Prepping for the Future: Back-to-School Tips For All Ages

As the school year begins this week, three UCalgary experts urge us to prepare our children – whether they’re heading off to preschool, highschool or university – for all the newness and promise that happens at this time of year. While teachers and professors have been prepping for the past few weeks, parents and students may also need a few back-to-school strategies. Herewith:

Entering School for the First Time

Letting go and exploring new worlds will pose excitement and trepidation for parents of students entering school for the first time. Here, we have enlisted the expertise of UCalgary professor Cynthia Prasow to provide some information for both parents and students venturing into new classrooms this fall.

Cynthia Prasow, BEd’73, is an early childhood educator, specializing in ages up to eight years. Her particular focus is on young students, kindergarten to Grade 3 – here’s what she has to say:

What to Expect

According to Prasow, who is also the Director of Student Experience, “it is key for parents to get familiar with the school’s roles and responsibilities.” Schools have certain expectations for both parents and students and knowing these before the first day of school can make the transition easier. Is there a dress code in effect? Where are pick-up and drop-off areas? What are the days off for the school (this is huge if additional childcare is needed)?

There are also financial responsibilities to take into consideration – such as school fees, busing fees, field trip fees and so forth. Luckily most schools have webpages that contain a wealth of information so take advantage of that. There is also financial support if needed, so your child doesn’t have to go without.

For both parents and students, knowing there may be different rules in the classroom than at home is critical. Now is the time to talk to your children about rules and expectations and who to listen to in the classroom. Remember this is a big transition for your child so letting them know what to expect before school starts will help them, and you, in the long run.

We have all heard the phrase “helicopter parent” and the stigma attached to that. Elementary school populations can be as high as 700 students – so micro-managing the school can be detrimental to all involved. Luckily there are modes of communication available to parents; just be sure to investigate these and take advantage of them if you need more one-on-one communication.

What Should you do to Prepare?

Prasow emphasizes that “communication is the key for preparing young students.” Let your child know their concerns are important and let them talk about their feelings. Now is not the time to minimize what they are going through. The more comfortable they feel the more successful student they will become.

There is going to be a change in routine. Are the children going to have to get up earlier than normal? If so, establish that routine before the first day of school. What is the new day going to look like? How is it different than now? These are things that should be addressed NOW.

Prasow also says “having some dry runs can put both parent and student at ease so Day One at school doesn’t contain everything new.” Are you going to be walking to school? What route are you going to take? How long will it take you to walk?

Does your child have any medical issues? Do they have severe allergies? Do they need to carry an epi-pen or an inhaler? This critical information needs to be communicated to the school so there are no surprises for anyone.

Additional Resources

Most schools have websites – gather as much information as you can.

Alberta My Child’s Learning – This resource also contains information on the variety of educational choices you have for your child.

Prasow provided two books that may help with the transition during this time.

  • The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn. This is a book for both parents and children starting school or facing separation.
  • Ramona the Brave by Beverly Cleary. Ramona Quimby is bound and determined to be brave as she weathers first grade, her mom’s return to work, and sleeping in the spooky dark all alone.

In a Nutshell

For Cynthia, the top five things for parents to remember are:

  1. Consider your child’s feelings and opinions and don’t minimize them. Be open to answer all questions from your child.
  2. Learn to let go. Let your child explore and experience their new world but reinforce you are there to support them.
  3. Enforce respect and manners in the classroom.
  4. Let your child take responsibility – let them have a say in their clothes, lunch kit, etc.
  5. Keep track of your child’s school work and make a habit of checking their backpacks daily.

High School Years

Transitioning from junior high to high school can be a big leap. Apart from the obvious, some changes are subtle and if you don’t have first-hand experience with the nuances of high school, you may be caught off guard.

Jim Brandon BEd’72, MEd’88, PhD’05, is currently UCalgary’s associate dean of Professional and Community Engagement in the Werklund School of Education and has more than 43 years of experience in education, including roles ranging from teacher to principal to the president of the College of Alberta School Superintendents. Brandon’s focus is on high school and he offers some advice to both parents:

How to Help

To aid in the transition from junior high to high school, it is imperative that parents understand there is a fundamental shift in responsibility – from the parent to the student. Brandon says, “kids at this age are searching for autonomy and it is important for parents to understand this.” This is the student’s time to venture out and start to make decisions on their educational and career paths. He stressed to “reinforce that you believe in them and are there for them as they make their own decisions.” As emerging adults, high school-aged students are looking to have a larger say in their lives (educationally and socially) but still need guidance and support from parents.

Educationally, there is a shift in the type of learning they receive. Courses are quick and contain a lot more information and it is key for students to know the teacher’s expectations. There is less one-on-one interaction between student and teacher but there is support available to them.

According to Brandon, “social interactions are keys to success” and he stresses connecting socially to students and teachers. He warns that high school “can be a lonely place if the student is not engaged” and urges students to explore all aspects of the community, including clubs and teams.

What Should you do to Prepare?

For parents, Brandon emphasizes “working on being a good parent.” He recommends not to over- or under-parent. Again, students at this age need some freedom and do not need to be micro-managed, but some guidance is definitely necessary. For example, students may want to choose their courses but might not have full knowledge of what is needed for their potential career path and this is where the parent can step in and provide advice.

For parents and students, what are the policies and expectations of the school? Is there a social media policy? Are there rules around technology? What are the rules surrounding driving to school? Who are the key people in the school (academic staff, administration, guidance counsellors)? What extra curricular activities are available? There will be a sea of clubs and teams to choose from; check what is available, NOW.

To maximize success, he urges students to “be ready to roll academically.” Be ready for school on the first day and be sure to keep in touch with teachers in regards to tests and assignments. Also, for some students, the grading system may change from junior high so be prepared for that shift as well.

Lastly, if your student has a potential career in mind, make sure their courses align with their career goals.

Additional Resources

If your student is looking to go to a post-secondary institution, look for information on their site to help choose the correct courses.

Alberta My Child’s Learning – This resource also contains information on the variety of educational choices you have for your child.

In a Nutshell

According to Brandon, the top five things for parents and students to remember are:

  1. Get connected in the school community and with other students.
  2. Keep lines of communication open – as a parent, be open minded and an active listener.
  3. For students, get organized. Know what is due and when, and don’t fall behind.
  4. For students, accept who you are and don’t succumb to peer pressure. Don’t compromise your rules and values. There will be people in school that have the same rules and values as you do so don’t be afraid to find them.
  5. For parents, let the students have more control in their academic and social lives but offer support and guidance when needed.

Post-Secondary Here We Come

The next chapter in a student’s life involves venturing into post-secondary education. This is a monumental step and an achievement that deserves recognition.

Nancy Arthur practised as a counsellor in post-secondary settings for 16 years. Her PhD in Counselling Psychology (UCalgary, 1996) examined the perceived demands and coping resources of students transitioning to post-secondary education and she continues to research the career transitions of Canadian and international students. Arthur is Professor and Associate Dean Research in the Werklund School of Education. Her focus here is the transition to post-secondary education. Whether re-entering the educational stream after several years in the workforce, or continuing education from high school, she provides some salient tips to help set students up for success.

What to Expect

For all involved, the transition to post-secondary education can be full of perceived stressors such as the expectations and uncertainties of academic performance and how school experiences are related to changes in other life roles.

Environmental changes can include having much larger class; possible changes in support systems by not having friends in classes or even school; the possibility of living on your own; and potentially having to relocate from a rural locale.

Academically, the changes come fast and furious. There are new timetables and schedules, new grading scales, a shift to independent learning, adjusting to new teaching techniques, and strict deadlines.

For parents of post-secondary students, there is an adjustment as well. The time commitments on your young adult are immense. Having a standard schedule that you control can be a thing of the past. Early classes, late classes, labs and group projects will all impact their time at home.

How to Prepare

Arthur warns that the academic calendar for post-secondary education begins immediately and keeping ahead is key, as is maintaining open communication channels with family, friends, and partners on the affects school will have on them.

Take advantage of Orientation Week. Sessions that highlight dozens of resources as well as campus tours and numerous events are designed for first-year students.

Possible Stressors

With such a change in culture and academia, there are many stresses that, if left unchecked, can lead to difficulty.

There are obvious academic stressors that come to the forefront. The most common question students will ask themselves is “academically, how will I do?” It can be stressful to have expectations of being “top of the class,” especially if they are used to that. The pressure on academic performance can also come from external sources. Parents and peers who expect top grades can add additional stress, even if that is what students think other’s expect of them.

Financial stress is another common element of post-secondary life. Education is expensive and worrying about how to pay for school can loom large. There can be pressure to work to pay for school, but working can impact the time needed for school.

These stresses can have adverse effects on the student, leading to potential negative behaviours, including procrastination or socially withdrawing from support systems.

Luckily, most post-secondary institutions have support networks, including counselling and career services. Arthur encourages students to “take advantage of the services available and to not be afraid to ask for help.” Knowing there is a strong social and support network available can lead to success. Arthur adds, “research has shown a direct correlation between social support and academic success,” so taking advantage of the social and support networks can set the student up for success.

Additional Resources

There is a wealth of knowledge at your disposal, including the institution’s webpages, career services, learning support services. Most post-secondary institutions have an interdisciplinary team of wellness experts available to support students’ academic success. Don’t be afraid to look at your institution’s webpages or go to the variety of student services offices to gather information.

Academically, each faculty has resources at your disposal to answer questions about your program.

Always remember, you are not in this alone and there is a large group of people there to help.

In a Nutshell

Arthur emphasizes the following five points:

  1. Get started on Day One.
  2. Expect ups and downs in your academic experience.
  3. Get involved on campus and feel a part of something.
  4. Develop good study habits and stress management – these are lifelong skills. Take care of the basics – get sleep, exercise, and eat well.
  5. Find what resources are available for you on campus and don’t be afraid to use them.

As a reminder, Arthur notes, “your overall experience at your post-secondary institution is more than just your academic program.”

By BRENT FRASER, University of Calgary Alumni News

Brent Fraser, BA’94, is a communications professional who freelances for his alma mater on areas that matter to him – from career services to educational strategies.