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Messages to Take Back to School and Beyond

New beginnings are exciting! They become exciting to us because they offer the promise of hope, the anticipation of change in our lives, and the prospect that our dreams will indeed come true! Squire Rushnell, When God Winks on New Beginnings

Indeed, there is a buzzing energy reverberating in the homes of school-aged children just about this time of year. Whether your child is embarking on the wonder and magical days of kindergarten or they are a senior in high school entering the “last first day” of a year of countless “lasts,” the beginning of the school year is full of hopes and dreams as well as the to-be-expected sensations of jitters and butterflies in the belly.

With fall on the horizon, familiar back-to-school tips are emerging on the Internet from myriad organizations. One of the most popular tips, of course, is the importance of establishing routines at home before the start of school by making sure there are laminated lists of bedtime and morning rituals to be checked off by the children, offering them a sense of agency and mastery. I thought I would share a few thoughts for parents to reflect upon, ways to communicate to their school-aged children not just at the beginning of this school year but throughout the year.

As a psychologist working with school-age children morning, noon, and night (yes that’s right, school is not over when you have over 270 boarding students who live at the school), there are some messages that I find myself repeating in some form or another throughout the year. I find that these messages help children of all ages. Please feel free to adapt the language in a way that is developmentally appropriate for your child.

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes! Mistakes are a natural and necessary part of learning.
  • Give yourself permission to excel in some areas and struggle in others. Remember that your strengths are there to help your weaknesses out.
  • Perfection is just simply overrated. Consider being unapologetically you, which is by far the best version of yourself, imperfections and all.
  • Whether in class or on the athletic field, don’t compare yourself to others; evaluate your own strengths, growth, and achievements in relation to yourself. You will grow much more this way, and achieve your goals with greater success.
  • Surround yourself with school friends that support you. Like oil and water, sometimes we don’t always mix well with some schoolmates. Be courteous to them, of course, but move on.
  • Be gentle and kind to yourself, because you will have tough moments in class, at recess, or on dorm. When you are gentle and kind to yourself you move through tough times more smoothly. A byproduct of this approach is that you will also be more understanding and compassionate toward others.
  • Ask yourself daily: Who do I want to be and how do I want to behave today? Set an intention at the beginning of each day and notice how things flow.
  • Remember to take a few moments in the day to take some deep breaths. Those little pauses can nourish your body and your mind.
  • Welcome anxiety when it comes to visit your belly or your head before an exam or when the teacher calls on you. Instead of running away from the sensations of anxiety, invite it like a guest and chat with it for a bit. Anxiety is a normal experience and one that can come and go if you just befriend it.
  • Balance is a key ingredient to healthy living. Make sure that you have a good mix of school, work, play, and laughter in your day.

And parents, consider trying some of these practices too! These are lifelong practices that can serve us far beyond our school years.

Westtown Spring
Summer Skill Building with Your Child

With summer on the horizon, it is a great time for parents, guardians, and caregivers to think about the social-emotional skills that they would like to foster in their child. To begin your thinking, here are a few ideas, skills, and strategies that we use in Westtown’s Lower School.

  • Unstructured, unguided, and unplugged free play time: Providing children with the time to play without electronics is critical for fostering imagination, problem-solving, and resilience. Children today have access to a plethora of immediately gratifying, hyper-stimulating forms of entertainment such as on-demand television shows, video games, cell phones, iPads, etc. While this form of entertainment can be fun and enjoyable, it takes away from time that can be spent fostering skills such as focus, exploration, engagement, and problem-solving without the stimulation of the device. These skills are critical for success in school. As the summer approaches, think about how you can carve out time every day for your child to have unstructured, unguided, and unplugged free time. This may become one of their favorite times of day (and yours!).
  • Problem-Solving Skills: What an important skill this is! When teaching children to solve a problem on their own, there are a sequence of steps that you can explicitly teach them:

Step 1: Identify the problem“Can you tell me exactly what the problem is?”
This can be the most difficult step, as children tend to see problems from only their point of view. Parents can help by asking questions about the situation, what was happening before the problem happened, and who else is involved. This guided thought process can help the child to narrow the problem down to something that is specific enough to solve.

Step 2: Brainstorm all the possible solutions – “What are all the ways that you could respond?” In this step, help your child think of all the possible solutions to the problem – even the unrealistic or silly ones. This is a critical step, as it helps your child to think flexibly and generate ideas.

Step 3: Think about the outcome of each – “What will happen if you chose this one?” In this step, ask your child to picture what will happen if they chose each option. This step fosters forethought, which is necessary for planning, impulse control, and other life-long executive function skills. Cross out each solution that will not have the desired or optimal outcome as you go.

Step 4: Make your choice – “Which solution will you try?” Have your child select the option that is best from the list, and ask them to explain why they chose it.

Step 5: Try it – “Give it a try and let’s see how it goes.” After your child follows through on the option, talk with them to see how the events played out. Would they have made that same choice again? If not, would they have made a different choice? This step fosters self-reflection, and again, forethought for problems that have yet to arise.

  • Coping Skills: When emotions are high, it is hard to engage the thinking part of your brain. As a result, many actions and reactions can be unexpected because they are driven by emotion. Supporting your child in developing a habit of stopping to take a breath before acting can be very effective. We often use a breathing technique at Westtown known as the 5-4-7. The 5-4-7 is a structured breathing exercise. You begin by breathing in for a count of 5, then hold your breath for a count of 4, and finally exhale for a count of 7. Repeat as needed!

Social-emotional skills help our children navigate everyday life and the more we can partner at home and in school to develop these skills the better. Have fun with it and enjoy the summer months!

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Tackle Food Waste One Scrap at a Time

Caring for our environment is one of the three priorities defined in Westtown School’s Strategic Vision. To continue our important work in this area, we have been partnering with sustainability consultants, Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants.  This piece was written by Claire DuBois, Sustainability Intern with Boyer Sudduth.

Lower School Science Teacher Amanda Jeane Strode is passionate about helping Westtown meet its sustainable goals when it comes to waste. She incorporates recycling lessons into her science curriculum with hands-on activities. Fourth graders gather data, collect and sort recyclables, and transport them to the dumpster.

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Empower Your Child, Empower Yourself

As parents, we are hardwired to want the best life experiences for our children. We know that life will present challenges and it is our role to help them thoughtfully respond to and even learn to embrace these situations. Social Emotional Learning (SEL), also known as Emotional Intelligence (EI), is an invaluable skill that, when developed and nurtured, empowers children and adults to respond to life experiences in a healthy and well-adjusted manner. SEL skills contribute not only to your child’s academic success but also to their future work and life happiness.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is made up of five competencies including: self awareness, emotional and behavioral management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible and ethical decision making.  

So how do we translate this to our everyday life?  What do these competencies or skills look like and how do we teach them to our children? Let me provide some real-life examples of SEL skills, how they show up in our adult life, and ways to nurture these skills in our children.  

  • Empathy: When you are able to listen and be compassionate towards your colleague who is upset at work. Empathy is also at the root of amazing customer service. Empathy can be developed and nurtured in your children in an abundance of ways. One of the clearest pathways to nurturing empathy is through service. Whether it is through volunteer work at a homeless shelter, a visit to an elderly neighbor, reading a book together that teaches empathy, or using Design Thinking in the classroom or at home. Remember to follow up with conversations about these experiences with your children. Guide them in articulating their experiences and the feelings that emerged.

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College Decisions: The Waiting is the Hardest Part

Spring is in the air and college is on the mind of many seniors across the country. Some seniors have made their college choices, some are waiting for more decisions, and many are comparing and awaiting financial aid offers. In the next three weeks or so, seniors should finish receiving college decisions. Then they will need to make their own choices. Here are a few things for seniors and their families to keep in mind. 

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Westtown School’s Inaugural Ninth Grade BIPOC Summer Camp

Just months before the pandemic, Diversity and Inclusion Specialist Marissa Colston and I had been pondering the need for a more robust and inclusive orientation for our students from underrepresented and underserved communities. We had written and submitted a proposal for funding for such a program from a national diversity and inclusion organization. Unfortunately, along with the closing of schools throughout the United States and world, COVID-19 also abruptly shut down our envisioned orientation program and its funding effort.

With the 2020-2021 school year underway and with more and more students able to attend in-person learning on the Westtown campus, Celeste Payne, Upper School Equity & Inclusion Coordinator, joined Marissa and me in rekindling the aforementioned new orientation initiative.  In light of the difficult experiences of our own current students in distance learning, the three of us felt an even greater sense of urgency to offer an extensive pilot orientation program for at least a small segment of our new Upper School student population prior to the official beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. Marissa, Celeste, and I chose to offer a camp experience to all ninth grade BIPOC students as this target group would give us an ideal number of students new to the Upper School, around 25, for our experimental program. Also, we wanted to have about 5 additional older BIPOC students to serve as mentors at camp.

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Healthy Habits for Our Planet

As a new member of the Sustainability Committee at Westtown School, I appreciate the conversations we share that have reminded me of simple ways we can all help our planet. It always amazes me how small changes in our everyday practices and behaviors can have such a positive impact on our environment. Below are a few reminders of the little steps we can all take.        


Reduce Food Waste
Aim to waste less food in your home. Did you know your food waste is not only tough on your wallet but also has negative effects on the environment? 

  • Food waste in landfills contributes to the release of methane, a powerful heat-trapping gas 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. 
  • Americans waste a staggering 40% of our food (NDRC, 2017 ) which is 10 times more than our peers in Southeast Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa.
  • How can you reduce food waste? 
    • Plan meals in advance.
    • Serve smaller portions and use smaller plates.
    • Review refrigerator contents weekly and watch for items that you consistently waste.
    • Buy produce and perishable items in small quantities so they do not spoil before you use them.  

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That’s a Wrap: Eco-Friendly Tips for the Holidays

Caring for our environment is one of the three priorities defined in Westtown School’s Strategic Vision. To continue our important work in this area, we have been partnering with sustainability consultants, Boyer Sudduth Environmental Consultants.  We asked them for some easy ways to be more sustainable in our everyday lives, especially in the holiday season.  Below is a piece written by Hannah Riegel of Boyer Sudduth.  

 

Give our planet a gift this holiday season by making an effort to be more intentional with how you wrap your presents. Each year, about 227,000 miles worth of wrapping paper gets thrown away: that is enough to circle the planet nine times! Not only does wrapping gifts create waste, but also consumers end up throwing away about $12.7 billion of wrapping paper, tissue paper, and gift bags .

While wrapping paper broadly falls under the category of “paper,” most rolls are not recyclable. Why? The addition of plastic coating, foil paper, cellophane, glitter, and sparkles makes this paper non-recyclable (AF&PA).

These staggering numbers illustrate the need for sustainable options. Here are five tips to wrap your gifts sustainably to help the planet AND save money!

  1. Swap Wrapping Paper with Fabric

Do you have leftover fabric lying around or a fabric store nearby? Use colorful fabric to brighten any present sustainably. The fabric can be reused for future presents or given as an additional gift. Add leaves or flowers for a personal touch. See resources below for hints on how to wrap your gifts in fabric.

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College Shirt Day at Westtown
College Counseling for Juniors: The Shoulds and Coulds

The new school year is well underway. It is an exciting time for high school students especially; the new school year brings with it several rites of passage in the school setting. For juniors, that means it’s time to start thinking more deeply about their college plans, though students react differently to this stage. There are juniors who are ready to embrace the college search process while others are not there yet. Here at Westtown School, our College Counseling office is reminding our juniors that “any way you are feeling about college is completely fine.” These experts put together a list of what they think juniors in high school really should do right now and what they could do, but is less pressing.

SHOULD
Work hard in their classes!  Get back into the habit of in-person classes and assessments.

COULD
Go the extra mile in their classes and challenge themselves (within reason) to improve learning and, possibly, their grades.

SHOULD
Continue to do their activities or join some new clubs and expand their extra-curricular experiences if they did not have many last year because of the pandemic.

COULD
Take on leadership positions in chosen activities. Get more involved in existing activities. They could lead a fundraiser, plan an assembly, or sponsor or lead a service project, for example.

SHOULD
Juniors should attend at least one college visit at school this fall. College representatives are back in the practice of visiting high schools, so touch base with the college counseling office to see what colleges are scheduled to come to the school.

COULD
Attend several college visits at their school, and begin to think about colleges they want to visit in person.

SHOULD
Juniors should consider, along with their college counselors, if they need to take the SAT or the ACT this fall or winter. Testing in the fall is a good idea for those who want to be recruited athletes. (See when the PSAT is scheduled at school or locally.) All juniors should take at least one SAT or ACT this school year. Some like to try both.

COULD
Start to plan testing and do test prep (very optional).

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Back to School Post-Pandemic: Tips to Prepare Your Child

As we look toward fall and what we all hope will be a “more normal” start of school, there is a sense of excitement as well as a sense of concern. Many children have been home for a full year or more and on top of the normal start-of-school jitters and butterflies, they have the added weight of post-pandemic re-entry fears. We asked our psychology team here at Westtown to share some advice to help children of all ages prepare for school this fall. 

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