Changing the Conversation – Student, Parent, Teacher Pandemic Learning Gains
“You can have it all, just not all at the same time.”
You don’t have to go searching for an article on “learning loss due to the pandemic” this back to school season. They’re everywhere. I imagine children and teens starting their first days back at school, some who haven’t been in person with friends and teachers for an entire year only to hear, “we have a steep hill to climb. We have much to catch up on!” If I’m placing myself in my teenager’s perspective, I’m thinking, “what was I doing all last year? I wish I had known I could have not worked my tail off and just had fun at home!” To our students, the learning loss conversation is demoralizing, demotivating and downright inaccurate. Here’s why…
Though even the nightly news is reporting that children’s social and emotional learning should be top of mind, somehow we haven’t connected the dots that our past year was a masters course in social and emotional skills. Naming it and being clear about those intelligence advances are just as vital to our learning conversation as whether or not they kept up their fractions scores. We learned that we are stronger than we think. We learned that one person’s personal decision can have a ripple effect on a community, a state, our country and indeed, the world. The lessons are significant and will be used and carried throughout this generation’s lifetime and I’m already excited to see what they are able to accomplish with this level of awareness and skill rehearsal.
Perhaps you are a parent or educator who reads your state’s standards and benchmarks at each grade level in each subject area. Currently, all states in the U.S. have social and emotional skills integrated throughout the standards in a variety of subjects. Half of the states now have stand alone social and emotional learning standards just as they have language arts, science and social studies’ standards (and more are developed each year). Let’s just take a quick one page sample from the Ohio Social and Emotional Learning Standards (the state I call home).
Let’s check what our children learned at home according to this sample from the Ohio State Standards. If you are reading this as a parent or an educator, see how you might respond to the following questions:
- Did your child/student get a chance during the last year to “identify a complex range of emotions as an indicator of personal well-being?” If you followed along this blog and did the daily feelings check-ins, you gave your children a year of practice in identifying and naming emotions.
- Did you give your children/students a chance to look at ways different emotions impact different people in different settings? If you watched the news and reflected on it or simply discussed national and global events and its impact on people, you likely did this. Did you also “Analyze ways emotions impact the social environment?” If you discussed – or participated in – the “Black Lives Matters” movement and the impact of the death of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others last year and how people worked to create change because of their anger, outrage and sense of injustice, then this was part of your curriculum.
- Did you create a safe time and place to discuss emotions as a family or as a classroom? Together at home over such an expanse of time with so many crises in the world around us, there were frequently big feelings within and around us. How did you handle that with your family? How did you talk through those emotions? Did you find there was a time of day when you were all together that you felt safer to share what was going on? Yes, I believe we “recognized – along with our children – that current events had an impact on our emotions.”
Though there were losses of specific curricular goals, the gains can far outweigh the losses if we recognize them, reflect on them and build on them this year as strengths unique to this time and generation. “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience,” wrote John Dewey, educational philosopher. Our ability to identify and name those learning gains shapes our children and teens’ perspectives on the value of what they’ve learned during these uncertain times.
Though you may be able to name more or different (and I encourage you to think deeper about what is true for you and your children/students!), here are my reflections on the learning gains for my child and his peers.
Here’s my learning gains inventory and I hope you will conduct one of your own!
Caring for Physical and Mental Health – If your child was participating in social media, watching media or part of your family’s conversation, they were getting a deeper education in the complexities of public health issues, of viruses and how they spread, how to prevent that spread and how your family’s decision-making impacted your own well-being and others. Not only that but you took specific steps to prevent the spread of the virus and protect yourself and others by mask wearing, social distancing and staying home. In addition, there were numerous national conversations about the mental health of our children and teens (not to mention caregivers and teachers) as they endured isolation, separation from friends and family and only connected with non-household members through a screen. Caregivers and educators were concerned about their students’ worries and feelings of connection and we did our best to support them through these tough circumstances.
Conflict Management – The simple truth of families at home together 24/7 created conflict. We’re human after all. And though the data is not back yet on whether more of us created greater intimacy or deepened separations during this time, surely we were faced with many conflicts and had lots of practice with managing it. Hopefully because we had great incentive to work through it since there was no avoiding family members, we learned strategies for managing it constructively. Studies have been conducted on how kids’ development was impacted by parents’ conflicts. Kids who lived in households in which parents argued but genuinely resolved the arguments were actually happier then before they experienced the argument.1 The lesson they learn is we can fight, work through it and still be close.
New Relationship Skills – How many ways can you use Zoom? We found out! We did a virtual summer camp with friends in town and across the country including camping out in the backyard together huddled around a device. What did you do to connect with your classroom, your family and your friends safely? Because of the pandemic, our son made a whole group of new friends online he grew close to and had never met in person. We discovered evidence that they were close friends when he met a few in person this summer and it seemed as if they had been together every day for the past year. We were forced to ask the question: how do we feel connected to those who we cannot be with in person and we worked to solve that difficult riddle. I’m not sure we’ll ever again take for granted a grill out, a concert or a holiday party.
Consequential Thinking – Whether the virus began in an animal and spread to a human or was developed in a laboratory or some other version or combination of the two, the interaction that took place had consequences for the entire world. And as the virus spread, we could not ignore the fact that our individual decisions could impact our neighbors, our classmates, even a stranger at the grocery store. As mandates were made (regardless of how we felt about them), we had to discuss as a family how we were going to react. Hopefully, you discussed your values, your priorities, your choices and how those choices might impact your own well-being, the well-being of those around you and the greater impact to your community. Consequential thinking is a higher order thinking skill that requires lots of rehearsal over years in order for children and teens to begin connecting cause to effect. We had that chance over again during this pandemic.
Emotional Courage – The origin of the word courage means “heart” or facing pain, danger or difficult decisions. I love the quote attributed to Mark Twain, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” We’ve had our share of fear. And yet, we persisted. I spoke virtually with countless parents, caregivers, and educators this past year who admitted they were feeling scared, overwhelmed and anxious. Yet each one of them was learning how to bring their best selves to their children and students, pushing themselves to connect and care and educate even from remote locations. We named our fears and we faced them as we led our families and classrooms and through that modeling, our children found ways to not only survive but thrive (and we need to recognize it).
Empathy and Perspective-taking – The differences in social, racial and political views in our country and throughout the world were (and are) growing at a fever pitch. Yet all of us were enduring hardship. A light shone on racial discrimination in such a disruptive way that white Americans could no longer ignore the systems that perpetuate racism. And Black Americans along with other races and cultures could not be silent or silenced. I also think of the many who were already doing critical work in this area, who dug deep inside to. find inner resources they didn’t know were there and re-doubled their efforts. We faced a divided nation knowing that neighbors and community members could view the pandemic, the economy and social justice issues in diametrically opposing ways. How did we hold that tension? For some, people we love held deeply opposing positions. How did we/do we hold that tension? Hopefully, we hold it with empathy. We are challenged to find compassion for differing others in the midst of own pain. And that’s one of the toughest challenges. Yet we learn from this generation of youth who are advocating for, accepting and celebrating all forms of identify. Though our children need practice with empathy and perspective-taking, we need that practice too and I believe our children have much to teach us.
Responsible Decision-Making with Information (and the critical role of science) – We may have felt like we’ve had information overload but the stream of information about what good science tells us we need to do to stay safe has been vital during these uncertain times in which we all play a role in fighting off a global pandemic. Sometimes, we’ve received mixed and confusing messages. The media has put out false news. And strong, loud opinions have swayed decision-making in families. Hopefully, this has resulted in a family dialogue (ongoing!) and a classroom dialogue about sources of information – what you can trust and what you cannot trust. How do children research a topic like the pandemic? What websites, what organizations, what media sources publish facts? How do we know they are facts versus opinions? In our all-access, global online community in the palm of every child world, we need regular conversations on how to critically review information and seek out trustworthy sources.
I’ve created a pdf Pandemic Learning Gains Inventory form so that you can print it off, use it, and reflect in your home or classroom on these issues with the children you love. There are spaces for students, teachers and parents to reflect since we truly and intimately experienced schooling together this past year. And what do we do with other specific subject matter content? We assess where they are and meet them there. But no one who cares about education wants to begin the school year feeling behind. And in fact, we are not. You can find the printable pdf of the Learning Gains Inventory here!
This back to school season is uniquely complex and challenging for all involved. Why not reflect and build upon the lessons gained in the last year to reinforce and seal in the valuable learning experiences that have already taken place? Wishing us all a happy, healthy return to school!
1. Divecha, D. (2014). What Happens to Children When Parents Fight. Developmental Science. Retrieved on 4/27/16 at http://www.developmentalscience.com/blog/2014/04/30/what-happens-to-children-when-parents-fight