Rituals as Resets

Make back-to-school season a fresh start

August 30, 2020

Growing up, I was as excited to see the Sunday newspaper grow thick with back-to-school advertisements as to watch the trees in our backyard erupt into majestic oranges and golds.

Perhaps it’s my South Jersey heritage (Exit 4 off the New Jersey Turnpike, to be precise, land of wall-to-wall carpeting, food courts, and mall culture). For me, back-to-school shopping is among the fondest of childhood memories.

My usually thrifty parents not only approved the purchase of new not-yet-on-sale clothes for the first day of school, but also schlepped back and forth to the Cherry Hill Mall so that I could pick out the perfect outfit. They were generous when it came to stocking up on school supplies, too—usually a glossy new three-ring Trapper Keeper binder, spiral notebooks, and pens and pencils I probably didn’t need but felt compelled to buy anyway.

These rituals helped me prepare, and not just physically. Along with the drop in temperature and humidity, they signaled that summer was drawing to a close and it was now time to shift gears mentally, from relax-and-enjoy to get-it-together.

Research shows that human beings are built for fresh starts. We are sensitive to cues that prompt us to change our routines. And we capitalize on them by setting new goals, disrupting bad habits, and with optimism and energy, moving forward.

Going “back to school” in the midst of a pandemic is challenging for many reasons—among them the absence of cues that shake us out of our summer stupor.

My daughter Lucy, for instance, will begin senior year of high school the same way she ended her junior spring—in her bedroom, on her laptop. This year, she didn’t ask for a back-to-school outfit or new school supplies. Perhaps neither matter as much in the absence of an audience to appreciate them.

My advice in this strange and challenging time is to repeat rituals, even when they aren’t strictly necessary. In our family, this means getting dressed up for the first day of school and taking a photo on the front steps—even if this year, we’ll all head right back into the house afterwards. And though we’ll miss wandering the store aisles piled high with pencil cases and notebooks, it’s still possible to scroll through the pages of office supplies online.

Don’t underestimate the power of physical cues to influence motivation and behavior.

Do help your kids make a fresh start this fall. Years from now, they may look back and remember that going back to school in 2020 was surreal by nature and, at the same time, familiar by design.

With grit and gratitude,

About the author

Angela Duckworth is a co-founder of Character Lab, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and the author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance.