Back to school… back to school…

It’s that time of the year when everyone is trying to savor the final moments of summer before the school year begins again.  Many of my teacher friends are gearing up for another year, getting their rooms and curriculum ready for another year of learning. 

Many of the kids I work with are getting anxious, albeit excited, and are experiencing some meltdowns at home because one of the biggest transitions of the year is about to happen.  As we begin to prep for the transition back to school, it is important to reflect on all that has happened this summer.  Letting your child brainstorm their “favorite summer adventures” from this past summer is often a good way to alleviate some of the stress from the upcoming change, and practice answering the question they are sure to encounter on their first day back, “What did you do this summer?”  With my students, we often create a visual map or web of all their adventures.  A particularly crazy adventure can be drawn (or written) out in a storyline, complete with pictures and words to support their retell.

It is also a good time to talk about the upcoming year.  Helping your child map out their “GOALS” for the school year can assist them in putting their stress in a manageable place.  For instance, one sixth-grade student delineated his goals as:

1) Get a 4.0 GPA for the year,

2) Make at least 1 new, good friend, and

3) Improve my cross-country times from last year.

Besides mapping out goals for the year, we mapped out a “PLAN OF ACTION” for the year.  In other words: “How are we going to achieve these goals?”  Goals are great, but are often very vague and elusive for students.  The student described above came up with the following PLAN OF ACTION for his goals:

1) Study for each test.  Complete homework assignments on time.  Follow-up with each of my teachers every week via email or a conversation after class (Mom will help me remember this).

2) Say hello and start a conversation with 5 new students during the first week.  Invite one friend over in the first month of school.  Join one new after-school club to meet new people.

3) Attend cross-country practices 3x per week.  Work out 1x a week at family gym, lifting weights and doing conditioning.  Talk to the coach 1x per week about what I can do to improve.


Even young children can have goals and action plans for the start of school.  A kindergartener might have the goal of: “Have fun taking the bus every day”, and an action plan of: “Say hello to the bus driver when I get on.  Smile and wave at mom and the other parents through the window.  Smile and say hello to my teacher when I get off the bus.”  This can help prep even the most timid child for their school year.  Giving them action plans gives them control over their anxiety, and helps them visualize ahead of time what the “unknown” will be like.

What can we learn from Finland?

I read an interesting article recently in TIME magazine about the education system in Finland.  Finland consistently ranks at the top in student achievement in math, science, and reading.  Singapore and South Korea are also high achievers, but unlike these two Asian countries, Finland’s school hours are shorter than the U.S. and homework is limited to an hour or less.

What makes the Finland schools unique is their focus on equality.  Students are not placed in classes based on achievement, or tracked into higher level math or science classes based on how smart they are.  Rather, the focus is on educating the entire group of students as a whole.  Such attention to all students has resulted in their “below average” students performing better than “below average” students throughout the world.  Signficantly better, actually.  80% better when compared with other countries.  Their “above average” students perform 20% better than “above average” students in other countries.

It was also interesting to read how Finland schools spend most of their time outside.  For example, when learning geometry, the students use sticks and rocks from the woods to form shapes.  They grow plants for science class.  They use walks outside to inspire their writing assignments.  And the schools with this sort of curriculum are poor, urban schools, as well as upper middle class schools in the suburbs.

One other main difference:  teachers.  It takes a 5-year masters program to become a teacher.  Teaching is a highly respected profession, with only 6% of applicants being accepted to teaching programs.  Considerable amounts of resources are spent educating teachers and preparing them for their classroom.  Once in the classroom, teachers stay with their group of students for several years, learning the nuances of their students and how best to prepare their daily lessons.  They are given the freedom to teach how they think is best, and “testing” is limited.

But it’s working.  Finland students are well-prepared across subjects, ranking 1st this year in many areas.  It’s interesting to think how our society and culture might adopt more of these practices to better prepare our students for the world.  And as parents, how can we support these practices at home?