Novi Woods Elementary School fourth grade teacher Michelle Domberger listens beside her student, Faith Mansour, while Mansour reads in a hammock during silent reading time.

Novi Woods Elementary School fourth grade teacher Michelle Domberger listens beside her student, Faith Mansour, while Mansour reads in a hammock during silent reading time.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Communication, compassion key to transitioning students into school this year

By: Jonathan Shead | Novi Note | Published September 22, 2021


NOVI — For some students in Novi, the return to school Sept. 7 was the first time that they had returned to their schools since the COVID-19 pandemic paused in-person learning March 13, 2020.

Joy and excitement have been felt bouncing around the halls, Assistant Superintendent of Academics RJ Webber and Director of Student Support Services Darby Hoppenstedt agreed, but they also acknowledged that the past year and a half have added a lot of stress to everyone.

“We have to be mindful of where kids are always,” Hoppenstedt said, especially with students who may be feeling a bit nervous or apprehensive upon their return to in-person learning.

“Our teachers are keeping an eye out, as well, for (those) behaviors and notions,” Webber added. “Some of the students’ transitions may be a little more difficult. We do have some examples of that, as well, but we’re really fortunate to have people working and paying attention, too.”

Novi Youth Assistance caseworker Lisa Shields said the transition back to school for students, back to work for parents and back to regular after-school programs  and activities could cause as much stress as the transition into pandemic-related restrictions more than a year ago.

“It’s been a complete flip-flop in transition that way,” she said. “(Parents) have to remember that it may not just be their child left behind. It’s many children who are behind, but really not only is the academic piece important, but their social and emotional development (too).”

Compassionate communication
Webber, Hoppenstedt and Shields all agreed that taking a compassionate approach with positive and open communication when working with students this year would likely lead to the best transitional outcomes.

“There has to be a lot of awareness and open communication for the parents to check in with their kids, to remain positive and to have positive role modeling for their kids,” Shields said. “It’s going to be very important for parents to be aware of how their kids are doing, and keep communication lines open with their teachers, asking how they’re doing in the class, and letting teachers know if they’re having a difficult time at home so they can be prepared when they enter into the classroom.”

It’s as simple as flipping the question from, “Are you nervous to go back to school?” to “Are you excited?” Shields added.

Inside the district’s classrooms, not only will teachers be checking in with students having a harder time in their transitions back; Webber said the district has taken a more relaxed approach this year to help students as they return.

“Philosophically, I would say from a major standpoint, it’s permission for teachers and administrators to approach the academic aspects of schooling in a far more gentle way this year,” he said. “We’re putting structure in, such as (at) the high school where we call it ‘advisory time.’ Our expectation is teachers are going to circle up and build connections with (their) kids.”

At home, Webber encourages parents to try to have conversations with their children and suspend judgment during the process.

“It’s a natural human reaction to want the best for our kids, but counterintuitively, oftentimes what can be best for our kids is backing away and just listening without judgement and with curiosity,” Webber said.

Building those relationships at home, as well as rekindling the ones with their friends at school, is another key to students having a successful year back in the classroom, Hoppenstedt said.

“We want to give opportunities for kids to feel like they have a voice, they have agency, but also that they have a routine,” she said. “If kids know that this is the structure, or the schedule, (and) they can kind of predict what may happen within their school day, then I think that reduces that anxiety or apprehension that some may be facing.”

Return to school resources
Students who may be feeling the pressure of their return aren’t alone.

“We’ve placed a premium on hiring school social workers, and we started that five years ago, where every single one of our buildings has a full-time, at least, school social worker there,” Webber said. “We’ve partnered with groups like Easterseals, as well, to help families who might need more help. We’ve invested in something called Play Works (K-4), which teaches our kids and our teachers about inclusive play. Restorative practices is another thing we’ve invested in for seven years now, to really help our teachers learn to have intentional conversations with our students.”

Easterseals is a nonprofit organization that works to promote inclusion and equity for the disabled and aging populations.

Behavioral or academic, Hoppenstedt said the district has a multi-tiered response system in place “for proactively or reactively responding to the needs of our kids.” If a student is having trouble in school, the conversation should almost always start with the teacher, she added.

Students who may need help beyond or outside of the classroom could be referred to a number of community resource partners that the district has, including Novi Youth Assistance, which can provide short-term, three- to six-month counseling for students, Shields said, as well as referral services for longer-term treatment, if needed.

Novi Youth Assistance offers a variety of other programs outside counseling to help students.

The organization’s backpack drive, which provides backpacks with school supplies inside to children in need, still has a limited number of backpacks left, Shields said. Through a partnership with St. James Church, the organization provides Thanksgiving dinners and hosts an adopt-a-family program during the holiday season. Ongoing scholarship opportunities are available for students seeking tutoring or other after-school enrichment services, and an emergency needs program for rent, utility and gas assistance is also available.

“We can help with that, too,” Shields said. “Those are very limited right now, until we can replenish those funds, but those are some of the ways our programming helps families.”

For more information about Novi Youth Assistance, visit