“Challenging” is an understatement when describing what educators have endured over the past few years. While the new school year tends to bring a surge of excitement and promise, it now may be mixed with a tinge of anxiety as educators grapple with the ongoing learning gaps and mental health issues their students are experiencing as a result of the pandemic. The 2022 State of the American Teacher survey found that nearly three in four teachers reported frequent job-related stress.
Here are four tips to help the entire school community — educators, students and caregivers — ease the transition and alleviate anxiety to pave the way for a successful and fulfilling school year.
1. Allow ample time for educators to become familiar with school updates.
Just as families are dealing with new routines and expectations, so are educators, says Selina Oliver, a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and senior assessment consultant at Pearson. “They are adjusting to new staff members, leadership changes and updates to procedures that can take time to become accustomed to.”
Fresh initiatives are common at the beginning of the school year. Introducing expected updates early to give educators time to prepare can help minimize potential anxiety around new programs.
Additionally, offer robust training to boost their confidence and capabilities, Oliver suggests, adding that training is a key component of all Pearson’s clinical assessment tools, including self-service opportunities that educators can access before school starts.
2. Acknowledge the ‘summer slide’ and how it affects everyone.
The return to school after a prolonged break often involves students recouping both academic skills and social behaviors, and many students are still catching up after losing out on opportunities to develop those skills during the pandemic, Oliver says.
“At the beginning of the school year, students and staff are likely to struggle with both physical and cognitive endurance while adjusting to earlier waking times and more rigid routines,” she says. In addition, many kids may have taken a medication-free summer holiday and might be experiencing the effects of resuming medication use. They also might have had more screen time than usual, so it could take a while to renew their attention span and ability to concentrate.
Empathy is a must for everyone in the school community. Adjusting expectations to ease into the school year will contribute to a smoother start.
3. Create a culture of support among your teachers and staff.
Self-care is crucial for your team. “Just like on an airplane, one needs to put the air mask on themselves before they can help others,” Oliver explains.
To that end, she points out that anxiety can be contagious, and educators experiencing it could pass that uncomfortable feeling to their students. “Provide ongoing communication to educators that promotes social-emotional skills and includes mental health warning signs and resources,” she says. Just as you offer universal mental health screening to your students, consider similar support for educator mental health with a tool like Pearson’s Beck Anxiety Inventory.
Oliver also recommends encouraging your staff to ask for help when they need it, which helps model this behavior for students. And don’t dismiss the reality of social anxiety for adults. “Just like kids worry about who they’ll sit with at lunch or play with at recess, teachers might have the same concerns to some degree,” she says. “Even for adults, social hierarchies exist in the school building, so helping them connect with a teammate can increase staff morale.”
4. Develop lines of communication with families and caregivers.
Students aren’t the only ones who experience anxiety — caregivers do, too. “This anxiety can be diminished by providing timely and complete information about expectations and procedures,” Oliver says. In addition, it’s helpful to offer avenues for caregivers to share relevant information about their child with the teacher.
And yet, it’s not realistic for caregivers to expect intensive daily reports from teachers. Excessive monitoring can add stress to all parties involved and can send an unintended message to students that there is something amiss at school. Teachers can establish a trustful relationship with caregivers by proactively sharing information they should know and encouraging them to be judicious in their requests.
“Recognize that caregivers are your ally,” she says. “While caregivers know their child best, you know the educational expectations best. Help caregivers learn to ask for what they really need to know, versus what is nice to know.”
Support educator mental health in the classroom and beyond
The new school year brings new beginnings, new opportunities — and, sometimes, new concerns. Now is the time to prepare your team with the skills and resources needed to support their own mental health as they manage the excitement and challenges a new school year brings. For more helpful tools, visit Pearson’s Mental Health Resource Center.