Helping Kids Deal With Back-to-School Stress

image retrieved from kirkcrady.wordpress.com

I happened to come across the now-viral video clip of a little boy being asked if he would miss his mom on the first day of school. A question to which he promptly exhibits visibly with quick tears that ‘yes,’ indeed—he will. The shot shows him running into the safe arms of his mother, with an embarrassed reportor left to apologize.

My own children, different in every way, have varied responses to stress. Lately, I have seen tears and anxiety within one more so than the others. Tears coming quickly in a range of situations. The other night, I happened to mention that I had some spots due to infected bug bites. I said goodnights and went downstairs for the evening, only to hear feet behind me not soon after. What did I mean by spots? Was I going to be okay? With a little assurance and some hugs, the anxiety abated for the time. Enough for her to go back to bed, anyway.

But our little encounter left me to briefly wonder where the stress was coming from and why.

Of course, we are coming up to that time of the year again, a time that parents anticipate and some kids wait for, while others drag their feet. The start of school—just one of the many transitions times in life that we will encounter. While we often think about parental stress associated with the beginnings of new activities, I wonder how often we remember that kids get stress too.

The American Psychological Association, along with Mary Alvord, PhD., offer six tips for parents helping kids cope with back-to-school: practice routines (sleep, lunch, bedtimes) well before the first big day, get to the know the kids on the bus route and in your child’s class, talk about your child’s fears and anxieties openly with them (withholding judgments), show lots and lots of empathy and then find the supports in your child’s school and community that will make the adjustment that much easier.

As a kindergarten teacher (and soon to be Grade 1 teacher as well), I recognize that students will come to me with their hearts and minds full of wonder, questions, fears and excitement. But these students are not the only ones feeling these emotions. As teachers, we do well to sense within our students both the anxiety and the excitement that new school routines and schedules bring to these children’s lives.

Willow Dea, Change Management Consultant, offers the following suggestions for teachers—ways which we can help our students adjust to life back in the classroom, and these include watching for over-stimulation in the classroom which can overwhelm some children, learning your students “learning styles”, along with making sure your students feel emotionally safe. She includes ten tips for parents and teachers which I have summarized as follows:

1. Set clear boundaries and guidelines and offer fair rules for support. Be consistent.
2. Offer children unstructured playtime so that they can use their imaginations.
3. Exercise, rest, nutrition, healthy meals, downtime, and laughter are all precursors for good health.
4. Take time away from technology. Encourage quiet and calm for part of your day.
5. Be the example for your students of managed stress. Parker Palmer states: “We teach who we are.”
6. Show students you care in the ways you know how.
7. Breathe.  Structure your day to allow for silence once in a while.
8. Listen to calming music. Turn the lights off. Let kids put their heads down on their desks and tune-out for a minute or two.
9. Talk with kids about what stresses them. Help them deal with it.
10. And don’t forget to make humor a big part of your day. 😉

All these, super suggestions for teachers (and parents) in knowing how to deal with children’s stress within the home and classroom. Never forgetting that the ways in which we take time to show compassion for other people and their unique situations (from children to adults) will go a long way in helping others be the best that they can be in that moment in time.

Might we also remember that small acts of kindness, along with the presence of caring, kind people, can serve to make an important impact in a person’s day. Let us live our lives so that when others think of kindness and caring, they think of us (quote taken from H. Jackson brown, Jr.).

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Believe

They showed up one morning. Could have been any morning, really. And there they were. Bright eyes, smiling. Hello, Mrs. Gard and then the pause. Waiting for my response. Their faces searching mine for that encouraging smile.

Do I believe in them?

He fell asleep every single day in my history class. The room was dark and calming, a glow from the overhead bulb the only light. His long hours at the fish plant gave him little time to sleep. Little time to be the teenager he should have been.  Little time to care about facts and dates.

Did I believe in him then?

The boy and his mother walk the halls. It’s his first day of school ever, coming up this Thursday. There are fears and worries, but mostly just excitement. Everything is new and inviting. School is cool when you’re four.

Do I believe in him?

Do I believe… in them?

Teachers: we have children who will walk into our lives, into our halls and into our classrooms in the days ahead. They will have stories and experiences, expectations and worries- hopes and fears. They will have dreams. Dreams they believe in.

Do I believe in them?

We have children coming who will challenge our patience, try our tolerance, question our leading, test our resolve. Children coming who will make us laugh and make us cry. And some who will make us want to shelter them with everything we’ve got. These children- they will work their way into our hearts. Will work their way into our world. We will come to love them like our very own. We will teach them, listen to them, care for them, nurture them, inspire them, learn from them, hope for them. And when we have to, we will fight for them.

And all because we believe in them. Because we care.

Do you believe?

Do you believe in them?

For if you do, they will believe in themselves too. They will believe they can.

And because they can, they will:

Learn.

Grow.

Understand.

Discover.           

Mature.

Develop.

Into the amazing, creative human beings they were meant to be. And they too will inspire and encourage others to believe in themselves. To believe that they too CAN.  And all this because YOU believed. Because we as teachers believed in them.

Believe.

Because that’s one small step we teachers can take to make the incredible happen.

Dear Parents

Dear Parents,

The last days of summer are already upon us. Where did the time go? School supplies have been purchased and tucked away, ‘first-day-back’ clothes folded and lain out on dressers in anticipation of the big day. Lunchbox items stocked up in the pantry. New sneakers, new lunch bags, new backpacks, new schedules. Newness. Everything just seems new and fresh when school arrives again in the fall. And while all this freshness and novelty can seem exciting, I am sure that the newly formed jitters and fidgety butterflies which already are surfacing in both little and big tummies can at times be an unwelcome addition to the arrival of fall.

{Disclosure: don’t tell anyone… but even teachers get butterflies. :)}

With all those little anxieties and worries at the front of my mind, I want you to know, Mom: I am going to do my best to watch over your precious child while they are in my care. I’ve got your back, Dad. Your child is in good hands. I am going to be there for your child this year- you have my word. Because while these children I have been given are in my class, they are my kids. They are my little brood. I will be there to help them find their way, learn the ropes, discover new and exciting things as well as to watch them develop and grow.

Your child is already special to me.

Let me assure you- we will make this time spent at school worthwhile. For I believe these little bodies and souls are full of possibility. Full of potential. And I want you to know that I see this- I know this to be true within my heart. I know that your child is a capable, gifted, clever little person with a unique personality, mind and body. Your child is special. I want you to know that I will recognize this in your child- it will be my mission. And I will work on your behalf so that your son or daughter never forgets what you have taught them from the very start: how precious and valued they truly are.

My role in their life this year will in no way undermine your most important role as their first and most influential teacher. I have said before and I will say it again:

You are the very best teacher your child can come to know. You have taught your child well — taught them about life and love and joy and sorrow. Taught them to be honest and kind. Taught them to be thoughtful and generous. Taught them to care for others. You have taught them. And my hope is that your life continues to be the living textbook that your child reads the most avidly. May it be among the most inspiring books they ever open!

As a teacher, I view the children in my class- indeed, in our school, as if they were my very own. Your child is my child while under my watch. I take that responsibility seriously- much the same as I do raising my own four children. There is a trust in passing one’s child over to another adult- a trust based on mutual understanding. The understanding is this: you give me your most precious treasure to look after all day long, and I will care for your treasure while they are in my care.

I will be there for them.

So when you place your precious loved one on the bus in the morning or drop them off at my classroom door, I want you to know that I do not take this responsibility I’ve been given lightly. And might I add- when those dear ones are returned to you again, when those precious children arrive home at the end of the day, I won’t stop caring. They are still in my heart. They are still on my mind. They are important to me. And they will always have a place in my heart. Please never forget: I will strive to care for your child this year in the best ways I know how.

Tenderly.
Gently.
Lovingly.
Compassionately.
Truthfully.
Deliberately.
Relevantly.
Patiently.

Parents, thank you for trusting me with this responsibility; it is my honor and privilege to be your child’s teacher this year. May it be for us all a year of wonder, nurture and discovery.

What I Want To Teach This Year

I fill a bucket with water and soap. Bubbles slowly rise to the surface as the two substances combine into a froth of white foam. There is much to do today and little time to do it all in. I have my classroom sectioned off into centers, so today’s goal is to clean the computer station and the puzzle and games center.

It might look like I am cleaning, but what I am really doing is readying the classroom for the little bodies that will plunge through that door (at the bottom of the stairs- turn right) come Thursday morning of next week. I am readying things. Making sure all is clean, orderly and attractively arranged. It’s slow work, but I like the quiet.

Gives me time to think.

For while I clean shelves and wipe down cupboards, I ready my mind. Clean out the cobwebs, so to speak. I need my head to be in the game, need my thoughts to be organized. Need my mind to be clear. For when all is said and done, it’s not the classroom that houses the potential and possibility to make this year the best one ever for my incoming class: it’s me.

I’m the teacher.

With that in mind, I’ve been reflecting on what I plan to teach this year, along with the usual letters, numbers, reading and writing. And what I want to teach this year is how to love.

How to love, not how to hate.

How to care for one another. Reaching out beyond one’s own familiar world so as to make a difference in the life of another.

How to be compassionate. Showing concern for those going through hard times, displaying empathy for those with struggles and consideration for the needs of others. Above all, living a life marked by gentleness in one’s interactions toward all living things.

How to be grateful. Thankful for what we’ve been given. Appreciative of little gestures and small tokens of thoughtfulness. Pleasure for the gifts of life that are not transitory.

Because what I want to teach this year is the art of loving, not the vanishing pleasure of greed.

How to see that what we’ve been given is enough. Acknowledging that we have a responsibility to share the love, share the blessing. Spread the message of hope.

How to give from the heart, expecting nothing in return. How to live one day at a time.

How to strive for justice and freedom for all even in the midst of everyday living. Not just saying that we do- living it as well.

Yes, what I want to teach this year is love, not apathy.

How to see that indifference is the same as condoning the same behaviors we find offensive in society.

How to acknowledge that one’s lack of interest in speaking out about what they believe to be of value and of worth is weakness.  We need to find strength in our convictions.  Hopeful joy in our abilities.

How to see that one’s boredom and lethargy is the obstacle between self and understanding the world better.

For what I want to teach this year is that love is both the message and the outcome of a life lived well- for one’s own joy as well as for the joy of others. Not denying my place in history, but embracing it.

What we really need is love. It’s what I really need. Because it’s not the world I am trying to change:it’s me. And I know it will happen if I just take it one day at a time.  One sure foot placed securely in front of the other.

And starting with me as the student, that’s what I want to teach this year.

It Matters That We Remember Our Students

I recently ran into a former professor of mine from my undergrad days at U.P.E.I. I actually had been invited to attend a talk that he was presenting to a small group of people in his home- thus the reason for our paths crossing. As I was re-introduced to him by my friend (after a fourteen year hiatus from studies at the same university where I had first met him), I had already convinced myself that he wouldn’t remember me. After all, the class had been held in an amphitheater-style classroom- I was just a face in the crowd. A number on a spreadsheet.

Why would he remember me?

Why that mattered to me that he remembered me, is an interesting thought. Does it matter that teachers remember their students? As his student, I certainly remembered him- his style of teaching, his topic of interest- even some of the things he had said. But for some strange reason, it mattered to me- in that moment- that he remember me.

As pleasantries were exchanged, he assured me that he did indeed remember me. And he paused to talk to me about my life, work and writing. As we reacquainted, I remember feeling honored that a teacher at the university level would remember a former student from many years prior and thus take the time to talk to that student, me- showing an interest in who I had become.

It mattered that he remembered. It mattered that he was that kind of teacher that remembered. And I am of the opinion that it matters that we care enough for our students to remember them. To remember the essence of who they were when we were a part of their lives.

Can we always remember their names? Regrettably, no. This is a grief of mine. Can we remember all their likes and dislikes? Not likely. All the ins and outs of their lives? The ideas and beliefs they espouse? Their dreams and ambitions? Hardly.

We can’t remember everything, but we can remember something. And that something essentially is that we can remember the person.

It matters that we care enough about our students to remember them, that we care enough to remember the person.

I have students whom I still remember from my student teaching days fifteen years ago. Do I remember everything? Again, this is an unreasonable expectation. I sometimes find myself forgetting details as the years go by. Yes, I forget details at times, but I still remember the person. And I believe I do so in part because I challenged myself to take the time in the classrooms I was blessed to be part of, to be in the moment. To really make what I was doing an experience that I was present for, not just something I put my time into so as to make a buck. So as to do a job, fulfil a mandate or complete a task.

I remember because I made it a priority.

Caring for people requires investment. And when we invest our time- using that same time to open up discussion, opportunity, possibility and conversation, we have more of a chance of remembering. More of a chance of keeping connection. And it’s worth it to ourselves to remember the people who’ve touched our lives, our students. It’s worth it. Because those same students we remember, for better or for worse, are the very reason we do what we do.

They are the reason we are in this profession. The reason we teach.

So in thinking about remembering people who’ve changed my life, I wanted to share with you some students I remember:

That boy in my third grade class who brought his favorite CD in for me to listen to

That girl who loved to figure-skate, whom I drove forty-five minutes to watch practice

That boy in my high school history class who always fell asleep because he had worked at the fish plant until 11:00 p.m. the night before

That boy who I eventually won over- even after I caught him starting a fire in the school gazebo

That girl I wrote a letter to and read to her class after I watch her being bullied

That boy I would have followed to the moon and back after he shared with me what had happened to him that morning before he’d even made it to the bus

That little girl I knew needed extra love- and her parents too

That boy in my tenth grade law class who scribbled words I can’t even describe- whom I knew needed to be read by someone with more authority than me

That girl whom I nominated for a music award

That boy I sang a duet with at the school variety concert

These students I remember, these students I will never forget- for they are blessings in my life, even though I may not have known it at the time. Little graces that I have known along the path. People who have touched my life in this journey of mine as an educator.

True- sometimes my memory fail me. The details become a little fuzzy. The faces might even lose their defining features in my mind. But the person behind that face is forever etched in my heart.

I will always remember these students- their stories of hope, resilience, determination and sheer grit have made me the teacher I am today.

May I never forget the reason for why I chose to be a teacher. For why I am who I am.

It’s because of my students.