Back to School: Concerns and Confidence

If you judged by department store offerings, back to school season starts the week after school lets out! However, many colleges and high schools in the Northeast start before the end of August, and across the US some start even earlier. If the student has had a period away from academics, for his or her health, life circumstances, or wellness, then this readjustment can be a challenge. For adults returning to the educational realm, many associations from their earlier experiences may prey upon their minds. What are the realistic issues to be faced, and what tools can a person in recovery from a substance use disorder utilize to make the transition a smooth one?

Self-talk as a coping mechanism

Regardless of whether the person going back to school is young or old, there will be worries. ‘Will I fit in?’ ‘Will I understand the material?’ ‘Will I make friends?’ ‘What if I can’t handle the pressure?’ Many of these are reasonable concerns, based on perceived weaknesses in areas such as socialization, intellectual ability, and stress management. Ignoring these concerns entirely, or dismissing them, invalidates the feelings the person is having. A better way to address the topic is to assess the reality of these problems based on prior evidence and developing an action plan for what to do if the situation does arise. For instance, if a returning student is concerned about developing a positive relationship with a new teacher, he or she could reflect back on previous relationships with teachers that could be emulated or improved on.

For adults who may have spent substantial time out of school, it might be easier to relate these skills to those of a supervisor, guiding friend, or spiritual leader: ‘How did you develop those healthy relationships?’ ‘How can those strategies be applied here?’ ‘What will you do if this situation arises?’

Perhaps the best thing about these techniques based on cognitive behavioral therapy is that they can be done independently of outside assistance. With some practice, most people are able to use this type of realistic analysis and positive self-talk on their own as situations arise. The first step is always to validate the person and his or her feelings. For especially persistent or emotionally complex issues, another technique is to address the worst-case scenario and think of how it could be handled. ‘If someone mocks you for having been out of school for so long, what could you say that won’t escalate the situation?’ (Hint: ‘I appreciate your concern, but I’d rather focus on the lesson today,’ is always a safe phrase.)

Planning for progress

Another way to dispel anxieties about the return to school is to engage in as much material planning as possible prior to entering the course. It’s obviously not possible to teach oneself all the content of a class, otherwise there would be little point to taking classes. Instead, refreshing the student’s memory of key vocabulary, foundational skills, and good study habits can be done with any type of learning focus that is of interest to the student. For adults returning to school, there are plenty of free online resources to review concepts and terminology that may be faded from disuse or have changed since the person studied them in the past.

Infrastructural support is also a way to generate positive energy towards the new school year! Buying and labeling new notebooks, testing out and selecting the perfect type of pen, setting up a new planner: these are just a few of the fun ways to get excited for a new academic endeavor. Any organizational steps that can be done prior to the beginning of school both decrease anxiety and increase confidence in personal preparation and ability.

It is a bald-faced lie that people in recovery from substance use disorders have universally damaged their minds. With study, practice, and personal effort, there are no academic fields in which they cannot excel. The Ammon Foundation Scholarship exists to support these learners are they begin, return to, or complete their educations by providing financial support. Our blog offers profiles of previous Ammon Foundation Scholarship awardees, as well as useful information for anyone involved in the recovery community.