Five Lessons from a Guidance Counselor

Tips on Navigating the New Academic Year

Over the last few months of the Covid-19 pandemic, you’ve probably heard this nearly every day: Collectively we are emerging from the greatest challenge we have ever faced in our lifetime.

August 2021 and back to school sales publicized at the big box stores signal a really BIG return to a normal, post pandemic world many of us have been waiting for: in person school. Students from preschool to college will once again be heading back to classes with their friends. Students can return to after school activities and clubs. No more virtual meeting fatigue! It’s a return to normal. Well, a new normal, anyway.

Parents are exhaling a big sigh of relief as we turn away from the biggest, collective traumatic experiences of our lives towards this new normal. Until recently, I had not realized how much I was holding my breath over the last eighteen months. I’m so thankful my daughter can enjoy her senior year of college with a return to in-person classes on the UT campus, and that my high school junior will experience her last two years of high school as any “normal” high school student would. There’s memories to be made!

Looking ahead to the return of a normal school year, here are the lessons the pandemic has taught me (or reminded me of) and I want to share them with you:

Make schedules, but be prepared to pivot (that means you too, parents!).  It can be hard to keep and make a schedule when you’ve been home for months. Planning and organizing are important “executive function” skills that students practice in school and in their personal lives and will use for the rest of their lives. If your student was a virtual student last year, now is a good time to guide them to developing a step by step process to organize their time, set dates to complete each step, and build in extra time for unexpected issues. Find what format works best for them by trying electronic or paper planners. At the same time, learning how to “pivot” (much like Ross and that couch on Friends) is another skill set that will continue to come in handy as we navigate this new normal. 

Kids - of all ages- need to read. A study in 2009 showed that 30 minutes of reading lowered blood pressure, heart rate, and feelings of psychological distress as much as yoga did. (hey, we adults probably need to look away from Netflix and read for 30 minutes too!) I just don’t buy the argument that reading isn’t as important as it used to be. Is your child interested in being an automotive technician? Have you seen a text book on automotive technology? Those textbooks are some of the biggest (and heaviest) I’ve ever seen! A quick look at the In Demand Occupations to 2026 at www.tn.gov reveals that most jobs- regardless of educational level- are going to require reading. Even if your child says they don’t have homework, please consider setting aside 30 minutes a night for everyone in your household to read.

Anxiety about returning to “normal” is very real. Many children will be anxious about returning to in person school and activities. Think back to your first day of school: some of us might have entered boldly into the building ready to see our friends and teachers. Others might have been quite emotional for several weeks at the beginning of the school year. If your child is returning to school in person after a year of virtual school, they may very well feel anxious and uncertain about returning to school. This may especially be the case if they are going to a new school this year. If they seem worried, perhaps a drive over to look at the school (even if it’s just the outside), or a look at the school’s website can ease your student’s mind. Even if they don’t appear anxious, take some time to talk with them about how it feels to return to school. Acknowledging their feelings as real is important. Email your student’s teachers and school counselor, let them know how your student is feeling and ask them to be a partner in the development of your child’s well-being as they return to school. 

Another reason I think it’s important to communicate with your student’s teachers and counselor early and often: they may observe a sudden change in behavior, or a drop in quality of work.  If you notice a sudden change in your child’s behavior, let the teacher know. If a parent- teacher partnership has been established, it’s easier to have these sometimes difficult conversations.

Worry about not getting into college has always been there. As long as there have been colleges to go to, students have been worrying about being admitted. As parents, we’re supposed to worry! Of course, the new normal has us on extra high alert to this concern. Colleges are facing similar challenges as our colleagues in primary and secondary education. In my work as a school counselor focused on College & Career counseling, here’s what I hear time and time again from admissions officers: colleges want to admit your student! They know that over the next three to four years, the admissions landscape will look very different. Many colleges, including the University of Tennessee, are test optional for the 2022 admissions cycle. Instead, the focus will be on student grades, in some cases essays, perhaps a recommendation letter from a teacher or counselor, reviewing activities outside the classroom (be it working a nearly full time job to help your family pay bills, or taking care of siblings or grandparents, or playing on the varsity soccer team). If you are a parent of a high school student it is never too early (or too late) to educate yourself on the college admissions landscape. So, when your student’s high school has a parent education meeting about college, try to attend- or find out if there will be a recording available!

Worried your college student isn’t prepared for the world of work? I’m right with you in the trenches on this one, and so is our college senior.  On alternating days she seems either completely confident or extremely terrified.  I have to remind myself that, up until April of my senior year in college, I had a very specific career trajectory. Then, my job offer disappeared. I had to pivot. Life happens. Was I upset? Heck yes! Actually, I was devastated. But because I had developed some pretty good executive functioning skills throughout my educational career, I was able to adapt to the pivot. My career took a completely different direction, for which I am very grateful. And that wasn’t even a pivot into my career as a school counselor (that was three careers later). 

I read somewhere that our children will have jobs that have not yet been created, and I’ve lived and worked long enough to see it happen (YouTube star, anyone? It’s real, and it could happen to your child. If your student is interested in this, I recommend they study marketing, business and pre-law- because they already understand social media!).  I am hopeful that we can all walk into this new normal with creative energy, maybe a little bit of nervous energy, ready to meet (or at least be able to pivot to) the challenges that lie ahead.


Anna Graham is the School Counselor for College & Career at Hardin Valley Academy. Connect with her on LinkedIn. 


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