New School Year: Navigating transitions and family dynamics

By Mohan Dhall
Representative image // Photo by Taylor Flowe on Unsplash

As the academic calendar unfolds, the shift from one year to the next brings forth a myriad of emotions and challenges for both students and their families. Whether it’s a child stepping into the school environment for the first time, transitioning between educational phases, or experiencing changes within their academic journey, each new school year presents a unique set of considerations. This article delve into the dynamics of managing school transitions, understanding the emotional landscape of students, and providing insights for families to navigate the complexities of the new academic year.

Managing School This Year

The transition from one year to the next is significant concerning school. Some students are entering school for the first time, others are transitioning from primary school to high school, and some from public to private. All students are entering a new academic phase. Effectively supporting students through this transition requires understanding how the new academic year is perceived by students and how the school year is to be negotiated by families.

Anticipation, Excitement, and Anxiety

Each new school year should be treated as exactly that: new. Treating each school year as a new experience will help families and students manage the feelings associated with the transition while building on relevant prior experience from one year to the next.

Students will feel a mix of many feelings: some nervousness, possibly around how they might be recognised by others when they feel a bit different. Some of their friends’ faces and bodies will look different, with some looking taller or having their hair styled differently or some other visible change. When meeting up again after the break, this will be an adjustment.

Students may be excited about sharing holiday experiences and continuing friendships. They may also feel a sense of uncertainty or trepidation around who they will be taught by, what they might be learning, and what will be expected of them.

Having mixed or ambivalent feelings is normal during times of transition and also during the academic year.

Peer Relations

A significant consideration for students is that of friendships and peer relations. Within a cohort, all students feel more comfortable with some people and less comfortable with others. Close friends may gravitate to one another, but no one is close friends with everyone in their class or their year group. Some students feel uncomfortable with others in the year and may feel intimidated by particular personalities. Some students may feel disconcerted by the expectation to fit in with others in groups. Stoicism is valuable, especially when noticed.

People Change

Students do change from one year to the next. Some have suffered traumatic family events, some have spent time overseas with family, others may have a new sibling, and still, others may have had experiences unwelcome and unexpected.

The passing of time brings change and shapes people, including young people. Who they were last year, they may not be this year. This means that they may not solve problems with the same confidence or address issues with the same prior resilience. Sometimes, the new year is a new start and also a time for rebuilding.

Adult expectations of children should not be framed around, “You used to do this – why can’t you do this now?”

Impacts on Families

The new academic year has a significant impact on families. As family members spend time away from home, children drift into situations that parents can’t mediate or protect them from at all times. This means there is an emotional overlay to times apart and times together.

Families have to adjust to timetables brought by schools, buses, trains, and adult workplaces. Suddenly, a mostly unencumbered January can become a regimented February. Everyone’s a little bit more stressed, a little bit more tired, a little bit more pressured, a little bit more alone, and a little bit less happy.

The home needs to be a sanctuary. This is the place where events occurring through the day can be shared and, if necessary, resolved. It is where experiences can be shared, anxieties leveled, and the management of challenges shaped.

Home needs to be a place where adults and children are undistracted. Distraction, while useful, can also be the great abyss. Family members side by side, but in completely separate worlds breathing life into the sentence, “being alone together.”

Phone-free times, idle chat, time to be a child without expectations are all necessary when managing the school year. This applies regardless of the age, stage, or year the child is in.

The Need to Quickly Establish Routines

Schools are dictated by routines. Routines help to make things predictable and give a sense of certainty. Routines can be extremely helpful for managing time and helping students to know what to do and when.

It is very important to help students of all ages establish routines at home that complement the needs of the school system. Such routines will be around sleeping and waking times, managing personal hygiene and dressing, packing bags with the requisite equipment, organizing nourishment and hydration, completing homework and assessments, and ensuring that appropriate preparation has been done so that the school days and transition times are as smooth as possible.

Extracurricular Activities

When school recommences, so too do other activities. Often, sports, music, speech, drama, dancing, tutoring all have enrollment periods that at least substantially overlap school terms. This means that families are not only negotiating back to school, they are negotiating back to after school.

Suddenly, a free life becomes a far less free life.

Complexity rises, drop-offs and pickups (more transitions) need to be negotiated. Time together lessens. Time together seems to be constrained to time in cars, or the time in recuperation on Saturday afternoons and Sundays.

Distractions and FOMO

It is a fact that children these days face greater distraction and less thinking time than in generations prior. The devices we give them to keep us connected are the devices that also take them away. Rather than denigrate TikTok or Facebook or YouTube, or Instagram or Snapchat or Discord or Reddit or any other forum for sharing and messaging, or the Influencers they follow, adults need to be careful to listen, be observant to changes, and keep close to their children.

Judging what they do is less likely to make them disclose who they are speaking to, what groups they might be in, or what others are saying. Being dismissive of what they value makes it less safe for them to disclose if what they value becomes a threat to psychological well-being.

Telling kids to get off social media does not address the underlying need for them to feel connected with their peers.

All it does is make adults look out of touch and hypocritical. It also makes young people feel isolated, alone, and less able to ask for support if and when it is needed.

And So, It Goes…

And so, it goes.

In the background for parents, there is possible anxiety around what illness might run through a school, whether the interest rates might go up or down, whether friendships will be maintained, or a child will be bullied and excluded, whether the education system is delivering what the child might need to negotiate where they are now and where we might be in the future.

Transitions at the start of the year require attention to detail for purposeful management. The whole school year requires attention to detail for purposeful management.

Attending to the things that matter may mean slowing down, noticing, asking how a child might feel, and not expecting that last year’s successes will be this year’s starting point.

The new academic year needs to be treated with fresh eyes like a new set of experiences. In this way, we can help students face challenges, find resolutions to problems that may seem complex, and build resilience when negotiating an increasingly complex world.

(The views expressed are those of the author’s. Mohan Dhall is a Lecturer in Education at UTS, the CEO of the Australian Tutoring Association (ATA) and the Global Professional Tutors Association (GPTA). He is also a Chartered Manager and Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders)

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