Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Transitioning Back to School

Just prior to returning to school after the holiday break, I sent the usual "Welcome Back from the Principal" email to our staff. I shared a few stories from my own vacation, highlighted a few upcoming conferences that various staff members would be attending, and included a few jokes of expected student comments now that we're nearing the end of the first semester. Nestled at the end of the email, I included a quick reminder of how challenging our lengthy away-from-school breaks can be for some of our more fragile students. 

As a former opportunity teacher, I was challenged daily with balancing the emotional needs of my students as I supported them academically through their studies. We spent significant efforts on providing structure, care, and guidance for our students during their school days. Very often, after a three day week, my students would return a bit emotionally fractured from spending an extra day at home. A week off during Spring break could throw some of our more adjusted students into a complete tailspin. Worse, the two week absence over the Winter break would often prompt a complete rebuilding of our students' emotional safety and willingness to participate in our class. 

Having experienced these challenges as a classroom teacher, I always try to remind our staff about leading with their heart during these first few days back. We don't know how their Winter break truly was and how it will affect them during their return to school. I've seen a challenging two week layoff from school manifest itself in three distinct ways among our more fragile students.

Student 1: Humpty Dumpty

A few of our emotionally at-risk students returned from the holiday break barely able to make it through the school day. Our school counselor and mental health therapist have seen many of these students and have begun to put these students back together again. Many of these students have an unstable home situation and struggle with the lack of structure during this time. As they return to school, they immediately act out and hopefully seek out support from their peers and trusted adults. This rehabilitation process can take days, sometimes weeks, to get the student back into a space where they're able to focus on their academic growth. These students need the support of their entire village to return to their previous standing as an engaged learner at your school.

Student 2: Everything's Fine

We also see a few students return with the repeated mantra of "everything's fine" when asked about their holiday break and how they're feeling being back at school. Truthfully, it couldn't be further from the truth. Everything isn't fine. They're either slowly building up their walls of distrust and refusal to discuss what truly happened during their time away from school. Again, our school counselor and mental health therapist spend many of their days with these students, connecting and chipping away at these very real emotional concerns. 

Student 3: Back to the Routine

And for most of our students, the time away from school was truly okay. While they may not have had the holiday vacation they expected or wanted to have, they're excited to return to their daily school routines, to spend time with their peers, and catch up with their adult mentors. These students actually look forward to the end of their break so as to return to the structure school provides. Perhaps they miss spending time in the game room, playing wall ball at lunch, or just generally miss the support of their peers, these students have built sufficient inner emotional strength to look forward to the routine of school and not let the changes of their days negatively affect them. Fortunately, after a few years spent at our school, many of our at-risk students return from their school breaks in this specific category.

As a site administrator, my role to to support both our students and staff with the transition back to school. Similar to the students, staff members sometimes struggle with the return to school after the holiday break. One staff member mentioned just how difficult it was to leave their young child after spending every waking moment with them for the past two weeks. I try to keep a relatively clear calendar on the days following a lengthy break, so as to have the necessary time to meet with students and reconnect with staff. These are the days an administrator needs to be especially present for your staff and students. 

If you're a classroom teacher, in what ways can you best support your at-risk students during their return from lengthy breaks?

If you're a site administrator, how can you best support your students and staff during these first few days back from break?

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