Every parent can probably remember the moment that COVID-19 stay-at-home orders hit. As a school psychologist and parent, I remember (naively) thinking it would be short-term—and maybe even fun to “homeschool” for a few weeks! I mean, I know how to help kids learn, it’s my job. I even wrote one of the GGSC’s most-shared articles of 2020 on how parents could cope with the stress of distance learning.
Then, like every parent on the planet, months in, I hit a wall. My definition of a good day of “learning” shifted from my third-grader acquiring the skill of multiplying fractions to a day without a meltdown (mine or my kids’). The new metric of successful learning became a day when my kids accessed their coping skills. It made sense to me as a school psychologist to shift the focus from academics to social-emotional skills, because stressed-out kids can’t learn fractions anyway. No one learns well in fight-or-flight mode.
In my role as a school psychologist, the past two years have been…well, rough. I have seen a student hold up a sign on Zoom that read, “I can’t learn like this.” I’ve seen students melt down, shut down, and disappear from school altogether. I’ve comforted crying parents when they felt hopeless. And I’ve had my fair share of meetings where I’ve encouraged teachers and school psychologists to not quit under all the stress.
I’ve worried about the emotional toll on our students as well as academic learning loss, particularly when I read studies that show students four to five months behind in reading and math at the end of the 2021 school year. Even more alarming is the research that suggests that students of color and students in low-income communities showed even steeper declines than their white and more affluent peers.
Further, even before COVID-19, students with disabilities and English-language learners experienced persistent opportunity gaps and lower achievement and graduation rates. Research shows that during remote learning, students with disabilities did not receive the specialized support they needed and had higher rates of absenteeism, incomplete work, and course failures than their non-disabled peers. In short, pre-pandemic cracks of inequity in our school system have widened. That troubles me, and it might trouble you, too.
But what can we do about it now? Um…like today?
Here are three suggestions for rethinking, rebooting, and re-creating equitable and strengths-based learning experiences. These may help us all rebuild from the collective trauma of interrupted learning.
1. Rethinking “learning loss”
As a school psychologist who is trained to focus on student assets, I am (perhaps to a fault) perpetually optimistic about student potential and the power of educators and families to rebound together.
At the early stages of the pandemic, I am embarrassed to admit that I was like that meme where the cartoon dog is sitting in the midst of fire all around them, thinking, “This is fine, everything is fine…”
I spent all my emotional energy trying to instill hope and problem-solve practically unsolvable problems, like trying to teach visually impaired students over Zoom, or reaching students who did not have Internet or families who were struggling to find food and shelter.
As we re-entered school buildings, my instinct was to celebrate the resilience of our students instead of focusing solely on the academic gaps. Research shows when we focus on kids’ strengths, they actually have better academic outcomes. It makes intuitive sense, as well. If you came into a learning environment that greeted you with “What do you already know and what unique gifts do you bring to the environment?,” wouldn’t you be more likely to persevere and be engaged than if you were met with “Welcome back. You are behind academically”?
I still struggle with focusing on student and educator strengths and their incredible resilience—while still honoring the real gaps in support.
I’ve landed on a both/and proposition. We know from decades of research in cognitive behavioral therapy that we can reduce stress by reframing negative into positive and examining the evidence about our reality. So, what if we started with reframing “learning loss” as “opportunity gaps”? The shift from deficit to strengths-based model acknowledges the gravity of the situation and simultaneously shifts our collective lens to focus on the strengths of our students and educators moving forward.
While subtle, language matters. For example, have you “lost” the ability to speak a new language or acquire cellular biology skills when you’ve never had consistent instruction or rich learning experiences? No. You just haven’t had the opportunity. And guess what? We can create rich learning opportunities together.
Reframing a problem doesn’t make the problem go away. But it could instill academic optimism in our students and educators, which are essential ingredients for coping with stress and academic success.
After reframing, we can look to the evidence. Data are clear there are gaps in proficiency among certain groups of students. No matter what we label it, there is still the empirical connection between academic skills and success in life. We can acknowledge the gaps and look to the future and build new learning opportunities in a strengths-based model, particularly for families and students most affected by opportunity gaps. Do we have any evidence to support optimism? Yes. Read on.
2. Rebooting readiness to learn
While it’s normal for parents and educators to worry about students’ lagging academic skills after two years in a pandemic, a narrow focus on academic skills only may not solve one of the root problems of the pandemic: Stressed-out students can’t learn at their capacity. And, on the flip side, research indicates that students with strong social-emotional and coping skills show higher academic success.
Let’s take the case of rebuilding displaced learning in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, where students struggled when schools focused too quickly on academic remediation (especially for high school students). Post-Katrina studies point to the importance of building and maintaining supportive relationships with students following disasters. The connection between children feeling safe, seen, and connected to the adults in their lives and academic success has been long studied as a protective factor. Research shows that when children have strong relationships with caring adults, they are more likely to be engaged at school and more motivated to succeed academically.
Connection is protection. Students (and indeed, adults) who are dysregulated or emotionally taxed with stress need mental-health support and wellness initiatives so they can be ready to learn. While happiness and well-being are worthy goals in and of themselves, research shows that happiness actually broadens and builds our cognitive skills and our social-emotional connection—including advancing our problem solving, creativity, and memory while reducing anxiety, which is a memory- and focus-killer. Or, more simply put: Connected kids are happier, and happier minds learn more.
The reality is we have students who need significant academic support, but it must be wrapped in social-emotional learning supports. This intersection is critical in rebooting together. Research shows that the relationship with academic outcomes is larger when students believe their abilities and skills can grow with effort, feel physically and emotionally safe, and feel their teachers expect a lot from them.
Rigor without relationship is pressure. So let’s strive to reboot tomorrow by greeting our students with “It’s been hard, but we are in this together and I believe in you.” Positivity, connection, and growth mindset matter. You grow through what you go through together, my friends.
3. Reimagining schooling to meet the moment
In the early months of distance learning, I observed teachers and school-based mental health providers turning on a freakin’ dime to help kids (despite never taking a “how to teach remotely in a global pandemic” course in graduate school). I saw them creating innovative learning opportunities for their students in the midst of being in crisis themselves.
I’ve seen teachers rebound with renewed vigor to reimagine what is important for students to learn and question the over-quantification of “learning.”
I’m hearing educators across the country sounding a rallying cry for expanded definitions of student success beyond standardized points acquired or lost.
And I’ve heard loud and clear that mental health needs to be a priority, not just now, but long after the last disposable COVID-19 mask is tossed in the trash.
So what are the durable solutions for addressing inequity and serving our students with special needs and disabilities? What innovations can we learn from the pandemic that will outlive short-term COVID relief efforts that will run out?
We don’t want to return to “normal,” where there are predicable achievement and opportunity gaps. We want to rebound to interrupt the predictability of who will succeed and who will struggle to achieve academic and lifetime success. It will take an ecosystem of support and a common vision.
Here are my suggestions for how schools, community agencies, parents, and students can work together to rebuild:
Preventative mental-health services for students and staff
- Invest in recruiting and retaining school psychologists and school-based mental health professionals.
- Shift the role of school-based mental health providers to prevention and early intervention, not just diagnosis.
- Invest in school-wide professional development for social-emotional learning, trauma-informed, and healing-centered practices.
- All of the incredible academic curriculum and social-emotional programs in the world are not going to be effective if teachers are in survival mode or quitting in droves. Preventing teacher loss is as big of a priority as student learning loss right now. Ask teacher, “What is the one thing that would reduce your stress right now?” and honor their ideas.
Bridging general education and special education
- Fully fund special education law, which has had a historic budget shortfall. Write your members of Congress to support legislative efforts to close the gap between services needed and funding allocation.
- Focus on Universal Design for Learning (UDL) strategies within the general education setting that help all students, including those with special education needs.
- Provide multi-tiered personalized support for all students, including those without formal special education diagnoses.
- Continue to keep the option of virtual special education meeting and parent-teacher conferences to engage parents who may not be able to attend in person.
Flexible and innovative learning models
- Expand from tutoring of academic content to a broader therapeutic approach that includes educating students about executive functioning skills and coping skills. If students are shutting down or acting out when they are being taught academic content, they may need coaching on emotional self-regulation and executive functioning skills, such as starting difficult tasks, increasing focus, and boosting planning/organizational skills (all of which are compromised when stressed).
- Keep flexibility by offering distance learning options for students who thrived in independent study-style conditions.
- Go on a listening tour of parents of what supports are working for them, and what initiatives they would like to see more of, and harness the collective wisdom of the community to co-create innovative solutions.
Now, I haven’t had the opportunity to study biology in a while, and my metaphor may not be perfect, but I seem to recall that when cells break down, they get stronger. I have the same hope for our educational systems. We can use the data about “learning loss” and the stress of the pandemic to build stronger, more equitable schools with academic rigor, fully integrated social-emotional and mental-health supports, and culturally relevant learning experiences…right in the DNA of our school systems.