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How to help students start the school year right

7 min read
  • Motivation, Resilience & Growth Mindset
  • Stress management & well-being

The beginning of the school year can be a difficult time. For many students, this means potentially studying new subjects and having to build relationships with new teachers, and for the older ones, an increasing emphasis on independent studying.

Many flourish with this transition, but evidence suggests that the stress may lead to an initial reduction in grades and problems with self-esteem and attitudes towards teachers. Ideally, some work to help minimise this would have already happened in the weeks and months leading up to the start of the school year – useful strategies include taster days, giving out clear information to set expectations and using some of next year’s material in advance.

However, there may be some students who struggle to adapt. So, why is this the case? And what can be done to help students start the new school year well? Read on to learn more about:

  • How teachers can help students adapt
  • Strategies students can use themselves to start the year well

How can teachers help students adapt at the start of the year?

Recent research from University College London found that uncertainty is a big trigger for stress. It turns out it’s not the worst-case scenario that stresses us most – it’s the not knowing. If we want to reduce stress, we have to reduce uncertainty. So how can we do this?

Find out what’s causing their stress

For younger students, the biggest worries about starting secondary school include making friends, finding their way around a new environment and having to establish multiple teacher-student relationships. Research suggests that this is one of the most stressful transitions for students during their education. Older students obviously have different worries, with social status, for example, being more of a focus for teenagers.

By paying close attention to students, teachers can better understand them and guide them towards more appropriate strategies. Helping students to develop a sense of belonging at the school is very important for both their well-being and achievement, and the quality of the teacher-student relationship is central to this.

Remove ambiguity

If uncertainty causes stress, then one way to minimise its impact is to provide students with information so that they know what to expect. One way to remove any ambiguity is to have clear rules and guidelines in place so that students know exactly what is expected of them.

This should be done at the start of the year, as part of an induction, where students are told how much independent work they need to do and how to spend their free study sessions. Be explicit about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour – making sure you include a fair amount of repetition to ensure the messages get through – and talk clearly about good work habits and expectations. This provides a firm platform that can be returned to over the course of the year.

Provide both challenge and support

A recent overview by leading researchers highlights that for an environment to facilitate resilience it needs to be high in both challenge and support. Too much challenge and no support results in excessive stress, burnout and isolation. Too much support but not enough challenge can lead to complacency and boredom. It therefore seems if we want to help students cope with change, we shouldn’t rush to do too much for them, whilst also being aware that being available for support is essential.

A fascinating study found that those who were able to keep a sense of perspective coped better with change. The trick, then, is to remind students of the big picture (i.e., that everything will turn out okay) while also giving them a short-term strategy to focus on (i.e., what they should do next). Encouraging support networks is also important, to help individuals manage stressful situations.

How teachers can gauge when a student is struggling under too much challenge is an art, not a science. Knowing the difference between a stumbling block and an insurmountable barrier often comes with time and experience. Repeated failure, extreme emotional responses, as well as withdrawing and disengaging from the tasks are often signs that more support may be needed.

Click here to find more information to develop resilience in students.

Encourage a long-term view

A recent study on undergraduates offered some clues about how to manage transition and develop resilience during change. The researchers found that keeping a sense of perspective was a key factor in how students developed their resilience. The trick is to keep an eye on the big picture as well as the small details. The end goal helps maintain motivation on tough days, while also focusing on the smaller details helps maintain focus and concentration.

We will teach your students to thrive under pressure with key stress management skills. Ideal in the lead up to exams.

4 tips for students to start the school year right

The start of a new academic year is an exciting but stressful time for many. For your students, the key to starting on the right foot and keeping their initial good intentions going all the way to next summer will be to develop great habits.

Here are our four top tips for students to start the year right…

1. Identify goals for the year

Arguably, the secret to success is effective goal setting. Encouraging students to create targets they would like to achieve by the end of the year helps them feel motivated and gives them something they can work towards. However, all too often, students create goals that they never look back on.

A common reason for this is that they don’t set the right goals. Some key things to include when goal setting are:

  • Having both long-term and short-term goals
  • Making the goals challenging yet realistic
  • Focusing on the “why”
  • Making it specific
  • Being flexible
  • Considering potential obstacles

Once students set the right goals, the next challenge they need to overcome is planning out how to achieve these goals. A common issue with this is that students focus on the destination rather than the journey, which can often cause them to deflate and lose motivation when their progress feels so slow. To remedy this, it is important that students:

  • Break it down into smaller, shorter-term goals
  • Reflect on their progress regularly
  • Keep a journal
  • Focus on what they can control

2. Develop resilience

To foster resilience, students need an environment which provides them with both challenge and support.

Little challenge and little support causes students to stagnate. A high level of challenge without adequate support causes stress, whereas lots of support with a low level of challenge can make students complacent and bored. Therefore, finding the right balance, although it may be difficult at first, is key to develop students’ resilience.

Some other techniques to help improve resilience within the classroom include:

  • Being open to new experiences
  • Being optimistic
  • Viewing decisions as active choices
  • Focusing on developing skills

3. Use effective learning strategies

Often, the learning strategies that students like to use aren’t actually good for them. For example, in this study, 84% of students said they re-read to revise, with 55% saying it was their favourite revision strategy. However, in a review of over 100 studies, researchers found that re-reading is not beneficial to learning.

In contrast, Retrieval Practice, which is the process of generating an answer to a question, was shown to be one of the most effective techniques in improving long-term memory. Some benefits of Retrieval Practice include:

  • Identifying gaps in knowledge
  • Making and strengthening connections
  • Checking for understanding

Encouraging students to use this effective learning technique from the start of the year can help them get into the habit of using it and improve their learning. Some easy ways to use Retrieval Practice include:

  • Past papers
  • Multiple-choice tests
  • Flashcards

4. Develop good sleep habits

Last but not least, it is important the students develop good sleeping habits from the start of the year. A consistent sleeping pattern can help students:

However, many students won’t have fostered good sleeping habits during the holidays, staying up late at night and sleeping in in the morning. Thankfully, there are many strategies students can use to get back into a healthy sleeping pattern, such as:

  • Having a regular bedtime and wake up time – even on the weekends
  • Exercising for an hour a day
  • Avoiding screens or turning down the brightness on their phone at night

Final thoughts

Uncertainty breeds stress: equipping students with knowledge and information will help. Teaching students proactive coping strategies and developing a Growth Mindset culture will help them overcome everyday challenges and setbacks along the way. And finally, providing both high expectations and high levels of support – alongside balancing that with a sense of perspective– will help equip them with the skills needed to be resilient learners.

The start of the new year is a great time to set out key habits that will benefit students throughout the year. Setting the right goals, being resilient, using effective learning strategies and having good sleep habits can help students flourish throughout the rest of the year.


About the editor

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch

Bradley Busch is a Chartered Psychologist and a leading expert on illuminating Cognitive Science research in education. As Director at InnerDrive, his work focuses on translating complex psychological research in a way that is accessible and helpful. He has delivered thousands of workshops for educators and students, helping improve how they think, learn and perform. Bradley is also a prolific writer: he co-authored four books including Teaching & Learning Illuminated and The Science of Learning, as well as regularly featuring in publications such as The Guardian and The Telegraph.

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