Three tips from the Turnaround for Children Toolbox to welcome students back with rich opportunities for connection and agency.
After a year of extraordinary disruptions to nearly every aspect of our daily lives, signs of new ways forward are emerging this spring.
Districts across the nation are navigating the return to in-person learning and making a commitment to rebuild in new ways. With this shifting context, parents, teachers and leaders are asking important questions: How can we ensure a safe return to school? What will it take to address the unevenness of learning opportunities that have occurred over the past year? How can we use this moment as an unprecedented opportunity to redesign schools for equity?
The pandemic has laid bare many of the inadequacies in the ways that we have approached schooling in the past — with an almost singular focus on academic skills; with norms, systems and practices that differentially grant advantage or disadvantage to students based on race, class, gender and other markers of identity; and with the child seen as developing independently of their context. But there is momentum now to build something better.
Here at Turnaround for Children, we spend our days understanding scientific research about how young people learn and develop and applying it to the creation of tools and resources that empower educators and change learning experiences for students. We are motivated and inspired by what we have learned: that each student possesses dazzling potential for growth when welcomed into the learning environment and both supported and challenged to learn and apply new skills to relevant problems. We believe that one way we can use the science to promote equitable opportunities and outcomes for students is by sharing it directly with you, the people that do the ongoing and critical work of supporting students every day. Together, we can use these understandings to challenge the status quo and instead create contexts where all students can learn and thrive.
The Science Tells Us: Learning Is Integrated
As talk of academic recovery permeates the educational landscape, along with concerns over the impacts of lost in-person classroom instruction, we can turn to the science for guidance on what is needed most now, and what the science tells us is clear: Learning is integrated, structurally and functionally. No part of the brain develops in isolation, meaning that there aren’t separate “academic” or “social and emotional” parts of the brain. So, if we focus exclusively on academics and interventions to address, for one example, the concept of “learning loss,” we miss the real opportunity to engage students in their learning and at worst, may reproduce inequities by labeling and stigmatizing students due to perceived deficits. Instead, we want to invite students back into shared spaces with rich opportunities for connection and agency that ignite the brain and accelerate learning. Next, we will share some tips for getting started.
Tip 1: Let student voice drive the discussion
Acknowledging the integrated nature of learning in schools means working to intentionally counter the very real impacts of stress on the child as a learner. Stress, dysregulation and excessive cognitive load can be a result of environments that are are unpredictable, unwelcoming or overwhelming. As we transition into new in-person learning environments, creating contexts that are physically, emotionally and identity safe and that create a strong sense of belonging are essential foundations for learning. The Norms and Expectations Planner from the Turnaround for Children Toolbox can support you to bring students into the construction of a classroom environment in an inclusive way that best supports their holistic needs.
Tip 2: Build a relationship-rich classroom
One of the most powerful levers for redesign is the human relationship. Relationships are central to enabling children and young people to manage stress and ignite learning, and thus must be a focal point of the “back-to-school” transition. Just as we plan for content areas and classroom procedures, making a commitment to better get to know students as individuals; attuning to their needs; and providing the supports they need to grow are all ways for educators to honor the integrated nature of learning. Through relational practice shifts, we can learn to personalize rather than problematize. To learn more about the characteristics of developmental relationships and how they can be supported in your classroom, check out the Scenario Analysis reflection tool from our Toolbox.
Tip 3: Find opportunities for holistic skill development
The science of learning and development tells us that students need opportunities to learn and practice skills, in authentic contexts, while they are calm and relaxed. Skills such as self-regulation, executive functions and stress management show up across everything we do. Turnaround’s Integrated Skills Planner can help you find ways to incorporate holistic skills development into existing classroom structures, academic content and special events or activities (such as field trips or a presentation).
For more research, ideas, and resources, visit the Turnaround for Children Toolbox, an online hub for Whole-Child Design.