Preparing for back to school: what to expect, and how parents can help children thrive

As children around the country return to school, the new “Back to School Study” by Understood and UnidosUS, the largest Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the U.S., finds that teachers and parents predict increased academic, mental health, and social and emotional challenges for learning.

The study found that 68% of teachers and more than 60% of parents prefer and expect their children to return to school in person full-time. Despite feeling ready for a return to the classroom, 90% of U.S. teachers and 61% of parents believe there will be increased challenges as children head back to school

But with committed engagement and support, parents can help their child ease back into this school year as confidently and effectively as possible.  

Academic development

More than half of parents (55%) are concerned about their children’s academic development in the new school year, which is even higher among parents of children with learning and thinking differences (68%) than without (41%). Additionally, approximately three-quarters (73%) of educators surveyed are concerned about children's academic development in the new school year. 

“As we return to in-person learning this fall, it’s critical that we meet all kids where they are -- not where they ‘ought to’ be,” Amanda Morin, Understood Director of Thought Leadership and Expertise, said. “It will be up to educators to work in tandem with parents to identify the scope and scale of the gap to ensure we support all children, with a critical eye to those who have additional challenges with learning.”

To better help parents prepare for some of the upcoming academic challenges, Understood experts recommend:

  • Using technological tools such as Google Classroom, PowerSchool, and Infinite Campus to stay tuned into your child’s learning and gauge academic progress to identify if and when they might need more support. 

  • Trying to check your child’s homework nightly and ask questions about the assignments to ensure your child is clear on the teachers’ expectations. If your child isn’t clear, bring that to the teachers’ attention right away so they don’t feel or fall behind. 

  • Checking out Take N.O.T.E., developed by Understood in partnership with the American Association of Pediatrics. Take N.O.T.E. is a web-based guide to help families and teachers identify the signs of learning and thinking differences in their children, and use that understanding to take the necessary next steps to better support their child. Take N.O.T.E. has been recently enhanced with interactive elements and learning modules -- such as audio and video content, observation trackers, prompts, and tips for conversation-starting -- intended to drive engagement and inspire action.

Mental health

Most parents (68%) surveyed are concerned about the mental wellbeing of their child and the school’s ability to help during the upcoming year, including 76% of parents of children with learning and thinking differences and 60% without. More than half (65%) of educators surveyed are concerned about children’s anxiety going back to school; 43% expressed concerns about depression, while 62% are concerned about the overall emotional wellbeing of children. 

According to senior advisor and one of the founding experts of Understood, Bob Cunningham, “The best thing parents can do is stay engaged in what’s going on in their child’s life academically, socially, and emotionally. Learn how to recognize when your child has too much on their plate. When they do, help them make a list to figure out their priorities and what can wait until another time.”

And remember -- if you see signs of clinical anxiety/depression or are worried your child is at risk of harming themselves, always make an emergency appointment with a healthcare provider.

Social and emotional development

More than half (55%) of parents are concerned that their child will fall behind emotionally in the upcoming year and will not be able to catch up, including 68% of parents of kids with learning and thinking differences and 41% without. The majority of educators (63%) surveyed are concerned about students’ social development this school year. 

Find ways to help your child reconnect with friends and peers. This might mean making sure they are getting out of the house regularly -- be it the grocery store, neighborhood activities, sporting events, or beyond, it’s critical that children engage with and feel a part of their community. For older children, try talking to them about how they're feeling about their friends and relationships. Help them identify and plan ways to (safely) engage with friends and build those relationships again.

As it relates to “modeling” behavior for children, Understood expert Michelle Lassiter also calls out the importance of parents addressing their own emotional wellbeing in order to help their child do the same. 

“Encouraging parents to focus on their own emotional wellbeing and then discuss it with their children is an excellent first step. From there, you can help each other find the tools -- be it meditation, yoga, breathing exercise, physical activity -- that both you and your child need to thrive emotionally and mentally.”

If any of the challenges reported in this article or survey are familiar to you or someone you know, visit Understood or the following resources:

Supporting children’s mental health this school year


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