Six years ago, when my son was 10, we walked to the bus stop on the first day of school awash in the usual back-to-school feelings—he was anxious and excited, I was excited and relieved. Kids and adults at the corner bus stop greeted one another and shared stories of the summer while comparing growth spurts and showing off new sneakers. The reunions continued until Bob, the familiar and funny bus driver, rolled up and stole the show. The children high-fived Bob and boarded the bus as their parents waved and blew kisses.
Once the bus was out of sight, one parent let out a gleeful “Woohoo!” and we all high-fived and danced in the street. After three long months of summer parenting, we celebrated an end to relentless complaints of boredom, playing referee in constant sibling squabbles, and finding daily freeze-pop wrappers stuffed among the couch cushions.
Just six years later, “back to school” doesn’t bring the same feeling of relief. Today, I carry a list of “what ifs” that make my heart sink. What if there’s a new Covid-19 surge, a return to remote learning, a school shooting? I worry about mental health crises, teacher shortages, program cuts, and fiery parental wars over curriculum.
And yet, I will put my son on a bus to school. While I can’t dismiss my fears, I make choices that support his development and I focus on the protective factors that will keep him and his fellow students safe.
And one of the greatest protections a young person can have is strong connections to trusted adults who are invested in their growth. Research shows that young people who can name a trusted adult at home and at school are less likely to bully or be bullied, suffer from depression, or abuse substances.
Here are six things that we parents can do in the first month of school to ensure that our children—no matter their age—create strong connections with trusted adults at school who will serve as their safety net all year long:
- We can teach our children about trust. Start by talking about things you can trust—for example, a bench, a sandwich, a bike. Then shift the conversation to how you know when to trust people. Share the acronym TRUST: Truth, Respect, Understanding, Safety, and Time. People who are worthy of trust are those who tell the truth, show respect, offer understanding, prioritize safety, and make time for you.
- We can tell them about our trusted adults. By sharing stories about the trusted adults who showed up for you, you reveal that everyone needs help sometimes. If a trusted adult did not show up for you when you were young, share stories about times when such a connection could have supported your well-being.
- We can share their emergency contacts. When you fill out the forms for school and are asked to give emergency contact information, tell your children who you write down. Better yet, involve them in the decision. This is a great opportunity to signal the adults you trust, which can indicate to your children that these are adults they might consider building a connection with.
- We can share that we are looking to partner with their teachers. Young people benefit when they have many trusted adults in their corner, and they experience even greater benefits when these trusted adults form a team with the goal of supporting the youth in their care. Introduce yourself to your children’s teachers and let them know that you are grateful for their commitment to showing up for your child and are eager to partner in your child’s learning, growth, and development. Then share with your children that you see yourself in partnership with their teachers.
- We can ask our children’s school administrators what they do to foster strong connections and community. Ask your child’s school staff how they prioritize strong connections and healthy boundaries. Is there an advisory program? Teams or groups that foster a sense of belonging among the community? School-wide campaigns? A theme? School mantras? Volunteer to help with these initiatives.
- We can show up as trusted adults for other people’s children. Maybe you are an aunt or uncle, a volunteer coach, an employer of youth, or a neighbor—whatever your role, young people other than your own children are likely to see you as a trusted adult. Recognize the power and possibility of this role—showing up for other people’s children, and allowing space for other adults to show up for yours, is one way that we can contribute to our communities and make our schools safe for all children.
Whether we show up for a young person for one minute, one year, or one lifetime, we are needed. In the smallest of moments, we can ensure that a young person feels a sense of belonging, reinforce their ability to contribute, and offer reassurance of safety and security. Let’s all think back to who and what we needed when we were younger and then fully commit to being exactly that for our children—and all children. Committing to a “teams of trusted adults” mindset is one way we can work together to make back-to-school a time that has parents dancing in the street again!
Meltzer, A., Muir, K., Craig, L. (2018). The role of trusted adults in young people’s social and economic lives. Youth & Society. DOI: 10.1177/0044118X16637610
Brooklyn Raney is an experienced teacher, coach, camp director, and school administrator. She is the author of One Trusted Adult: How to Build Strong Connections & Healthy Boundaries with Young People. Brooklyn received a B.A. from Colgate University and an M.A. from New York University and is working toward her Ed.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.