8 Tips To Help Black Families Prepare for School Emotionally

Research shows that bias creates nuanced risks in school for Black and Brown children. But with parental involvement and these tips, Black families can help their children be emotionally prepared.

Black mother packing book bag with her son for school.
Photo: Getty Images

Once the new clothes are bought and backpacks are packed, parents and caregivers need the tools to help their kids start the school year successfully. As a Black teacher who has worked with mostly Black and Brown kids in the largest school district in the country, I understand the importance of preparing children to return to school. However, as a Black mother, I understand that our children need support that goes beyond the traditional concepts of school readiness.

Black and Brown children face additional pressures that non-Black children do not face. Research like Dr. Jamilia Blake's groundbreaking study "Girlhood Interrupted: The Erasure of Black Girl's Childhood" and the "Yale University Study on Racial Bias in Preschool Teachers" show that Black children are often seen to be less worthy of empathy. They also face anti-Black racism from teachers, and school staff, adultification bias and are given more severe punishments in schools than their non-Black peers, starting as young as pre-kindergarten.

However, there are ways Black parents can help inoculate their kids against the impact and effects of anti-Black racism and prejudice. Studies on the importance of parental involvement find parents being involved and communicating directly with their children's schools is one of the key factors in students' success. As Black parents and guardians, we can help our children prepare for school emotionally with these simple steps.

Show Them Stories Featuring Black Characters Going Back to School

Parents may find reading children's books about starting school featuring Black and brown characters can be a fantastic way to help ease first-day jitters. Culturally relevant children's literature can inspire hope and courage. Children's literature can also foster emotional intelligence. Children with emotional intelligence may find it easier to deal with new situations, like moving up a grade or starting school for the first time, because it helps them understand their feelings. Some of my favorite books are The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson and her follow-up, The Year I Learned to Fly. Another favorite is All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold and Suzanne Kaufman.

Help Them Pick a Comforting Item To Bring to School

Have your child select a special item or photograph from home they can bring to school and help them feel secure. Your child should choose the item and photograph themselves because this item must be significant to them. This way, if they feel sad, anxious, or insecure at school, they can reach into their backpack or desk for that item and know they are loved and secure even while they are away from their family. It is important to communicate with your child's teacher that you have sent this security item to school with your child. Let them know that no one besides your child—including their teacher—is to touch or confiscate it.

Create Community With the Other Parents

Consider reaching out to future grade-level classmates' parents and start a WhatsApp, Google group, or email group. You can use this space to connect with parents and guardians from the same grade and share resources related to your child's class, homework, school supplies, volunteering, and more. One of the most helpful things you can do with your newly created Parent group is to organize a few meetups or playground playdates so that your children can meet other classmates from the same grade before the school year starts. Being in this community will help your child make friends throughout the school year and help you connect with other parents and support each other as your child continues their education.

Plan Your "How To Get to School Guide"

Even if the school is closed, it can be a good idea to prepare for school by visiting the building and familiarizing your child with their new environment. It can also be helpful to map out how you will get to and from school, make a few "test runs," and have your child draw or write about the journey home afterward. You can do this together by making a social story with a simple "How To Get To School Guide." If your child cannot write independently, have them draw the pictures while you write the words. Whatever you do with your child, make sure that it's interactive and that they get to lead the activity. This "practice" can go a long way in easing your child's anxiety.

Let Them Ask a Peer About the Journey Ahead

Discussing what happens during the school day or school year with your child can be helpful too. Try reaching out to some parents or guardians of children who have already completed the grade your child will attend. If you can set up a playdate, your child can talk to someone who has already attended that grade level. Let your child freely ask their "older expert" friend whatever questions they have. Let them exchange phone numbers and contact information so that the "older student" can become a mentor of sorts to your child if they are willing.

Meet With Your Teacher To Discuss Expectations

If you can, reach out to the teacher before the start of school and set up a meeting with your children's teachers. You can use this time to discuss academic expectations and your family's values and culture. This meeting is also a chance to discuss how your family's culture can be incorporated into the curriculum. I advise parents to ask how the teacher plans to incorporate Black culture into the curriculum beyond Black History month and Martin Luther King Day. Are there any specific holidays or events that you would like to share with your child's class or school? For example, I usually do a presentation about Kwanzaa as it's a big holiday for our family.

Create a "Get To Know Me" Cheat Sheet About Your Child

It can also be helpful to create a cheat sheet that introduces important information about your child. A simple word document in an outline form will do. The cheat sheet should include a photo of your child with your child's full name, birthday, and emergency contact information. Parents can list information such as their child's likes, hobbies, strengths, and the things their child is working on. Try to frame things in a positive light. For example, "we are working on learning how to organize our take-home folder and tying our shoes" works better than saying "they can't tie their shoes.

Meet With the Faculty and Staff To Discuss Accommodations

Does your child have a disability or specific health needs or food Allergies? Reach out to your child's school and set up a meeting to go over their Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), 504 Plan, and specific health needs in detail. As the parent or guardian of a child with an IEP or 504 Plan, special health needs, or food allergies, you and your child have rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. The IDEA helps ensure your children's disability and health needs are met in public schools.

Important tip: Parents, make sure to include your child's IEP or 504 Plan in the document listed in your child's 'get to know me' cheat sheet.

Remember that it is perfectly normal for children to feel nervous or anxious about an upcoming school year, even if they have attended the same school previously. Allow your children to feel the full range of their emotions and express their feelings openly. We know parental and family involvement is one of the key factors in student success. Still, no one can define how that involvement looks for your family. It does not matter whether it's a grandmother or an auntie participating in story time, a godmother coming in and sharing a recipe or an uncle or big brother, or a cousin singing a song. Black parents and family remember we, and no one else, can define our children's success.

Heather Clarke is an educator, disability advocate, lecturer, and parent coach. She's also the founder and CEO of The Learning Advocate.

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