Pandemic triage in classrooms requires listening to kids’ stories

As we muddle along into the second year of pandemic-shaped schooling, I’ve seen much discussion among educators split over a belief that kids ‘fell behind’ or ‘vaulted ahead’ in their learning trajectories last year. They think kids spent either last year hiding in their bedrooms staring at walls when they weren’t making meaningless Tik Tok videos, or that they engaged in ‘deep dives’ into areas of interest, including learning all about the Covid pandemic. 

To learn what’s going on behind student masks, educators have to ask. all kids have different stories to tell.

Administrators don’t seem to care much about either outcome; they have met this extraordinary moment with a collective shrug and determination to get back to the curriculum-playbook as soon as possible. 

For many kids I’ve talked with, their pandemic experiences ranged from terrifying to remarkable; some had home experiences crumble around them while others revelled in spending more time with their parents and families. Some did make Tik Tok videos and many ditched the math worksheets for reading books or tabletop projects and games. They attest there were equal parts learning and relief in such activities, which helped quell anxiety. Some yearned to get back to the curriculum-playbook, others were content to continue learning at home.  

It’s a mistake for educators and administrators to just ‘move on down the road’ as if nothing happened, without deeply eliciting information from students about: 

– what they’re feeling now, and why

– what’s going on for them in their domestic lives

– whether they have ongoing issues of concern in their personal lives for which they might value some extra support

– what kinds of learning experiences they had last year, and what that means for them, now 

No child or youth, or almost none, had neutral experiences in the past year. And no child or youth’s story should be ignored or discounted as this new year unfolds. 

To that end, health authorities are unequivocal: many children, youth and young adults are experiencing elevated mental health problems related to the pandemic (see this report published in August by Jama-Pediatrics: Addressing the Global Crisis of child and Adolescent Mental Health).

Making room in school scheduling for addressing this right now – while the pandemic is still circulating widely – is equally if not more important to rote-learning about the hydrologic cycle, details of the Magna Carta, or honing the ‘5-paragraph’ essay. If educators fail to do this and only follow the ‘school-and-curriculum’ playbook then kids – who can easily discern how that playbook is contrived – will turn off schooling even more. 

At the least, let’s get curious about the experiences children and youth have endured – and some are continuing to endure. And through our listening students will will know we’re here for them and we’ll respond as best we can. 

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