Action Makes an Enjoyable School Year

Key: The 2020-2021 school year can be great with a value-based approach.

Living It: Accept our feelings and thoughts, make a plan based on our values then act.

Clinical Concept: Application of ACT principles in an adaptive framework to adjust to COVID-19 educational constraints.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

– Dr. Viktor E. Frankl,
Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor
Man’s Search for Meaning

Across the nation schools are opening. But not exactly. Some are opening with rigorous student social distances, some are doing hybrid in-school and virtual platforms and some are simply going virtual, much like how last year ended.

This article is useful for parents navigating all those scenarios but may be most helpful to those in the totally virtual situation. Partially, that is because they may be most emotionally and logistically impacted by their children continuing to stay at home and attend school. Partially, it is because I am writing as one of them and as a counselor.

We’re not going to get too data heavy this month, though I can’t help but give some grounding to this piece. I wanted to leave plenty of room to speak from my personal position, as I’ve been asked to by some readers.

What’s my position? Well, that the children being virtually schooled until at least November is, at best a major let down, and at worst…frankly sucks. I wish it were not happening, but it is, and we have a choice in how we handle it, and thereby to change or even eliminate the level of suck that it represents.

In Man’s Search for Meaning Dr. Frankl asserted that people are meaning-makers and as such we have power. We always have the freedom to choose our attitude and the way we handle a situation, no matter how sad, disappointing, frustrating or frightening. In the 64 years since the book was written, countless thousands of people (if not more) have overcome unthinkable challenges by making value-based perspective shifts and then living them. We can do this as parents in the COVID-19 reality. We can help our children while helping ourselves.

It starts by taking ACTion.

We ACT, not React

Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.”

– Arundhati Roy,
Author and Activist

I have been helping clients ACT as one of the many modalities in my toolbox for over a decade. I’m not an expert, and we’re really not going to get into ACT as a therapeutic model because it’s pretty vast. Simply put, by Dr. Russ Harris; “ACT gets its name from one of its core messages: accept what is out of your personal control and commit to taking action that enriches your life. The aim of ACT is to help us create a rich, full, and meaningful life, while accepting the pain that life inevitably brings.” (2009 p.2). ACT stands for Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, though practitioners don’t see it as a therapy as much as a lifestyle.

There are now well one 150 published peer-reviewed articles supporting ACT’s principles which can be found in the acronym:

A – Accept your thoughts and feelings and be present.
C – Choose a valued direction.
T – Take action.

So how do we use these principles to adjust to virtual school? I’ll unpack my own process as an example.

Accepting My Thoughts and Feelings

My heart sunk when I heard that our school board voted to have school virtually. Not because I disagreed—I’m of the belief that if the board thinks they can’t have class safely then they shouldn’t—but because of all the losses. No classic first day, no bus ride, no back to school events, no saying hello to friends that haven’t been seen all summer. My heart hurts now even typing this.

My thoughts were more practical. How do we do this again? We got through the end of last school year with the hope that it was a one-time shift and that things would be better in the fall. But nope. Which, honestly, brings a fresh wash of impotent frustration at the Coronavirus and our present situation.

Choosing a Valued Direction

I am not my feelings, or my thoughts. I am a person with, and part of a family with, a set of values which inform how we respond to our world and the events in it.

We value learning, connecting with others, staying safe and healthy and enjoying life.

We value celebrating things like first days of school regardless of COVID-19.

We also prioritize structure, schedule, organization and preparedness.

To be blunt, my family values feeling your feelings, validating your thoughts, then getting off your butt and doing something with them.

Taking Action

We’re not going to stay sad and frustrated.

The school is hosting virtual orientations and distanced meet-and-greets, so we’re going to attend.

We have a supply list that we’re fulfilling; and we’re going to be grateful that it’s short this year, thanks to virtual school—that’s a bonus!

We’re constructing a better online learning space as a team, customizing based on the kid’s wishes and the school’s recommendation.

And most of all, we are going to make a big deal out of the first day of school, complete with pictures, dressing for the day and celebrating that night. COVID-19 has taken much from us, but it will not take our joy!

“ACT is based on the idea that suffering is a natural and unavoidable condition for humans,” researcher Courtney Ackerman wrote, “however, that doesn’t mean we should simply throw in the towel and resign ourselves to suffering…we are not what happens to us. We are the ones experiencing what happens to us…ACT is not intended to limit our exposure to negative experiences, but to face them and come out the other side with a decreased fixation on these experiences.”

I encourage you to follow the steps above, set your values and take action so that the 2020-2021 school year shines. On the other side of this virus will be a new, and better culture but only if we make it so. We can’t go backward, as much as I would wish it, but we can go boldly forward based on shared values, and into a tomorrow that is safe, connected and joyful.

Ackerman, C. (2019) What is Relational Frame Theory? A Psychologist Explains. Positive Retrieved from:

Harris, R. (2009) ACT Made Simple New Harbinger Publications. Oakland, CA

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