Seven Lessons for the First Day of School – and for Life

How can I help my child survive in a world I have so little control over?

One: Be Yourself

Will I fit in? Will I like my teacher? Will my teacher like me? When you’re feeling stressed about a situation, the best thing to do is “Be yourself.” In the age of social media, we have become obsessed with the image we are presenting and how many “likes” we are getting. The greatest freedom comes from not needing the approval of others, of being your own person. People will respect you more and like you more when you’re not trying to be liked.

Two: Keep on hoping

Every fall, kids buy their new school supplies full of hope that this is going to be the best year ever. They really want this to go well. They are so willing to make it work. Even kids who have not had a great experience of school have this hope. Keep on hoping. Never become cynical. Every year is a new one. Every day is a new one. One day at a time. At the end of a bad day, press the reset button. Go back with a positive attitude.

Three: Accept the things you cannot change

Every parent needs “The Serenity Prayer” and every child should be taught it:

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

You might be able to change out of a bad teacher’s classroom, but you can’t change a bad teacher. You can change small things about your child’s school, but the school system will take generations to change.

Change out of bad classrooms if you can. Change out of bad schools if you can. Participate in the life of your local school, and support organizations working for school reform.

If you can’t do any of these things, then bloom where you are planted.

Four: Practice positive self-talk

Change the loop of negative self-talk to positive self-talk. Teach your child to use positive affirmations. These are simple statements that can change a person’s life because they change the way a person looks at life and at themselves. “I am a good person.” “I am capable.” “I am lovable.” “I am going to have a good day.”

Five: Act. Don’t react

Decide to be your own person and have your own attitude. Don’t live your life in reaction to other people. Don’t behave badly just because other people are behaving badly toward you. If you get a bad teacher, don’t let that person bring you down. You are always in control of your own attitude even though the teacher seems to have all the control. Don’t let someone else’s negativity ruin your day. Put up a force field, a firewall, a shield over your heart. Don’t let toxic stuff in. The only person you can control is yourself.

Six: Don’t let others define you

You are not your grades. You are not your report card. School only works on and measures a small part of you. You are much bigger and better than school will ever know because they only see a small part of you. You have value as a person apart from your performance. You are loved and you are lovable. School doesn’t measure that.

Seven: Resilience comes from being loved

No matter how much we screw up, no matter how inconsistent we are, our kids keep on loving us. Where does this ability come from? It comes from a child’s natural resilience. Kids have an incredible ability to bounce back – especially kids who are loved and supported through hard times. When a child is supported through tough times, they are better able to face the next tough time. Experience teaches them that they can handle it and that they are loved unconditionally.

Life is full of “First days.” In fact, every day is a first day.

 

Marijuana, Stress and School….. It Takes a Village

When I started teaching over 30 years ago, some kids would smoke pot on weekends with their friends. As time went on, kids began to smoke pot near school grounds during school hours. In the last five years or so, kids started coming to school high in the morning and staying high all day.  

All behaviour is logical. What is the logic behind this behaviour? Kids are medicating themselves for stress, and the source of the stress is school. 

I received the following email from a concerned mother:

“The number of parents in my neighbourhood whose boys all started smoking pot at the grade 8-9 transition is heartbreaking and nobody wants to talk about it or for anyone to know, but at the same time we all feel helpless. I feel like its time school started to be recognized as part of the issue as it does take a village.”

Most schools have smoking areas – designated spaces for kids to smoke which are technically off school property, where school administrators have decided to give up on the battle against smoking, or, to put it another way, have abdicated their responsibility to be part of the village that we need to help raise our teenagers. Smoking areas become convenience stores for marijuana and other harder drugs. 

But closing down the smoking area wouldn’t really get at the root of the problem. Kids are self-medicating for stress, and they would just find other places to use. The deeper question is why are these kids hurting so much? Having worked closely with thousands of teenagers over several decades, I have seen one major factor change kids’ lives:

Kids need to connect with adults who really care about their welfare. Not professionals keeping “professional distance” from kids. Walk through any school and you will find teachers at their computers. You will see few adults interacting with kids. When they do, it is often for punitive reasons. We need adults who are willing to connect with the whole child – head, heart and hands. Guest speakers and “Wellness Days” are not enough. Kids need mentors.

School is a class system. There are first, second and third class students. The first class students are those for whom the system works and who benefit from the rewards it offers. (These students often go on to become teachers.) Second class students just pass through the system unnoticed. They don’t cause trouble. They don’t talk back. They don’t like school, but they put up with it. Finally, there are the kids for whom school does not work. They are called lazy, bad or defiant when really they are just being honest. They hate school and are not afraid to say so. They act out or drop out. 

A growing number of kids find school a competitive place where you either have it or you don’t. You are constantly being judged for your performance in subject areas that don’t interest you. One size fits all. No accommodations are made for learning differences. You must “get with the program.”

What can parents do?

  1. Show this article to your child’s teachers and school principal and challenge them to discuss the topic at their next staff meeting – to get involved in kids’ lives – to be part of the village.
  2. Listen to your child. Don’t lecture, punish or shut them down. They need someone they can talk to. Don’t close the door. Always be on the side of your child. Consequences for misbehaviour are fine, but not at the expense of your relationship.
  3. Encourage your kids to find mentors wherever they can – coaches, teachers, relatives, tutors – anyone who cares about kids. I have seen many kids’ lives turned around by the influence of just one caring adult.

Adolescence is a time when kids break from their parents in order to discover their own identity. Parents want to help, but often feel shut out and helpless. It’s not the fault of the parent. It’s the nature of the developmental stage. This is another reason we need a village – other adults who will step in and care.

Four Promises to Myself for a New School Year

There are a couple of things I want to do differently this year. Now is the time to decide what they are.

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1.  I will not let homework ruin our family evenings.

Life is too short to let homework ruin my relationship with my kids. If I had to bring home that much work from work, I wouldn’t be happy doing it either. My child is right. They’ve put in 6 or 7 hours at school. Why should they have to do another hour or two?

Show empathy. Don’t take the side of school. Be on your child’s side – literally. Many kids work better with an adult sitting beside them redirecting their focus. That’s OK. They haven’t developed “regulation of attention” for things they find boring. They will. 

In case of emergency, download this tip sheet: Homework Tips for Extreme Non-Compliance

2.  I will use this change of routine to change our family’s routine around screen time.

During the summer, I let a lot of things go. I forgive myself. With the new school year starting I have the chance to re-introduce some limits.

Researchers recommend a maximum of one hour for a single session of game play and a maximum of 2 hours of screen time for every 5 hours of free time. That might boil down to an hour before dinner and an hour after dinner. Homework must be done first. No screens a half hour before bedtime. No screens in bed. Be firm, fair and consistent. Discuss these limits at a family meeting (dinner) before school starts,

Download this template which I’ve posted previously. Video Game Schedule. Edit it to suit your own situation and post it on the fridge door.

3. I will keep the spirit of summer alive.

Why does going back to school mean not having any more fun? Life doesn’t need to be binge and purge. Let’s have some kind of fun every day – however small! We still have our weekends. Every weekend I will do something fun with my kids and something I enjoy myself – however small!

Adults talk about having a healthy work-life balance. Kids need a healthy school-life balance. For children, life means play – and play doesn’t have to just mean screen time. It can also mean getting outdoors. Fall is a great time for hiking or biking local trails. Google “trails in your town.”

4. I will not let school define my child.

I will not let test marks, report cards or teacher comments make me think my child is somehow a failure or I am somehow a failure. My child is not a “student” to me. This is my baby. I love him no matter what. There is no judgement school could pass on him that would make me love him any less. He is perfect. School measures people with marks and “comments.” I only have one way of measuring my child – by how much I love him. 

I work with many kids who have been “labelled.” There is nothing wrong with having a child’s cognitive exceptionality identified, but no label or assessment can sum up a child’s nature.  All children are gifted with a unique nature. Honour the nature of your child.

Too Many Kids Are Suffering At School

Where are empathy and compassion in our schools?

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This recent e-mail is typical of the hundreds I get from distraught mothers. 

“Today was not a good day and the reason for my email. We were called to the school where he had overturned pretty much everything.  It was like we were looking at someone else’s child.  And he kept repeating he was a “bad boy.” It was heartbreaking. I was not aware that his teacher is not able to remove him from the room. Instead they are trained to remove the entire class…We are really struggling to find the right course of action for him.  The school is going to have a speech pathologist come in to see if he is struggling with language and speech.  We have made appointments to have his hearing & sight tested just to rule it out.  My gut tells me there is a disconnect with his classroom teacher and maybe a combination of him struggling with worksheets and more structure.  I really don’t know, all we know is this is not the boy we see at home.”

The only thing missing from this e-mail is the recommendation that he be put on medication. I’m sure that suggestion will be made eventually. The solution is always a technical one – professional specialists or medication. It is never a human one. This five-year-old boy needs empathy and compassion. He needs to be held. No one is listening to the mother’s “gut.”

Are teachers to blame for this situation? It’s more complicated than that. We all know there are good teachers and bad teachers. A good teacher has empathy and compassion. You feel for the child, and you act on those feelings. A good teacher doesn’t let institutions get in the way of their humanity.

Unfortunately, teachers become the product of policies, systems and procedures that they feel compelled to follow. Teachers have imbibed more than anyone the central lesson of school:

“Do what you’re told, and don’t talk back.”

Fear keeps people silent. Parents fear their child will be disadvantaged somehow if they speak up too much. Teachers have even more fear.

Students and teachers at The College School for brochures and the website.

They live under the shadow of administrators whose goal is to make the school look good. Administrators, in turn, obey their own superiors. It is a completely top-down system where no one is allowed to talk back, where we are all just following orders.

Kids have no organization to represent their interests – other than mothers and fathers. Teachers do, but even this protection comes at a cost. Teachers are given strict instructions from their unions about what they can and cannot do or say. They are constantly coached about how to protect themselves.

Over arching all these systems of control are professional governing bodies with the power to discipline teachers. At any moment a teacher can be accused of any number of things and submitted to a ritual of public shaming made even more efficient by social media. Fear rules teachers lives, and kids are the ones who suffer.

“If a child comes toward me crying, I was instructed to put my hands in the air.”

Are you saying we should get rid of accountability and transparency? I am saying we need to balance them with humanity – with empathy and compassion. Systems are set up to serve us and safeguard us. When they begin to hurt us and hurt our children, we need to do something we weren’t taught how to do in school – talk back.

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Half of all new teachers leave the profession within the first five years. They report that the culture of school is just too oppressive. There is no tolerance for creativity or innovation. There is no place for human connection. Empathy and compassion are not just ignored; they are frowned upon. And this is the environment into which we send our kids. They can’t quit in the first five years.

What is the solution? Individuals. In the age of conformity and herd behavior, we need individuals who will stand up and speak out – teachers, parents and administrators who will talk back to systems based on fear and have the courage to connect authentically with children.

Advice for administrators

Question policies and procedures that are not kid friendly – that are put in place on the advice of insurance companies to avoid litigation. Schools can practice due diligence without shutting down our humanity.

Advice for unions

Do more than protect teachers’ interests. Protect children’s interests too.

Advice for professional governing bodies

You were set up to “protect the public interest.” Don’t just protect the interests of the fearful public, but the compassionate, progressive public as well.

Advice for teachers

You have as much freedom, humanity and compassion as you claim for yourself. Do not let fear, instilled by systems and institutions, rule your decisions.

Advice for parents

Keep talking back to school – teachers and administrators at all levels. You can be a powerful voice for children’s rights – your own child and all children. Listen to your gut. Always be on the side of your child.