There is an old joke: “Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” The events of the past year have proven that change is indeed inevitable. Beginning in March 2020, shelter-in-place orders brought about many changes across the United States—working remotely, virtual learning, social distancing, and being apart from friends and family for months. As many worked to navigate the changes the pandemic generated, they clearly took a toll on our social and emotional well-being and growth. It was reported that about four out of ten adults described having symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic (Panchal et al., 2021).
As we move into fall and things return to “normal,” uncertainty is sitting on the horizon. What will the upcoming school year look like and feel like? How do we create a safe and inclusive learning environment that allows students to grow and thrive socially and emotionally? While change can be difficult, it can also offer opportunities for growth.
Uncertainty Is a Growth Opportunity
At the start of the pandemic, almost 93 percent of students and educators engaged in some form of remote learning (McElrath, 2020). This percentage decreased as the year progressed, and by fall 2021, many students and educators expect to return to a more familiar school structure. But there is still likely to be some uncertainty.
Students who may have been learning virtually will be trading the routines and familiarity of distance learning for the vaguely familiar routines of the new in-person look of the school environment. Students who transitioned to socially distanced, in-person learning will need to adjust to new routines as well, and schools that balanced in-person and remote instruction will also be looking to the new school year with some uncertainty as they establish new routines and procedures to maintain safe and inclusive learning environments. Although the routines of school are generally familiar, there may still be some unknowns and even a bit of anxiety on the part of students. The 2021- 2022 school year offers the opportunity for us to be proactive and lean into that space of uncertainty. In doing so, here are some suggestions to keep in mind.
Acknowledging feelings. In order to grow, it is important to first acknowledge and accept how we are feeling about changes and the uncertainty of a new school year. Notes Noam Shpancer:
Acceptance offers several advantages. First, by accepting your emotions, you are accepting the truth of your situation. This acceptance means that you don’t have to spend your energy pushing the emotion away. Instead, once the emotion is acknowledged, you can then turn to pursue the behaviors that are aligned with your goals and values. (2010)
Once we are able to acknowledge and then accept how we feel, we are more readily able to work toward positive solutions as well as begin to consider the various ways students might be feeling as they embark on the new school year. Are students feeling anxious? Nervous? Excited? Lonely? Hopeful?
Consider perspectives. Being aware of all the possible ways that students may approach the unknowns of the upcoming school year gives us the chance to consider all the possible perspectives that students may have and then work to proactively provide students with a safe and supportive environment in which to share their thoughts, ideas, and feelings.
Make a plan. Creating a safe and inclusive environment in which students can grow academically, socially, and emotionally takes thoughtful planning. Implement low-risk activities that allow students to share with one another to make connections, acknowledge similarities, and learn about unique differences. Introduce practices and strategies that support students in learning how to effectively and positively handle problems. Teaching student-to-student conflict resolution structures or holding class meetings will help students learn skills to support them in growing through challenges and change.
Reflect and refine. Reflection is an important part of the learning process and allows for greater growth and refinement. As we implement routines, practices, and strategies that are beneficial for student growth and learning, we can find ways to enhance these practices to strengthen student learning and skills. Similarly, reflection enables us to refine routines, practices, and strategies that are not working and allow for greater student growth and success in the midst of change and uncertainty.
In order to grow, it is important to first acknowledge and accept how we are feeling about changes and the uncertainty of a new school year.
Growth Comes From Within
As educators, we are tasked with helping students develop skills. We teach and model a variety of content (reading, writing, math) and noncontent (organization, time management) skills for our students. Managing growth is also a skill. The brain is like a muscle that grows stronger and smarter when it undergoes rigorous learning experiences (Yeager et al., 2019). Understanding that growth comes from within a person can help us understand how challenging growth can be for students.
Over the last year, students have faced new educational and noneducational challenges. These challenges have all been areas of potential growth, and we have seen some students grow in ways that the classroom environment could never have developed. But during distance and hybrid learning we have also seen students struggle in ways that we would have never seen within the classroom before the pandemic. In particular, we have witnessed students taking two steps forward only to then take a step back. This pattern occurs because we know that an individual’s growth is not linear or a straight line in one direction. Sometimes growth requires some missteps to move forward. Educators should rely on this knowledge when working with students on embracing change, developing the skill necessary to experience growth, and growing at their own rate.
Here are some tips to help you as you help your students.
- Let students know you recognize that change can be scary and that you empathize with them. The simple recognition of this feeling, combined with empathy, can help students tackle change.
- Help students identify growth. In the course of repeatedly taking two steps forward and one step back, students may fail to see the growth they have had. Identify concrete examples of growth for students to embrace.
- Provide constant feedback. Establish a constant feedback loop for your students so they can see the growth they are experiencing.
- Stay focused on the positive. As a student develops a skill, focus on what the student is doing well. Point out where you see a student developing or using a growth skill.
- Remember that growth is a mindset. Many of us are familiar with Carol Dweck’s work around growth mindset (Farnam Street, 2015). Students, however, may not be. Help your students understand that growth is indeed a mindset and teach them how to use it.
- Use Morning Meeting and Responsive Advisory Meeting to engage students in low-risk conversations about growth. These meetings are a great opportunity to engage students in conversations about growth: viewing it as a skill, recognizing that it is not linear, and developing a mindset that encourages it.
Embracing the uncertainty of this new school year can feel daunting and possibly overwhelming at times. However, it also presents many opportunities for growth and the development of new skills.
Jane Cofie is a director of curriculum and instruction designer for Center for ResponsiveSchools and previously taught grades PreK–5 in private and public schools in Virginia for 20 years. Jane’s book Strengthening the Parent-Teacher Partnership will be published this fall and will highlight for educators important aspects and the overall impact of establishing positive parent-teacher partnerships. As an educator and parent, Jane has always had a keen interest in the importance of parent-teacher cooperation to support student success.
Dr. Joseph Tilley is a curriculum and instructional designer and educational consultant with Center for Responsive Schools. He received his BS from Middle Tennessee State University, MS from the University of Memphis, and EdD from Middle Tennessee State University. He has taught K–8 special education in Memphis, Atlanta, and Nashville, and worked at the district level as a special education coach, coordinator, and supervisor.