Back to School

The new school year is quickly approaching. Parents and children are undoubtedly beginning to prepare for what’s to come. There are the familiar routines of viewing class lists or schedules, shopping for clothing and school supplies, and adjusting morning and nighttime routines. There are also discussions with peers and parents about the teachers, which classes will be shared with friends, and potential challenges. For some, this also means weeks of anticipation and excitement. And for others, it means unease, worry, and the dreaded return of daily frustrations.

For Many, Social Concerns Are Front and Center

Setting realistic expectations and talking about academic and social concerns in advance can reduce the anxiety that often accompanies change. It’s important to acknowledge learning differences and ways to approach academic difficulties. However, social concerns also have a significant impact. Students who are preoccupied with thoughts of being singled out, teased, or bullied, have difficulty focusing on classroom tasks. And students who feel isolated or disliked are less likely to participate in discussions and activities.

Learning Challenges Add an Additional Layer of Stress

Many children with learning challenges also have significant difficulty interacting with peers. People can perceive differences negatively. The struggling learner may internalize and feel inferior. Outside observers may respond with fear, avoidance, hostility, and ridicule instead of understanding. As adults, parents, and professionals we know that learning challenges are not related to intelligence, differences and uniqueness should be celebrated, and acknowledging and supporting others is invaluable to their growth and esteem. But how many of us understood this at age 5, 10, or even 15 when school felt like the whole world and the thoughts and opinions of our peers could make or break our day?

A Place to Sit

For a number of students, something as simple as having someone to sit with at lunch or being included in a group at recess can make a significant difference. For others, it may be a smile, having a classmate agree that a problem was tough, or words of encouragement whispered before attempting to answer a question. Learning challenges can feel overwhelming, making it difficult to see our strengths at times. We all have things that we are excited about, do well at, and are knowledgeable about. Having opportunities to share and contribute in these areas, like projects, presentations, clubs, or sports can provide opportunities to thrive and have positive interactions with peers.

Kindness Matters

There are a number of organizations such as nooneeatsalone.org that focus on encouraging all students to feel accepted and valued. Sharing stories, like the examples below, of acts of kindness in other schools and communities can help students recognize when and how to support others.

  • A Florida high school started a group called We Dine Together where members spend lunch time seeking out and getting to know students who are eating alone.
  • A New Jersey father implores others to have and teach empathy after learning that his child with Autism has written the words “no one” in the blank next to friends on a class assignment displayed for Back to School Night.
  • Mom discovers child who has difficulty making friends making 2 birthday cards for himself. Her online posts result in 20,000 birthday cards from across the globe.

Differences Don’t Have to Divide

It can be hard to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. We can spend so much time focusing on how we differ from others. In doing so, we miss out on all the ways we are the same. You don’t have to share a student’s learning challenge or social concerns to understand what it must be like to feel alone, want a friend, or worry that others might think you aren’t as good as they are at something. The new school year is a good time to emphasize these things. Preparing children to accept and support each other can improve the learning environment for everyone. It has the potential to make an incredible difference and lead to friendships and experiences that can enrich the lives of everyone involved.

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