Adjusting to a new school year

Adjust or bust. Or so it feels for millions of students (and teachers) who have either returned or are beginning classes for the first time, maybe even in a new place this month of September.

Our home (and the people in it) too is going through an intense period of adjustment now that our youngest daughter is living away at university. Being an outgoing, independent and easily adaptable person, she (and we) had anticipated an easier period of adjustment after leaving home to live on residence while she attends her first year of university. However, our expectations were likely too lofty as she works towards adjusting to this often daunting and overwhelming new way of life.

Not only does she still (two weeks later) find it challenging to be responsible for everything in her life (eating the right foods, getting up on time for class, keeping her room relatively clean and organized, making new friends, doing laundry, finding her way to class with the help of Google maps, taking herself to a walk-in clinic when she wasn’t feeling well), she’s also struggling with being away from us – well, maybe not just us. Actually, she’s likely missing her cats, warm showers and a more comfortable bed more than she’s missing us, but she’s definitely experiencing life in a way she’s never had to before.

Despite acknowledging the huge changes to her life over the past 14 days, she’s quite hard on herself. She thinks that everyone around her appears better adjusted and seem to be having more fun. My bet is that other students may think the same about her. No one really knows what’s going on behind closed doors or inside another person’s body or soul without getting to know them much better. And for the most part, most students are not willing or may be too embarrassed to share their inner most feelings of loneliness, sadness and anxiety with one another.

So, I’m trying to normalize the experience for her (and for you and your child if you are in the same position). It’s completely normal to feel unsettled or unsure as one adjusts to their new surroundings. In fact, placing the expectation of needing to feel completely adjusted so soon only makes the situation worse and increases one’s level of anxiety.

The same is true for students who are beginning kindergarten, grade one or grade nine, for example. They too are coping with big changes as they move a big step up in their academic career. It’s important not to minimize the impact of entering a completely foreign environment with unfamiliar faces. Younger (and even older) students may also be experiencing separation anxiety. This too is normal.

Starting a new school year – even if in the same environment – can create a heightened level of anxiety about potentially having to make new friends or becoming used to the dynamics between people in a new class.

Placing pressure on oneself to adjust quickly or bust is not fair. My advice is for students and teachers to be patient with themselves and to expect adjustment to take time. Slow and steady wins the race meaning that it’s better to take your time to get used to something new and to take one small step at a time rather than to rush yourself and then feel badly when you’re not coping as well as you’d anticipated.

One way to think about this is to consider what you feel like and how you behave when you go from sitting in the sun to entering a cool pool of water. Even though some may want to just plunge in and get it over with, most people find it easier to put one foot in at a time, then wade in up to their waists and gradually immerse their bodies in the water as each body part acclimatizes to the cooler temperature. So too is a new learning environment better tolerated when you are patient and mindful of how you walk in.

In addition to finding ways of easing into adjusting to a new social environment, there are also often academic adjustments to be made. Listening to a professor speak in front of 500 students is way different than being part of a class of thirty and learning to have the discipline to attend lectures where attendance is not recorded can be a challenge too. Many new university or high school students find that they are not as well equipped as they had thought when it comes to applying work habits that yield successful results. Struggling with this can make the adjustment process even more difficult.

In order to assist parents help their children and students help themselves towards developing and maintaining “good” work habits, I interviewed Janyce Lastman, education consultant and founder of The Tutor Group, for a podcast I created titled “How students can develop and maintain successful work habits“.