Guest Column

Starting the School Year Right

by THOMAS R. GUSKEY

We soon will experience the most important time in the school year for all children — the first two weeks. What happens during this critical period pretty much determines how the rest of the year will go.

When children return to school after the summer break, their perceptions about school and about themselves as learners are mostly uncertain. It’s a new year with new teachers, new books, new classes, new schedules and new friends. All of these novelties come with the hope this year could be different and better than all previous years.

That uncertainty in their perceptions continues only until teachers administer the first quizzes and assessments around the end of the second week of school. When teachers assign grades to those first quizzes, the grades put students into categories. Getting out of a category is really difficult.

Students who receive a C on that first math quiz begin to see themselves as C students. Their uncertainty suddenly becomes fixed, and they begin to accept the idea they are likely to earn C’s in math for the rest of the school year.

When the second quiz or assessment occurs, they expect to receive another C. When they do, it reinforces their perception. Similarly, if they receive a failing grade on that first quiz, they think all ensuing grades will be the same. But if they succeed on that first quiz and receive a high grade, that too is their perception of all that might follow.

Student Persistence
For school leaders, this means doing everything possible to help teachers ensure students’ success during the first two weeks. At every level and in every class, they must press teachers to do whatever is necessary to help students experience successful learning during this critical period — and not fake success, but an accomplishment on something meaningful and challenging. It should be something that makes students feel good about what they have achieved and confident in their abilities as learners.

The key to motivating students rests with that success. Students persist in activities at which they experience success, and they avoid activities at which they are not successful or believe they cannot be successful.

This is the reason truancy and attendance problems rarely occur during the first two weeks of the school year. They begin to occur after the first graded quizzes, papers or assessments. In students’ minds, the grades they receive on these first quizzes and assessments establish their likelihood of future success. And why come to school if there is so little chance of doing well?

Parent Understanding
School leaders also must help parents understand the importance of this time and how essential it is for them to be genuinely involved in their children’s education during these first two weeks. Routines established at home in this critical period profoundly affect the likelihood of students’ success.

Daily conversations about school activities help children recognize that their parents value success in school. Providing a quiet place for children to work on school assignments and limiting the time they spend watching television or playing computer games further increase the chances for success. Checking with the teacher to ensure children are well-prepared and ready to succeed also can help.

Successful experiences during these first two weeks of school do not guarantee success for the entire year. But they are a powerful and perhaps essential step in that direction. School leaders, teachers and parents alike need to take advantage of this critical time and use it well. It can make all the difference.

Thomas Guskey is professor of educational psychology at University of Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. E-mail: Guskey@uky.edu