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Ending the School Year on a High Note (After a Year Like This)

There is a lot of emphasis on the beginning of the school year, but what about the end? And after the year we’ve had, shouldn’t we just drop it and move on? Actually, no. Endings are just as important as beginnings -- maybe even more so! According to the Peak and End Rule of psychology, we remember the ends of experiences much more than beginnings, and they influence both how we feel about our experiences, and the decisions we make afterward, more than the actual experience does. Having a positive experience toward the end of the year can reframe the entire year and set us and our students up for positive decisions in the future.

Recognize and acknowledge your emotions

Let’s face it, you are probably REALLY looking forward to the end of the school year this year. It has been a long haul! You need time to recharge, and stepping away from being in the classroom every day will be a relief. But you may have other emotions too. You may be anxious about what next year will bring and, let’s be real, you will miss your students. This stage of group development has sometimes been called the mourning stage for good reason.

Take some time to acknowledge what you’re feeling and explore what will help you get through these next few weeks. It’s a challenge, but I encourage you to think beyond coffee and chocolate! You may need your spouse to put the kids to bed more often so you can get some extra rest, more time outside, fewer gardening projects on the weekends, a bit more exercise or some extra encouragement from your family and friends.

Recognize and acknowledge your students’ emotions

The emotions your students will have may also be complex. After all, if you’re feeling all kinds of ways, your students are too. Some of your students may be looking forward to the end of the year, but others may be anxious, sad, fearful or angry, and it may be a combination of several of these. For some students, the summer means visiting family and friends, summer camp or fun vacations. For others, it means being home alone, isolation from friends and long, hot days with nothing to do. For still others, it can mean more time in an unsafe situation. On top of that, they may be anxious about next school year, when they will most likely have a new teacher, new classroom and new classmates to figure out. And some of them will be going to a new building!

Recognizing these emotions, and understanding that whatever they may be feeling is ok, is an important part of social emotional learning. Games like Emotions Charades or regular check ins can help students acknowledge their own emotions and see that they’re not alone.

Learn Names

They should already know each other’s names, right? Not necessarily. It always surprises me how often I work with groups of students in May and June and there is one or two students (or more!) whose names the rest of the class don’t know. Sometimes that student was new to the class in the middle of the year and sometimes they were just known as “that quiet kid” or “that kid” all year.

Names are important! Learning names this year has been even more challenging than usual, so now is as good a time as any to learn them properly and get them right. Offer the opportunity for students to share their names, what they like to be called, proper pronunciation and pronouns. Even a little history of their name or nickname can be fun and enlightening. You may be surprised to find out that the nicknames the students have been using for each other all year may not be what they want to be called! Everyone needs to feel seen and heard. Honoring your students’ names is a good starting place, even as you prepare to leave the school year behind.

Review the Social Contract

Your class has a social contract. Whether you developed it together through the year or you have that poster of rules you’ve talked about and stuck with all year, now is the perfect time to bring it out, dust it off and help your students remember the best ways to be in community together. Since students may be having a hard time with emotions, it’s a great time to remind them what they know about managing their emotions and supporting each other. It’s also a great way to remember some good times you’ve had this year. Focusing on the positive can help reframe the experience and help students feel better about next school year too.

Affirmations and Appreciations

We treasure the hand made thank you’s we get from our students. It turns out, they need those same warm fuzzies at the end of the year. In his YouTube Video, How to Give Positive Feedback, Chad Littlefield talks about the difference between appreciations and affirmations. He prefers affirmations, but really, both or either can work for your students. The most important thing is that each student gets some positive feedback that shows they are known and appreciated for the positive things they do, or characteristics they display. Students can say them out loud to each other, or they can write them down. But beware! Negative comments during this process can be damaging to students. Here are the guidelines I follow when I’m planning for end of the year appreciation activities:

  • Make sure a culture of trust is built BEFORE doing an activity where the whole class says or writes things about each other. Negative comments will be remembered more than a dozen positive ones.

  • Be sure your students know each other well enough to make their comments specific to the person they’re giving feedback to. Going home with a whole page of “you’re nice” can make a student feel invisible, instead of seen and heard.

  • Make feedback anonymous, if possible. Being honest can feel risky if it’s done in front of everyone.

  • If you’re not absolutely sure comments will be positive, discreetly review the feedback before it’s given to the students.

  • Be specific about how the feedback should be worded and delivered. Give examples, offer sentence stems or have lists of positive attributes to choose from for students who have trouble coming up with words on their own.

  • Be ready to have positive feedback of your own for your most difficult students!

Make plans for the future

Once you’ve looked back in a positive way, it’s time to look ahead. The long stretch of summer and the next school year can seem daunting, or even frightening to some students. Helping them see the skills, abilities and attitudes they have developed over the past year is a helpful tool that can help give them more confidence looking at the future. Encourage them to think about how those skills and attitudes can help them over the summer and in their new class next year.

Have them write letters giving advice to their future self. They can think of what advice a guardian angel might give, or what tools they’ve learned to use this year that will help them next year. Again, have writing prompts and sentence stems ready! Have them address an envelope or postcard to themselves (disguised writing lesson anyone?) and send them sometime during the summer. You could also consider sending them as emails, since some students may not have a consistent home address. This also allows you to schedule the emails to come midway or most of the way through the summer, without having to worry about postage or remembering to send them!

Even though this year has been far more exhausting than usual, we CAN get through it, AND we can make it a positive experience our students will remember with a little planning and encouragement. Let’s be intentional and make it a positive experience, for us and our students. You got this!

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