This first week of school felt great. Even though COVID-19 is still lurking, this was the first start of school recently in which talk of protocols and physical distancing didn’t dominate our planning. Never has “normal” been so exciting. On our first day of the 2022-2023 school year, joy permeated campus.
CA may have been able to maintain in-person learning, but that doesn’t mean young people were any less affected by the pandemic. How they engage in the world has changed. Parents and guardians, too, have had to evolve their parenting during these past two-and-a-half years, and now we have an opportunity to reset. We might even avoid bringing back some pre-pandemic behaviors. With the pandemic no longer overshadowing the day-to-day flow of school, I offer some thoughts about how we can best support our students as we enter our “new normal.”
Avoid imposing pressure
There is a fine line in setting expectations for your child and pressuring them to succeed in academics and co-curricular activities. We know that rates of depression and anxiety among adolescents are at historic highs. At a school like CA, which does have high academic standards throughout the curriculum, our students already feel a certain amount of pressure to excel in all they do. Students see their peers performing at a high level and that often inspires them.
Our teachers do a great job of challenging students while motivating them to perform at a high level. Instead of focusing on outcomes and asking questions like “What is your math grade?” consider asking your child what they learned in math class. Engage in looking at the process of learning and in their experience. Know that disappointments are huge learning moments. We cannot prepare a child to be successful if they have never faced some challenge or failure. Embrace those moments, as they most often are short-lived. Dwelling on them and blaming others can create a victim mentality, rather than a resilient and empowered young adult. Anxiety does not help people achieve. I like to look at the example that Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr sets. He coaches from a position of positivity that is focused on process and relationships.
I don’t want to give the impression that the pandemic was easy on anyone, as hundreds of thousands of Americans lost their lives, and people’s lives and livelihoods were upended. Still, many young people got to watch a lot of online streaming services. I had a student on my Interim trip last May tell me they loved the lockdown phase of the pandemic because he could play video games all of the time. I sensed that parents, naturally, wanted to make life as comfortable for their children as possible. Many parents and guardians changed their approach in terms of monitoring social media use, as that was one of the only ways their child could stay connected to friends. But now we are back in person, and the more oversight and limits to social media and technology, the better off your child will be. Flash back to the Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and what she said about how damaging social media algorithms are for young people. I would love to see our parents limit smartphone access for students until they are in the Upper School. I accept this is probably a pipe dream, but I personally believe that your upper elementary and Middle School children would be healthier and have less of their privacy violated. And, although it is not a high number, many of the more major disciplinary issues we deal with in Middle School have some social media origin. Now that we can be in person, let’s encourage children to engage with social media appropriately.
Help with social learning
The pandemic definitely impacted how young children interact. Skills like conflict resolution or picking up on non-verbal forms of communication became a bit delayed. CA teachers did a lot of this work last year, particularly in the Lower School, to address this. It is something we need to continue to focus upon. When a child behaves poorly, we want it to be a learning experience. Thus, consequences are critical to that learning journey. Parents empathize with their children, and it can be easy to want to give them a pass. Doing so too much can create problems later. I am grateful my parents took a hard line when I messed up when I was young. It’s one thing to make mistakes in elementary, middle, and high school; it’s another not to learn from them and continue to make mistakes into adulthood. Despite what the ’80s punk band the Violent Femmes sang, school discipline issues rarely result in something going “on your permanent record.” They do when you’re an adult, with far more serious consequences. Childhood is when children learn about how to interact respectfully and safely with others. Let’s lean into this, as we seek to be a school of “courage and kindness.”
As parents, we have 18 years of our lives when our kids live under our roof. With my kids now “launched” into adulthood, I find myself reflecting on just how fast those years went. Take the time to eat meals together, to do family activities, to have conversations. Show up to games, recitals, and performances. Ask questions about their lives. Know when to give them space—it is also natural that many kids share less over time. You can create some expectations around communication. One of my favorite stories is about an alum, who, when she was a Senior, was so annoyed with her parents meddling in her college process that she created a slide deck with certain rules (like, “Don’t edit my common app”). They all agreed they would set aside one time a week to talk about college. Our children want us to be involved, but as they get older, they also need freedom.
Our children are living in a rough time. Political division, different understandings of the truth, and fear about the climate do weigh on students. We can’t protect them from what they see in the news, but we can help them process it. As I have noted before, we want to look at tough issues and understand different perspectives with evidence-based information. I think when parents and guardians read the news, they sometimes focus on a world of narrowing opportunities. This can cause students to be anxious about everything from grades to playing time in sports to the college process. To be sure, the world is a competitive place; however, your children will be ready for it after attending CA. We are creating opportunities for our students to be leaders in our society. I am so inspired by the research and presentation work that our students do in all divisions. Their projects capture just how much they care and how much change they want to make in our world. They are developing skills and perspectives that will give them distinct advantages. They are filled with hope, and I know, as parents and guardians, we should be too.