Parents of school-aged children often receive somewhat Byzantine lists of back-to-school supplies that they must send in with their child: this particular pencil and those particular markers, notebooks designed with the precise number and configuration of pockets, and onward down the page. But for all the functional objects schools might request, the most crucial tools for your child are not physically tangible at all, but rather values that will influence every moment of the school day -- and not only for them.
If I could send my daughter to school with just five items, these are the supplies that would fill her backpack.
Kids don't innately know stereotypes. Limiting shorthand visions of human behavior accrue over the years, fed by TV shows, pictures in books and magazines, and, of course, conversations overheard. My daughter was as comfortable wrestling with boys or wielding a light saber as she was with donning tulle or sequined shoes -- until school started. Her favorite color was blue until classmates kept telling her that pink was the right color for girls. And this pattern applies beyond gender issues to family configuration, ethnicity, class, faith, and more. There's no escaping the fact that school, where kids are trying to piece together the workings of the world, is often a hotbed of prejudices trotted out as fact. We're trying to help our daughter resist the lure of stereotypes and to not feel the need to conform to other's preconceived notions, but instead to experience the freedom of self-definition and to extend that latitude to her friends.
We learned last year that one of the toughest things about elementary school is the triangulation that occurs, the way some children insist on dividing their peers. My daughter loves having friends and hates being left out, but sometimes she too has participated in the splintering of her class into camps. As a result, she once discovered the hard way that limiting yourself to one or two friends can leave you stranded. This year, I hope she remembers to show kindness and empathy to all her classmates, to think of them as a team sharing this experience together, each one better off when all are included.
A twin set of skills that go a long way to helping any child make the most of elementary school is the ability to understand his or her own feelings and to show emotional self-control in displaying them. We have to help children recognize that being frustrated at a task does not mean failing at it, and remind them that anger is often a reflection of disappointment or embarrassment, feelings we all experience at one time or another. Whenever such strong emotions come into play, kids need to learn that neither shutting down nor giving into an outburst is productive. The art of perseverance, even when one is upset, can take a lifetime to learn -- and school is the place to start. I'm working on helping my daughter face own her feelings and yet still know that she is in control of them, not the other way around.
The zeitgeist of elementary school today is centered on standardized test scores. In many districts, homework starts in kindergarten and ramps up each year thereafter. The goal truly is to make sure no child is left behind -- at least at test time. Some children thrive on the common techniques used to yield test score improvement: concrete instruction, memorization of words and facts, and systems premised on objective right and wrong answers. But for daydreamers who prefer storytelling and pretend play, who love all things silly or inventive, school can feel like a chore or an admonishment. Since there is no standardized test to measure a colorful imagination, the creative child learns that her aptitudes must not be worth very much, and certainly aren't "the" way to learn. At the same time, the concrete, left-brain test-taking ace learns that there is little need to tap into his imaginative, right brain side. We encourage our daughter to embrace her love of dreamed-up worlds, pretend-play scenarios, and flights of fancy -- and I hope she will seize any moment in school, from art to choir to journal writing, that emphasizes these elements, even if they never help her fill an oval on an Iowa Basic Skills test.
A Hunch Box
Somewhere between the endless "why?" questions of toddlerhood and the close-lipped high school years, too many students come to believe that the easiest thing is to not question the teacher. There are two main reasons for this: one is the convention that a teacher delivers complete information, so that the student's primary role is to commit all of it to memory (learning as pure instruction, not conversation). The other reason is emotional: no one wants to look stupid, and asking a question suggests that you just don't get it -- which isn't a failure, but can certainly feel that way to a child. In truth, the ability to ask questions can make all the difference in a child's learning experience. Whether a question stems from simple curiosity or from a concrete lack of understanding, having the courage to ask unquestionably allows the student more investment in her own education. I must be vigilant in helping my daughter feel like her questions are of value and that she need not be afraid to voice them, for the act of asking is a reminder that she matters as much in the process of learning as her teachers do.
Nurturing these values can be a challenge for all of us who are parents, guardians, and caregivers, no matter how dedicated. But if we keep plugging away at our homework -- trying to equip our kids with openness, empathy, self-control, creativity, and the willingness to ask questions -- we'll have contributed more to their classrooms than any back-to-school list could ever provide.