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How To Wrangle Those End-of-Summer Butterflies In COVIDious Times

By Allan Shedlin

"Daddy of the School" and Founder, DADvocacy Consulting Group

PHOTO credit: Kakteen on Adobe Stock

During the time before COVID, at the end of a typical school year, a little caterpillar figuratively crawled into every student’s belly. The caterpillar spun a cocoon and rested there until late summer when it metamorphosed into a butterfly.


Almost at once, the butterfly’s antennae picked up signals that school would soon begin. The butterfly’s wings started fluttering, building to a crescendo the day before school started. When we think of our own youth, many of us may remember those “butterflies” in the pit of our own stomachs as the opening day of school approached.


PHOTO credit: mathisa on Adobe Stock

As parents, we want to help our children deal with their “first day of school jitters” with a minimum of angst. To do that, it’s useful for us to remember the anxiety we may have felt as kids. We can use the insights gained from our own experiences to talk with our kids about why it is perfectly normal to feel nervous and vulnerable at the beginning of a new school year. In fact, situations such as these can be useful parenting moments because kids are uniquely receptive and open to growth.


When we acknowledge our children's end-of-summer butterflies, we let them know that their feelings are legitimate. If we show them that we understand, our support goes a long way in helping them feel they can talk with us during times of stress.


This year, in the aftermath of a year unlike any other for school-age kids, their parents, and their teachers, it has been more like a small army of caterpillars figuratively crawled into students’ bellies, resulting in a kaleidoscope of butterflies. What I’ve recently seen labeled “reemergence anxiety,” is amplified by the various uncertainties extant regarding this new school year. The COVID variants are contributing to school variant anxieties. And these are compounded by the predictable anxieties the adults who are entrusted with students’ care are likely experiencing as well.

When we acknowledge our children's end-of-summer butterflies, we let them know that their feelings are legitimate. If we show them that we understand, our support goes a long way in helping them feel they can talk with us during times of stress.

As a long-time educator, parent, and grandparent with decades of firsthand experience in classrooms from graduate school up to nursery school, as well as years of experience as an administrator at various levels and founding executive director of the National Elementary School Center, I’m particularly mindful and concerned about the additional pressures that will be placed on teachers to make up for “lost time” and so-called “learning loss.” Teachers will need additional support this school year to be allowed to prioritize students’ social and emotional well-being and to consider “learning gains” in other, non-academic areas. I believe encouraging teachers to focus on those areas will enable students to be more available for growth in academic areas.


As a first-grader told me many years ago, “It’s hard to learn when you’re worried.”


Pre-opening school nervousness is directly influenced by a child's age, stage of development, school history, recent summer experiences; and this year, in particular, media exposure. To help diminish the jitters, it's useful to consider some of the contributing factors and important to acknowledge the additional pressures on teachers and parents:

  • Teachers: Concern about whether teachers will like them is probably the single greatest worry for kids. Students often feel that teachers arbitrarily decide on the first day who will be the “teacher’s pet." Remind your children that how the teacher responds to them is usually influenced by how they present themselves. Use this opportunity to discuss appropriate classroom behavior such as kindness, cooperation, completing assignments on time, and respectfulness.

  • Popularity and Friends: Kids worry a lot about whether they will be popular and have friends. This is a good opportunity for you to explore the qualities they value in a friend, and how one can tell who a real friend is. Also, help your child to consider the importance of having a few close friends rather than a large number of more superficial acquaintances.

  • School Work: Certain subject areas may raise particular concerns for your child. Students might worry, for example, about math, reading, science, physical education, or other subjects in which they have received poor grades or had difficulties with a particular teacher. Listen to your kids as they talk about their concerns. Together you may be able to sort out some of the reasons for their fears and develop some strategies for dealing with those fears.

  • Clothes and Supplies: Having the latest clothes and “correct” school supplies can be very important to children. As newspapers, television, and social media become increasingly laden with back-to-school advertisements, they create pressures to buy the "right" clothes and “correct” supplies. Before school opens is a good time to ask your kids what clothes and supplies are most important to them, so together you can figure out what is reasonable and practical to purchase.

  • Safety: Due to increased attention to safety around protections from contracting COVID-19 and the constantly changing guidelines and mandates around safety protocols, the ante has been raised on school worries. The wearing of masks is a constant reminder of these worries. All of us are more on-edge and fearful. Talk to your child about the difference between the fear that is generated by media attention versus the science and facts. Statistics indicate that when safety protocols are followed, schools are generally very safe places.

Teachers will need additional support this school year to be allowed to prioritize students’ social and emotional well-being and to consider “learning gains” in other, non-academic areas.

Some additional ways to help your kids get off to a good start for a new school year:

  • Remind them that end-of-summer butterflies are normal for everybody – even teachers!

  • Spend time with your child reviewing what contributed to last year's personal successes and failures. Use this review to develop strategies for the new school year. Point out that a new year is a great opportunity for a fresh start.

  • Ask your child to suggest specific ways in which you can be supportive and helpful.

  • Don’t make negative comments about school or teachers when your child is in earshot. It’s difficult for kids to give teachers and school a fair shake if they hear you say negative things even before school begins.

As end-of-summer “butterflies” become active in our kids’ stomachs, we might remind ourselves about how miraculous it is for a caterpillar to metamorphose into a butterfly – one that is eager to stretch its wings and explore new worlds.


PHOTO credit: Balazs Kovacs Images on Adobe Stock

 

Allan Shedlin has devoted his life’s work to improving the odds for children and families. He has three daughters, five grandchildren, and numerous "bonus" children and grandchildren. Trained as an educator, Allan has alternated between classroom service, policy development, and advising. After eight years as an elementary school principal, Allan founded and headed the National Elementary School Center for 10 years. In the 1980s, he began writing about education and parenting for major news outlets and education trade publications, as well as appearing on radio and TV. In 2008, he was honored as a "Living Treasure" by Mothering Magazine and founded REEL Fathers in Santa Fe, NM, where he now serves as president emeritus. In 2017, he founded the DADvocacy Consulting Group. In 2018, he launched the DADDY Wishes Fund and Daddy Appleseed Fund. In 2019 he co-created and began co-facilitating the Armor Down/Daddy Up! and Mommy Up! programs. He earned his elementary and high school diplomas from NYC’s Ethical Culture Schools, BA at Colgate University, MA at Columbia University’s Teachers College, and an ABD at Fordham University. But he considers his D-A-D the most important “degree” of all.