Back to school: Ten things to bear in mind

15/09/2021

On Monday 13 September, Spain’s almost 30,000 schools open their doors to a new school year. For people with children, it’s time to make some decisions, help them get back to some old habits, and even address any possible fears.

Start the school year on a good footing and learn about the ten things that, according to experts, all parents should be thinking about at the start of the school year to ensure that the next nine months run smoothly.

1. The adaptation process. After the holidays, children can sometimes struggle to go back to daily life and strict school schedules. But, as experts have pointed out, it’s actually the holidays that are out of the ordinary, which means that “going back to our old routines should be a natural process that we can prepare for a few days in advance by starting to follow similar schedules to those in place at school, even if they’re not exactly the same.” This is the advice of Jordi Perales, a course instructor at the UOC’s Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences and tutor of the UOC’s University Master’s Degree in Learning Difficulties and Language Disorders.

Sylvie Pérez, also a course instructor at the UOC’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences, warns that what’s important about the holidays is that they’ve given children a break from their usual daily routines in relation to school schedules, “and being aware that this, which is beneficial for everyone, should also help them face the return to school by accepting to some extent that the first few days will be difficult for everyone.” According to Pérez, this is a good way to prepare, provided that the child is not anxious or nostalgic for what they’re leaving behind but is instead approaching the situation as “what needs to be done at that moment, which is to return to the calm or chaos of our daily routines.”

2. School WhatsApp groups. It’s almost inevitable: however unsure you may be about it, the need to create ties with your kids’ classmates’ parents by joining their WhatsApp group usually wins. But how you behave in this group is up you. Experts agree that the problem is not the tool itself but how it is used. As pointed out by Nati Cabrera, member of the UOC’s Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences, in this article, maintaining good relations with the parent community is one thing, and turning that relationship into a parallel agenda to save children the effort of taking on their own responsibilities is something else altogether. She agrees on this point with Sylvie Pérez, who points out that these groups should never be used “to find lost items of clothing, ask what today’s homework is or make rude or impolite comments, and in any case they should never be used to criticize something that other people’s children have done at school, because that’s something that should be dealt with at school.”

3. Will school bubbles remain in place? Will there be a return to blended learning? How to deal with the uncertainties caused by COVID-19. The health situation is new for everyone, and that includes the youngest members of the family. And, even if schools have assured us that the whole academic year should in principle take place in person, children need to know that this is an uncertain situation. “Preparing for uncertainty isn’t easy, particularly when we’re seeking certainty to reinforce learning. But children are very good at adapting to new situations,” pointed out Jordi Perales, adding that the bright side is that, after over a year of pandemic, students already have an idea of what will happen if blended learning has to be reinstated, “and anticipating new situations can make it much easier to adapt to them.”

In any case, according to Sylvie Pérez, we must explain the situation to children and teenagers—as appropriate in accordance with their level of maturity—to make sure they’re not worried. “Insecurity is usually the result of fear of the unknown, and that’s why we must explain how and why. This must also be done with the adults in the students’ households. If the adults are scared, this fear will be passed on to the children,” she explained.

4. What about extracurricular activities? According to experts, it’s a good idea to let children develop any interests they have and, if they enjoy music or sport, to sign them up for extracurricular activities in these or other disciplines they may be interested in. But only as long as you ensure that these extracurricular activities do not involve “tutoring” to improve their grades, explained the tutor of the UOC’s Master’s Degree in Learning Difficulties and Language Disorders. “Ensuring that children acquire competencies in primary and secondary school is the school’s job. You’re not doing children any favours by forcing them to do again in the afternoon what they did in the morning,” he said, pointing out that a bit of temporary reinforcement is one thing and institutionalizing tutoring is another.

Furthermore, experts recommend that, if children are enrolled in extracurricular activities, these should not take place every weekday afternoon, they should always be agreed with the children themselves rather than imposed on them, and you should stick with them for a couple of terms if possible. “If you think you made a mistake or the child feels it was a mistake, give it a bit of time and teach the child that decisions must be followed through,” explained Sylvie Pérez.

5. What does giving the school consent to use photographs of the children entail? In most schools, parents are usually asked at the start of the school year to give consent to their children having photos taken and to their legal representatives being informed of the activities carried out, or to use their photos for advertising purposes on media or social media. Although parents are obviously free to decide what to do, children over 14 can give their own consent. For children under this age, the legal representative’s consent is required. However, for certain matters, the relevant criterion for establishing who decides is the child’s level of maturity. In any case, whether consent is given by the parents or the child in the case of over-14s, this is not carte blanche. In any case, photographs of children must only be used for the purpose stipulated in the Organic Law on Education (LOE). This purpose is the schools’ education function and their own guidance.

Mònica Vilasau Solana, a faculty member of the UOC’s Faculty of Law and Political Science and director of the UOC’s postgraduate course in Data Protection, explained that, even with consent—either from the child or from their legal representative—a school cannot use a child’s images in any way it wishes, as Organic Law 1/1996 on the Legal Protection of Children stipulates that the dissemination of information or the use of images or names of children in the media that may constitute unlawful interference with their privacy, honour or reputation, or that are against the child’s interests, will result in the Public Prosecutor’s office becoming involved and immediately applying for the interim and protection measures envisaged in the Law and suing for damages (Article 4.2 of Organic Law 1/1996).

6. If there are changes to their classmates. What can you do if your child’s usual classmates won’t be there this new school year, either because the school itself has rearranged the groups or because the child is going to a new school? Experts recommend that you trust your child’s ability to socialize, although you can also give them a bit of help. “The main thing is not to increase the initial “trauma” of the situation for the child,” explained the UOC faculty member, adding that it’s also beneficial to help them create an accurate image of themselves, letting them know in what aspects they have potential and what improvements they can or should make. Another tip from Jordi Perales is to explain to them that, during their lives, sometimes they’ll have to be with people they don’t like, and that, even if they don’t like it to start with, “this may be an opportunity to meet different people who may have much more to contribute than they initially thought.”

7. Should I help them with their homework or leave them to do it on their own? This is another common question among parents: Is it better to help them, or should I let them try to do it on their own? The answer is that, if they need help, it’s always good to give it. But parents should stop short of doing their children’s homework for them. As Perales explains, homework is a reinforcement task assigned by teachers to students based on what they have covered in class. This means that all students should be able to do it—at least in theory. But it’s fine for parents to provide the time, opportunity and space to do it, and even a short explanation if necessary. But what if you notice that your child is unable to do their homework? The recommendation is that you inform the teacher so they can assess the situation and tailor future homework to each student.

8. Should I keep a strict schedule at home too or keep things flexible? Playing outside with friends after a long day at school is almost a necessity. But should we set some sort of schedule for kids to come home at a specified time to do their homework for the next day? According to Sylvie Pérez, the answer depends on their age. According to this UOC course instructor, if they’re reaching the end of secondary school or are in post-compulsory education, they should have learnt to manage their time by now and know at what times they work best or how long each task is likely to take. However, when they’re first starting to get used to homework, it may be useful to help them find out what works best for them and help them become gradually independent in this regard. Then, as they grow up, “you must also place a certain amount of trust in them, making them responsible for doing their work. If they’re keeping up with all their work, you shouldn’t interfere,” she explained.

9. Moving up to a new stage. Going up from primary school to compulsory secondary school (ESO), or from this to upper secondary school education, can cause certain fears to arise. When faced with what looks like a new situation, feelings of uncertainty are only to be expected. But the truth is that students have known what their path at school would be like from an early age. “All students know by the first or second year of primary school that they will attend compulsory secondary school after year six. They have therefore had the opportunity to anticipate these changes. What causes uncertainty is not the change itself but not expecting it,” explained Perales. According to this UOC course instructor, this is precisely why we should discuss it well in advance, “providing plenty of room to have a conversation about what will change, what the child is worried about… You should try to make them view the transition as something that’s necessary and natural and can’t be changed, pointing out that their classmates are in the same situation and that both those who came before them and those who come after them have followed or will follow the same path.” If possible, encouraging them to discuss these concerns with other students who have already moved on to higher stages can be very helpful, because they are the closest people to them who have been through this experience.

10. How should I deal with a child who’s anxious about the new school year being “harder”? According to experts, it’s normal for them to have heard that each year gets “much harder” than the previous one, and it’s true. According to Perales’s explanations, each year has to be harder than the previous one “simply because, due to simple reasons of development, students are able to solve more complex matters with every year that passes.” Having said that, both teachers and families must be mindful of each student’s development “so they can adapt decisions about them based on how they respond to each situation. If a family notices that their child is in distress, they must tell the relevant teacher so that they can act accordingly.” he warned.

We wish you all the best for the school year 2021/2022!

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