.

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