Back to School: Turbulent Transitions

After the summer, students have myriad emotions about going back to school. The kindergartener’s first day of school is tearful; the 9th grader entering high school is excited yet apprehensive; and the high school junior is overwhelmed by this year’s demands but energetic. The seemingly routine transition back to the classroom can be jarring. From exasperated mental health to academic delays, the back-to-school season offers a glimpse into the challenges facing students and teachers.

Mental Health

An earlier LAS article highlighted the mental health crisis students are contending with in the years following the pandemic.

Educators and professionals across disciplines remain cognizant of adolescent mental health realities, behaviors, and learning experiences. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC)  reports a staggering number of students are experiencing significant levels of depression and anxiety, with “nearly half of students feeling persistently sad or hopeless.” While this trend has been increasing over the last decade, the pandemic did push these statistics to the forefront of discussion.

With only half of American schools offering mental health assessments and even fewer providing access to treatment, there remains a gap in mental health support for students.

Academic Challenges

The residual reverberations of COVID-19 are palpable. While the country has moved forward and dropped restrictions, the pandemic’s aftermath in and outside the classroom is undeniable.

The Northwest Evaluation Association (NWEA), examined test scores from approximately 6.7 million students. The NWEA found that “at the end of the 2022–23 school year, across all grade levels, the average student will require the equivalent of 4.1 months of additional schooling to catch up to pre-COVID levels in reading and 4.5 months in math.”

Seventh graders in particular will require 5.9 additional months of math and reading to catch up to pre-pandemic trends. These disparities will widen if not promptly addressed and supported. The reality is, for many teachers, students are starting the school year needing more support than they have been in the past. Teachers recognize the need to adjust lesson plans and curriculums to account for the gaps in knowledge. School staff have all this on their radar and assess as they go, often confronting the enormity of the work to be done after the first MAP testing session in the fall.

In one school, the effects of the pandemic are starkly delineated by COVID. LeBron James’ “I Promise School” in Akron, Ohio had one unifying goal: providing education targeted towards at-risk youth. In 2018/2019, the school reported that “math and reading scores have jumped from the lowest percentile for both grades in reading to 9th and 16th for third-grade and fourth-grade students, respectively. Math, meanwhile, jumped from the lowest to 18th, while fourth graders moved from second-lowest to the 30th.”

This was great news from a fledgling program pledged to narrow the achievement gap.

However, in the years following the pandemic, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that no students in the original cohort have passed the math part of their state proficiency exam since the 2018/2019 school year. The program’s spokesperson explained that the program was in it for the long haul, stressing that progress takes time.

Test scores are not the only factor to consider and should not be. However, these scores offer comparable data points over time that capture a part of the complicated picture of student achievement. The ‘I Promise School’, and hundreds of others, are faced with the reality of how compromised achievement compounds over time. Students, falling behind in math or reading in the 4th grade, will start each subsequent year behind their peers. Ultimately, the pandemic only exasperated pre-existing socioeconomic and racial disparities

With the first day of school approaching, parents, caregivers, and teachers are assessing how to best support students’ transition back into the classroom. Whether it’s kindergarten, middle school, or high school, thoughtful conversations and strategic plans are necessary to provide comprehensive support to students.

In the classroom and at home, students’ routines benefit from dedicated time to address stress management. Schools can equip students with the tools to mitigate their stress and anxiety with the support and expertise of a mental health provider,

Some of these strategies include:

  • Guided Meditation
  • Expressive Writing Prompts
  • Grounding techniques and breathing exercises

LAS Educational Coaches meet with students through stressful academic periods, and they have found that at least one of these strategies resonates. The goal is to build emotional awareness to mitigate the stress associated with the task.

Self-reflective practices and mindfulness training are also folded into the LAS test-prep and educational coaching plans. LAS utilizes an integrated approach for academic support, providing structure, support, and accountability. Often, students also need guidance on learning how to learn.

So, to support lifelong learning and improve achievement outcomes, it is vital to identify measurable and sustainable goals. As students navigate new schools, grades, and curriculums, having a comprehensive plan in place supports these transitions.

Plans should consist of the following:

  • Personal and mental health routine
  • Measurable goals
  • Upgraded study skills
  • Strength-based approach
  • Check-ins and accountability
  • Accessing resources when needed

Read more here on the interconnected components of Educational Coaching support.

The enormity of the task can be overwhelming but gradual progress is positive and sustainable. Consider the LAS motto, a French proverb that states, “Petit à petit l’oiseau fait son nid” or “Little by little the bird makes its nest.” Gradual progress goes beyond a quick fix, and sustainability is key to learning and achievement. With the right tools and support, students can navigate these transitions with greater ease and confidence.



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