4 ways to tackle September syndrome

Yinka Ewuola

Yinka Ewuola wears many hats (not literally of course…well not always, anyway). She’s a passionate foodie, a school governor, an advocate for women in business, a true believer in the need for business, innovation and entrepreneurship to solve the problems we face in the world today, and a director of Eagle Solutions Services – a family, food consultancy company which “Supports Excellence in Education and Nutrition today, for a better tomorrow”.

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Image credit: Game of Thrones // HBO // Originally published on 7th September 2016. Image credit: Game of Thrones // HBO // Originally published on 7th September 2016.

Think back to a wonderful holiday or even a weekend away, where you are in beautiful surroundings, in great company and doing things that you love. Yet remember that feeling in the pit of your stomach on the last few days as you realise this experience is coming to an end, and that work looms just a few days ahead. That’s the same feeling many students will feel if they’ve had a great holiday… but it will manifest itself differently and in more complex ways if they’ve had a bad one.

Ironically, this ‘September Syndrome’ isn’t just something that happens amongst children or in schools. It seems that the blues hits many industries and sectors. In the world of finance, The Stock Trader's Almanac reports that, on average, September is the month when the stock market's three leading indexes usually perform the poorest, while in the film industry, September is often considered one of the "Dump Months" where commercial and critical expectations are lower for newly released films.

But it is significantly compounded for children and young people as at least as adults we are able to rationalise and understand the change in our emotions and to some extent work out what to do about it. Younger people will probably need a little bit of help.

Why does it happen…?

If your students have had a great holiday – it may just be a question of them wanting it to last a bit longer, and therefore having their head in that space rather than back into work mode. But for an increasing number of children up and down the country, the long summer breaks are not the heady hazy exciting days that we may remember as children, but a desperate time of lack of vital elements, which significantly contrasts their time at school, in a number of ways:

  1. Minimal adult interaction, and therefore possibly the lack of boundaries that comes with that interaction. Even some quite young children can be carers for even younger siblings, and so they become the proxy-adults in their households, while still technically needing supervision (or at least guidance and support) themselves.
  2. Lack of Routine, as bedtimes have gone out of the window as the need to be somewhere at a specific time is all but gone. Couple that with endless TV watching and the enthralling world of gaming, and it’s not uncommon for students to have kept some incredibly odd hours over the holidays.
  3. Lack of cognitive stimulation and increased sedentary lifestyle from the inputs above can result in young people going backwards in terms of their learning and doing less and less exercise as the days and weeks go by.
  4. Hunger and change in diets: so much is made of the obesity challenges that we face in this country, but there is a hidden widespread problem at the other end of the spectrum, which is exacerbated during the holidays. Thousands of children up and down the country rely heavily on their Free School Meal during term time, but are left hungry during the holidays as the need doesn’t disappear just because the school term does.

This change has a huge impact on so much about the foundations, abilities, mindsets of students and can have some real adverse consequences.

So why tackle it?

Since everyone, both adult and student alike, will feel something of the change from holiday back to school, the question is “why tackle it at all?” – why not just leave it to resolve itself in time? Well, the simplest answer to that is that in many cases “it won’t” - resolve itself in time that is. Holidays can create such a deficit of experience, structure and nutrition for some students that if you didn’t actively work to overcome that difference, it would just simply widen.

Just getting on with the teaching would be about the worst thing you could do, as it would simply fall on proverbially fallow ground. In the recent Harvard Business Review Report ‘How to Turn Around a Failing School’, academics review data from 160 academies to look at trends and themes of school improvement, their very first piece of advice was: “Don’t improve teaching first”, whilst confirming “This was a very common mistake” and highlighting that “you need to create the right environment first.”

So much is made of the impact of teaching and learning to improve the lives of young people and yet much more needs to be considered about the environment (and life) in which teaching and learning goes into. Food and nutrition, mental and physical health & safety are all the basic blocks upon which good teaching and learning are built. Without them, nothing works quite the same.

In her report ‘170 Days’ Lindsay Graham correctly asserts “Even though formal school education doesn't happen all year round, the fact is that it's significantly affected by behaviours, practices and routines that happen outside the school term.” So while you as an educator may be ready to start teaching, the impact is significantly dampened if the students are not ready to start learning.

So what to do?

So now you’ve got the skinny on the what and why’s, the key is to now consider what to do in order to tackle it, and for that, we’d look at a whole host of different types measures, tools and innovations.

1. Small Wins

Start small… coming back to school is daunting, and with the entire school year ahead of you, it can seem like the start of a really high mountain to climb. So break it down, and make the goals really short term and immediate. Full attendance and punctuality for every lesson for the class, all homework in on time and a random act of kindness each day. By setting small, achievable, and collective goals, it focuses their mind on a clear mandate that is close by. It sets a precedent for which habits are going to be important and it gives the chance to measure success, and reward progress very early on.

2. Gratitude

One of the most life-changing practices has been to think about a daily victory, or something to be grateful for each day. It can feel like nothing is good when you’re back at school and would rather be doing what you were doing last week, so by forcing yourself and your students to highlight one thing that made the day a good day – each day in those early weeks is crucial to changing how they feel about school in general

3. Use your School food

Food is such a powerful tool can be used in so many ways to deal powerfully and decisively with many of the issues faced at the school:

  • The school environment may be very different to how things were over the summer, but the one thing that is common to all is the need and desire to eat. Using it as a reward, conversation point, discussion tool, aide memoire or as a means of improving what’s happening in the classroom, stimulates more than just their ears and eyes and opens their minds back up into learning mode.

  • Have fruit bowls and water available as standard for students take as they need, without stigma or fear or questioning.

  • Lunchtime can be used as a powerful settling in experience ,so from you as an educator having a meal with students, to considering getting nutrient dense foods on the menu at lunchtime (less of the pizza, pasta or panini’s) – the role that lunchtime has to play is not to be underestimated.

  • One-off experiences like End of Summer Picnics or Barbeques work really well as a place to create anchor memories, pledges and tackle concepts for the year ahead. Consider using them as a way to really anchor meaningful good habits for the year.

4. Honesty

If you aren’t quite up to your best yet,, or suffering a bit of the September Blues yourself… try something a bit different, and tell them. Tell your students how you are feeling -  not to create a pity party, but so they know they are not alone. It’s one of the most powerful tools in the world to know they are supported with empathy (not just sympathy), and so the tools that you use to help overcome them are much more meaningful and trusted.

Knowing that they are understood, that they’re not bad or failing for feeling like this and that there is a plan to help them overcome it is incredibly powerful and impactful for your students.

To conclude...

Ultimately September will be what you make it, and with the right tools in place, a little bit of innovation, it can either be seen as the end (or interruption) to a great holiday period, an inconvenience, or the start of something truly amazing. The choice is yours… and you’ll often be making it for your students too, so be sure to choose wisely.

How are you bringing your pupils back into learning? Let us know below.

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