Social and Emotional Learning

Back-to-School Night: A New Approach

Back-to-school night can be a time to shine light on the importance of social-emotional learning -- at both home and school.
A young girl is raising her hand amidst a group of children and adults sitting together. They're all looking towards the front of the classroom.
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Back-to-school night is often unsatisfying. Everyone tries to show and tell the parents what they will be doing for the school year. The schedule is usually rushed, and at the end of the evening, school staff is exhausted and just glad another one of these nights is over. Parents are often left not particularly well informed or better prepared to support the school and their children.

So what if we try something a little different this year that focuses on social and emotional aspects of schooling and learning?  

Parent Challenges to Consider

First, consider some of the things that many parents coming to back-to-school night are experiencing:

  • Increased pace of life
  • Greater economic demands
  • Alterations in family composition and stability
  • Breakdown of neighborhoods and extended families
  • Weakening of community institutions
  • Unraveling of parent-child bonds due to work, school demands, time, drugs, mental health, and economic burdens
  • Children’s ongoing exposure to an array of digital media and pervasive advertising that encourage violence as a problem-solving tool and other health-damaging behaviors and unrealistic lifestyles

Yale child psychiatrist and child advocate James Comer feels there are more influences on kids now than ever before in history. And, he says, this is happening when time with caring adults seems to be diminishing. When all these forces combine, we can expect to see our children challenged to learn deeply and well, and parents struggling to help them.

So let’s use back-to-school night as a wake-up call to parents to see what is happening to their kids and the importance of focusing on the social-emotional support in the school and climate they set in the home. 

A New Script for Back-to-School Night

Here’s a suggestion to consider: Show parents and caregivers a PowerPoint slide listing the following eight values: family, friendship, riches, long life, peace, popularity, wisdom, and beauty.

Then say something to parents and caregivers like the following:

There are many more values than these, of course, but just consider these eight for a moment. Ask yourself this question: If you had a magic wand and you could wave it over your kids and choose three values for your children to internalize forever, which three would you pick? Take a moment to think about this, and share your selections with a few people around you, including folks you don’t know. Introduce yourselves and share.

Finished? Okay, so how many of you -- as any one of your three picks -- chose peace? How many chose Wisdom? Friendship? Family?

Now, ask yourself, of these eight values, which are the three that seem to be most emphasized -- or pushed on kids -- by our mass-media culture? It sounds like most would say riches, popularity, and beauty as the three most emphasized by our culture. These are being communicated to our kids by the mass culture 24/7, every day of the year, not just during school hours for 180 school days.

Perhaps now, it is a bit clearer why our kids may not be following parental values and why parents, and schools, must work together to set the right climate for our kids -- a climate that values friendship, peace, wisdom, family, and other important values (schools can individualize here) -- at home and at school.

Your children, our students, need parents and educators to provide inspiration, imagination, joy, optimism, humor, love, support, firmness, safety, clear values, and -- perhaps most important -- respect. With our collective support, our children’s youthful aspirations can soar into adult accomplishment.

We will be asking you for ideas about programs we can offer, and we will encourage all of you to join our Parent/Home and Teacher/School support team. We would also love for you to share what you are doing to build a supportive school climate.

Next Steps

How much of this script you are comfortable with is up to you. The above can be done in about 30 to 40 minutes. And if you wanted to further emphasize the focus on how we need to think differently to prepare our children for a future we can hardly imagine, you might want to show this brief video, Did You Know? Shift Happens.

Ultimately, I suggest that back-to-school night should be about initiating conversations about the values we hold most important, the need for home and school to work together to support those values, and to keep the conversation and commitment to collaboration going with tangible programs to both help and hear parents and caregivers.  

In essence, we all need to go back to school and learn together what our children need to be successful in a rapidly changing world.