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Virtual School: How to Reset for a Better Second Semester

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT Meet The Team >

By now we should all be experts at virtual school.

We had a practice run last spring, time to recalibrate over the summer, and then a second shot at virtual school this fall.

This article is for families that haven’t quite got the hang of virtual school yet.

We understand. Virtual school is not for everyone.

For some kids, though, virtual school works great. All they really miss is their friends. For others – those we want to help with this article – it’s the opposite. They need the in-person contact with teachers and they lose interest in online classes quickly. They may have problems with the basic concepts in particular subjects, but don’t want to say anything out of embarrassment. This may cause them to perform below their potential on in-class assignments, homework, quizzes, and tests.

Parents of teens who don’t thrive in the virtual school environment have a chance to reset, revise, and make things better next semester. The best way to do this is by performing what we call a debrief. A debrief is a well-known tool that people in many professions use to review past activity in order to gather information and apply it to future activity. That’s why we encourage you to debrief your teen’s first semester of school: we want you to gain knowledge from the past – the very recent past – and apply it to the very near future.

If you don’t know how to do a debrief, that’s okay, because we do.

How to Debrief the Semester

An effective debrief has two purposes:

  1. To identify what went right, what went wrong, and identify any lingering, unresolved questions or issues.
  2. To take information from the debrief and act on it.

You might say that a good debrief really has three goals. The third is to avoid making the same mistakes the next time around.

An effective debrief is also, at its core, very simple. In this context, it involves sitting down with your teenager and asking them – and yourself – five questions:

  1. How did last semester go?
  2. What worked well?
  3. What did not work well?
  4. How can we fix the things that did not work well?
  5. How can we repeat the things that did work well?

One thing about debriefing a school semester is that you have an objective metric that helps answer the questions above: grades. While grades are not everything, they’re a fact of life for high school students. Whether we like them or not, they’re how teachers gauge progress. We understand, however, that grades are not the only metric that matters. Your teenager’s mental health is important, as is their emotional life. To learn how to do a mental health check-in with them over the holiday, please read our article Winter Break: Time for a COVID Mental Health Check-In.

Now, back to those grades.

Use the Objective Metrics, But in Context

Grades are the primary way teachers, and a school as a whole, can assess the knowledge a student gains from a class. We reiterate that grades are not the be-all, end-all of life, and the value of a human being is not determined by how well they did the first semester of 9th grade algebra. At the same time, most teens want to get good grades and graduate on time with their class. That’s what most parents want, too.

Therefore, when you sit down to debrief the semester with your teen, have their grades close at hand so when you ask your teen the first question on our list and they answer, “Pretty good, I guess,” you can confirm or deny that simply by looking at their grades. We suggest reiterating, as we do here, that while grades are not everything, figuring out how to get passing grades is essential if they want to graduate from high school.

What to Do With What You Learn

If your debrief tells you plainly that things did not go well last semester, the first thing to do – after you answer questions #4 and #5 above to the best of your ability – is to make sure your teen has access to:

  • A clean, safe, quiet, indoor space dedicated to school
  • All the virtual platforms your school uses for virtual school
  • Support in navigating the various platforms they use for virtual school
  • Any extra support offered by the school, such as one-on-one conferences with their teachers, virtual tutoring, or virtual peer study groups

In addition, your teen needs consistency in three more areas:

  • Your teen needs a real breakfast and lunch every day.
  • Your teen needs to exercise – preferably outdoors – for at least an hour every day.
  • Social Contact. Right now, this contact may not be in person. In lieu of in-person contact, make sure your teen stays connected via text or videoconference to friends, peers, or family members such as cousins.

When you cover all the debrief bases – meaning you know what worked and what didn’t, and how you can repeat what worked and fix what didn’t – then you and your teen can work together to address the elements on the two bulleted lists above. Some things are entirely your responsibility, some your teen needs to handle, and others will require collaboration between the two of you. The important thing to remember is that to improve for next semester, you both need to make changes, and to make the changes work, you need a solid plan.

Every plan will look different, because every family is unique, and every teen has their own areas of strength and challenge. Include your teen in the process, give them ownership – and you dramatically increase their chance at having a successful second semester.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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Connect with Other Parents

We know parents need support, too. That is exactly why we offer a chance for parents of teens to connect virtually in a safe space! Each week parents meet to share resources and talk through the struggles of balancing child care, work responsibilities, and self-care.

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