By Trish Brix-Baskin, LCSW
Fostering a Positive and
Caring School Environment
It’s that time of year again: back to school. It’s the time of year when school supplies are out in full force at Walmart and parents and teachers are gearing up for that fun first few weeks of education. It’s exciting, right?
For some parents and students, it can be an overwhelming and frightening time of year. Most people can agree that the unknown can be a pretty scary thing. For parents, there is the worry that their children will be left out, bullied or worse. For children, it can be a concern that they won’t fit in, won’t make any friends, or that their teacher(s) will be terrible. Experts agree there is a certain amount of anxiety about going back to school that is expected. After all, going back to school usually means adjusting from the slow, relaxed summer to a fast-paced schedule. This can be overwhelming for even the most experienced parent or student.
Some students develop physical responses to this anxiety, such as upset stomachs, headaches and problems sleeping. As a parent, you can try to normalize anxiety and try to talk through it with your child. Let them know if you experienced any of the same anxiety surrounding school when you were young, and how you handled it.
Open communication can be hard with any child, especially those who answer questions like, “How was your day?” with one-word answers. One way to attempt deeper and more open communication is to ask specific questions, such as: “What was the best part of your day?” or, “What was hard about today for you?” or, “What is one thing you learned today?”
Sometimes it will take a while for students, especially teenagers, to realize you really want to have a conversation with them and truly care about how they are doing emotionally, not just how they are doing academically. Don’t give up! The more consistent you are in asking the more specific, deeper questions, the more likely your child is to answer you with deeper and more specific answers.
If you are a teacher, you can help by making your classroom a safe place for all students, and by fostering friendships. Be someone who cares and is available. I know when I was in school, sometimes the best listener was a teacher who had showed me in their classes that they cared and were available.
School counselors are also excellent sources of support for students. Especially considering the world in which we are living, it’s helpful to know there are people in the school who are solely there to provide support and help to the students.
I also think a resource we tend to overlook is our communities. Parent-Teacher Associations seem to be underutilized today. I believe it is important to have open communication between parents and teachers to form the support system that our students need. When the students are experiencing anxiety, fear, depression or any other number of emotions, it’s important for everyone in the support system to work together to help those students. In order to work together, there have to be clear lines of communication, whether that is through PTA functions or just keeping in touch in other ways.
Sometimes school can be difficult due to feeling left out, criticized or different than other students. At our human core, there is a need for belonging and to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. This is true no matter what age you are. In school, there are so many people – from teachers and administrative staff to counselors and other students. What we want to do is foster community and make sure no one is feeling left out. There are students who naturally care and want to reach out to others. Teachers and staff can encourage those students to reach out to those who are hurting.
There was a movement not too long ago that some students started called We Dine Together, which involved sitting with other students at lunch so that no one sits alone. All it takes is one or two people such as students, teachers, parents and other school resources to start the conversation and help make school a better place for everyone. I hope that we can start a movement that is contagious.
For more resources to help maximize this school year, please contact your school’s counseling office, a local mental health organization, or Pine Grove Behavioral Health & Addiction Services in Hattiesburg at 601.288.CARE.
Trish Brix-Baskin, LCSW, works as a Clinical Social Worker at Pine Grove treating adolescents and adults. Her clinical experiences include clients with various disorders including mood, personality, substance use, trauma, and neuro-developmental disorders.