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How To Prepare Students For A New School Year

When it comes to how to prepare students for a new school year, advisory programs and hope science can help.

Theresa Rex
Theresa Rex

Sep 15, 2021

Are your students prepared for the new school year? By that, we don't just mean are they heading to class in a new pair of kicks and a color-coded three-brad folder system. We mean, are they really ready? Are they in a position to come to class (or hit the Zoom link) focused and ready to engage?

School districts can better gauge student preparedness when they go into the new school year, asking the right questions, understanding what to look for, and adapting individual strategies or even widespread culture adjustments when the need arises.

The Plan: Reviewing and Setting Student School Year Goals

As the focus continues to shift toward whole-student outcomes, more school communities come to understand student preparation and goal-setting as a continuum, not a prescription.

That means that one of the first things to tackle on the "new school year to-do list" should be taking a fresh look at where your students are, where they want to go, and how that's changed from last year. For each student in your caseload, consider:

  • What are their documented long-term goals, including career aspirations and postsecondary education intentions?
  • Have those long-term goals changed? Significantly? Or have they just been tweaked?
  • Did student portfolios change over the summer? For instance, which students logged or need to log experience hours, toured colleges, or took summer classes?
  • How will those changes affect the school year?

These three questions begin with a broad view of what's going on in your students' heads and then zoom in  until you have a better picture of how to get them prepared for the new school year.

Even slight changes to long-term plans require consideration, especially in states that have diversified their graduation requirements and introduced policies that create multiple pathways to graduation, like Ohio and Washington.

For instance, if a student wants to demonstrate their readiness by securing dual credits or industry certifications, there may be a spate of CTE or Early College classes that align more closely to their chosen route.

To get to this point where you have a grasp on what your students' long-term plans are and what they need to get there you may need to:

  • Initiate postsecondary planning and exploration for your newbies
  • See what students got up to over the summer
  • Encourage or require students to retake skills and interest inventories
  • Schedule 1:1s to get on the same page, especially if you're noticing significant changes

A vital part of the goal-setting process for students at the beginning should also include a short-term goal for the year. Every student should be introduced to a goal-setting model like SMART goal-setting if they haven't already, and then use it to set an overarching goal for the school year or even for each marking period.

It can be academic, like, "I want to maintain an 80% or higher in Algebra for the school year", or it could be more personal: "I will volunteer with an organization I am interested in for an hour after school, and then log the hours with my counselor each week."

Whether it's about the grades they're striving for, a study habit they want to develop, scholarships they hope to explore, or a social skill they wish to hone, a short-term goal will prepare students for success in the new year and help them develop goal-setting strategies for life.

The Path: Preparing Students for Graduation & Life After High School

Another way to ensure that you're sending students into the new school year prepared is to ensure everyone is on track for graduation. Everyone.

While it's critical to keep your seniors on track, check on your underclassmen, too, since knowing where they stand at the start of this year— attending to any urgent interventions, and flagging potential future speed bumps — will keep staff, students, and families out of crisis mode when the time comes.

This kind of "audit" has taken on a new urgency this year. Every student has experienced significant upheaval and disruption thanks to the pandemic. Some of that has been structural and operational disruption. Imagine you're a student. You're nothing but eager to prove your trigonometric competency through a combination of turned-in assignments and aced exams. But, if the structure doesn't exist for you to do that — an open school, for instance, or a dependable internet connection, or someone to watch your little sister while your mom is working — it's just not going to happen.

Then, there have been the social and emotional upheavals and the damages sustained to student support structures, compounded by the collective trauma of sudden, prolonged isolation and, in many cases, economic strain and catastrophic illness.

Every student has been affected by these interruptions, and that's especially true for marginalized student groups who faced pre-pandemic barriers to food, internet access, utilities, and stable housing. School and its activities — like trigonometry exams — were necessarily deprioritized.

Now, it's time to look at where that leaves students and how to move forward. Many states eased graduation requirements and encouraged districts to authorize credit waivers in the early days of the pandemic. For better or worse, we have become accustomed to the rhythm of the "new normal". Students are returning, and requirements are becoming more stringent again, and credits are waived on a case-by-case basis, if at all.

This all means that, preparing students for the new school year means taking stock of what you know about whether students are on track to graduate on time and leaving space for the known unknown variables, too, like whether surge numbers will require another shutdown or shift to virtual instruction.

From there, you can start making plans for taking corrective and restorative action for students that need it to keep everyone on track this year. For many districts and the individual buildings within them, that will mean taking more than just grades and passed courses into account.

That will mean addressing the initial disparities in accessibility and support that led to the widening gaps we see as more schools welcome students back from summer break.

The Process: Revisiting Advisory Programs or Putting New Structures in Place

If there were ever a year to build out or rework advisory programs, it might be this one, when students need adults to care and advocate for them more than any time in recent memories. Creating a scalable, effective advisory program that does what you need it to can feel very daunting, but if there's anything that you can say for a pandemic year (we hesitate to call it an upside), it's that it gives you a place to begin.

Students need more from Advisory than an extra study hall every year. This year a renewed focus on strengthening student support and centering the mental health of the entire school community feels even more pressing.

We're all heading back to school and work with a lot on our minds; a universal delivery system that can be easily scaled and nimbly executed can help to ground students and keep them moving forward should be:

  • Operationally practical: Keeping everyone on the same page when it comes to expectations, upcoming events, and announcing important community information means keeping students on the same page, too.
  • Functionally relevant: Advisory materials and counseling models determined by your state's Department of Education, the ASCA, and your state's SCA will have a significant role to play in the shape your Advisory program ultimately takes.
  • Whole-student focused: More than just postsecondary planning, school year housekeeping, and an extra study period, Advisory can be a place to explore SEL curriculum and prioritize student mental and emotional well-being. That doesn't have to mean teaching a lesson plan around a social or emotional competency (although it certainly can!). It can be a place for students to discuss with their peers and invested adults about what's on their minds, their plates, or even on the news.
  • Supported by staff resources: Especially in the upper grades, some of the material and curriculum Advisory can potentially cover may feel unfamiliar to educators whose expertise lies in a different subject. Being entrusted with delivering that material, therefore, can be a daunting or difficult task. So, having a support structure for educators and staff will be as important as having one for students.
  • Adaptable and dynamic: Situations can change instantly, or, over time, opportunities for improvement become apparent. Building in space for evaluation and change will make it easier to ensure Advisory programs meet the needs of students and the goals of districts.

The Missing Piece: Starting the School Year Off With Hope

To prepare students for the new school year, we also need to get the whole thing off to a hopeful start. Most people think of hope in very abstract, even touchy-feely terms. It's often thought of as the "thing with feathers" or a gilded Klimt painting or at home on a bumper sticker.

But there is a science to the paradigm of hope and a growing body of research to accompany it. In 1993, Richard Miller, a Professor of Practice, T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamic, Arizona State University, launched an initiative that would come to be called Kids at Hope, which offered an "alternative paradigm to kids at risk". Here's how he summarized the concept and its importance for students in a 2014 interview with Arizona Education News:

"Conventional wisdom says some kids are going to do well, some kids are going to do OK, and we better be prepared for future failures. We can't accept the conventional wisdom because we lose too many kids along the way. The kids that make it, it isn't because we reduced, mitigated, or eliminated the risk in their lives. It's because we included hope. Hope comes from adults believing in you, connecting with you and teaching you to time travel."

That reference to "time travel" is the mental time travel that some researchers have unofficially dubbed chronosthesia - the hypothetical capacity of our brains to be aware of the past and the future.

That's how hope can be developed as a cognitive skill for students — it's the ability to use past experiences to imagine future possibilities and then set goals to help realize them. At its core, mental time travel is planning. It's an executive function, and with enough practice, it can be strengthened like any other muscle. 

Helping kids mentally time travel begins, Miller explains, with starting from the belief that "all kids can succeed — no exceptions." Getting students to buy into that belief happens when you ask them what their success looks like — both in the past and future.

If you're wondering whether you can even measure something like hope to gauge its effectiveness, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Research suggests that recalling positive memories from childhood can reduce the anxiety and stress of a present task and increase confidence in their abilities to perform a similar future task.

Then, there are ways that school communities can measure hope's effectiveness for their students. Miller explains that Kids at Hope uses a data model that tracks student relationships with adults in the school community (called aces) instead of (or in tandem with) disciplinary actions:

"When [a student's] behavior and attitude are questionable, use the tracking system to see if any adult on campus is connected to [them] and if they create high expectations and opportunities for [them] to succeed. In aces tracking, we might find out the person who knows [the student] best, cares about [them], and has opportunities to engage [them] is the school bus driver. So we use the bus driver in the intervention, not just the social worker."

School districts who want to prepare students to take on the new school year with hope should:

  • Refocus the conversation around the student perspective and away from adult concerns and stressors
  • Document your proactive hope science-centered initiatives to build a consistent culture that addresses the importance of hope to student outcomes every day
  • Make use of science-backed mental time travel exercises like bucket lists, future-oriented thinking, and planning activities like the Tower of London task all help students strengthen the skill
  • Track more than risk factors and red flags — look for other areas to measure that gives a more complete picture of the student experience

We started SchooLinks because we want every student to have a plan for post graduation life that is based on their desires and experiences. That plan comes from proper preparation, and hope, from the adults that support those students.

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Theresa Rex

Theresa Rex is the content marketing manager at SchooLinks. She is a first-generation college grad and an absolute nerd for equity and em dashes.

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