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Back-to-School Night: A New Approach

Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)
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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.

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.  

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Maurice J. Elias

Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

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Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

Love the idea of back-to-school night as a conversation about shared values. I have to say, in reading this, I chose "beauty" as a value because I was thinking of it in the sense of responding to beauty in nature and in the arts -- and in the sense of education as the pursuit of truth, beauty, and justice -- not in the sense of trying to make oneself look attractive to others.

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Phyllis Frank's picture

Love the clear, engaging and interactive process suggestions. As a participating parent attending the meeting, gaining the sense of school /community/student support, I would ask the following question: How much of what we build together gets eroded by the adult planned 11-12 week summer disconnect for students, faculty, parents, and community? In other words, when it comes to learning, teaching, planning, partnership AND play, how much summer is enough? Let folks toss out a number of weeks and then discuss what to do with the remainder weeks. I would be inclined to suggest 5-7 weeks of summer with the remainder distributed as timely intervention/ enrichment and vacation opportunities at summation school calendar time (end of quarter, trimester or semester). Such a school calendar year can contribute mightily to a continuous, connected, supportive, community school atmosphere for all faculty, parents, and students.

Dr. Ari Yares's picture

Dr. Elias' strategy is an interesting shift for Back to School Night, but it might be better suited for a whole school or grade level conversation, rather than in the individual classrooms.

When we plan Back to School Night, we need to think about what our parents want out of the evening. Do they just want to know how the classroom works, what homework is like and what the teacher's approach to a variety of topics is? Do they want to get to know the other parents in the grade? Do they want understand what the rhythm of the day is or of the year?

When thinking about planning for Back to School Night, think about not just want you want to accomplish, but what your audience wants to hear. Perhaps, create a series of questions and ask your parents what they are looking for so you can deliver a meaningful and engaging Back to School Night.

Maurice J. Elias's picture
Maurice J. Elias
Prof. of Psychology, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab (www.secdlab.org), Director, the Collaborative Center for Community-Based Research and Service (engage.rutgers.edu)

I agree with Dr. Yares that the approach I suggested is best suited to conversations wider than those in a given classroom. I also appreciate the point he raises about being sensitive to what an audience wants to hear. When it comes to education, I have found that many parents are not at all sure about what they want to hear, and in fact are unduly influenced by their own educational experiences. These experiences are not necessarily those that should guide their children's schooling! More to the point, Dr. Yares' comments allow me to make two other key points: Back to School Night is just one night and should be part of an ongoing plan of parent engagement and involvement, and even at the classroom level, but certainly at the school level, we need to engage parents with the big picture before we engage in details. What do we stand for in this school and classroom? How do we want people in this classroom and school to relate to one-another? What values, among many possible ones, do we want to emphasize? Knowing the big picture allows details to be more meaningful, and also equips everyone to better ask the question, "Is this really what we should be doing?".

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