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Kids Are Behind in School. How Can We Help?

Emotional regulation skills set the stage for closing the learning gap.

Key points

  • Many students are academically behind following the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Increased efforts to make up the deficit may be thwarted by emotional dysregulation in children.
  • Helping children build emotional regulation skills may help set the stage for learning.
Kenny Eliason/Unsplash
Kenny Eliason/Unsplash

New research rolls out weekly, describing the impact of the pandemic on the educational and emotional lives of children. First, the World Health Organization predicted a wave of mental health concerns for children living in uncertain times. Then came the news that the brains of children aged more rapidly during the pandemic-related lockdown. More recently, studies have shown that elementary students are almost a year-and-a-half behind in math scores and a third of a year behind in reading performance. While there were significant differences in the learning delays between poorer and richer school districts, with the latter showing the most significant decline, within every school district, students fell behind during the pandemic.

In our collective attempts to “get back to normal,” it would be easy to think that we can tutor, summer school, and pressure school districts to push harder in order to reverse the powerful impacts of the pandemic on children. It is understandable to want to raise academic scores and trust that this will, somehow, indicate that our children are recovering from the disruption of the last several years. Grades and test scores are concrete and measurable, realities that can feel comforting and certain while trying to parent and teach in an impossible time.

The difficulty is that it’s not this easy. Academic delays are only one form of loss children have faced in the last three years. They also experienced emotional and physical deprivations that, unaddressed, may profoundly impact their ability to learn and catch up.

Ideas abound on how to remedy the loss of academic learning that occurred during the COVID-19 crisis. Some of the best are recounted here, from the Educational Recovery Scorecard Project. It is crucial, however, that we not underestimate the relationship between emotional well-being and the capacity to learn in children. We must acknowledge the impact of communal and individual trauma on the brain’s ability to process information and the reality that high-impact emotions, such as depression and anxiety, affect learning and will not necessarily resolve themselves.

When children flounder, we long for tangible “fixes.” It’s painful to imagine the most vulnerable among us suffering. We want to do what we can to help them find their way. We want to see them thriving and happy and able to exist in the relative ease that we wish childhood offered. Sitting with these realities feels unbearable so we look for ways of offering opportunities for, and measuring, a child’s “betterment.” We hold our breath until we can get them to a place where their behavior or mood or test scores can confirm that they are “making progress” in returning to “normal.”

If we hope to create a world within which children can resume learning at pre-pandemic rates, we must tend to their emotional and physical beings as much as we do their cognitive and academic ones. While it would be ideal if all children and families had access to mental health professionals, many do not. When this is the case, the parents and teachers most in contact with children may be able to get some healing started by teaching children emotional regulation skills. These tools, when modeled and taught with consistency and open-heartedness, can go a long way.

Here are a few places to start:

1. Teach, and model, pausing for introspection and reflection. In a world where we’ve attached ourselves to digital devices, we’ve practiced distracting ourselves from our feelings rather than addressing them. Interrupt this tendency by forming the habit of checking in with yourself throughout the day and teaching your children to do the same. Link this “pause practice” with an action that you/they already do habitually. For instance, place a sticky note on every faucet in your home with the words “How am I feeling?” on it and take the full 60 seconds of hand-washing time to identify any feelings. Begin each meal with a one-minute pause to toss out feelings you’ve experienced throughout the day or come up with a “ritual” unique to your family’s rhythm. The goal is to develop a habit of pausing in order to make space for an internal dialogue wherein emotions are recognized and named so that they can be worked through.

2. Encourage child-specific self-soothing skills that address present emotions rather than reinforcing distraction. Consider the way in which your child is soothed. Do they calm with physical touch or by wrapping up in a blanket? Do they need to express and release their emotions in physical ways? Does “mood” lighting and quiet music help usher in calm? Does a bath or shower do the trick? Helping children become conscious of their best self-soothing techniques and empowering them to engage them is a massive gift. Help them make plans for how to actively self-soothe when they identify or experience strong emotions and brainstorm alternatives for when they don’t have access to their ideal self-soothing options. For example, a child who gets regulated with a bath may benefit from a trip to the bathroom during the school day and intentionally letting warm water run over their hands and wrists for a short time.

3. Address and attend to all five senses. We live in a time where our visual and auditory senses are overstimulated and others go untapped. Throughout the day, offer different forms of stimulation to your child if/as they prefer/tolerate it. Provide a variety of tastes, pleasant and soothing smells, and different textures for them to feel. Doing a "five senses scan" can also help. To do this, simply take a couple of minutes and identify one thing you can taste, one thing you can touch, one thing you can hear, one thing you can smell, and one thing you can see, all in the present moment. Helping children be fully in their bodies can aid emotional regulation.

4. Listen to children and be willing to have difficult, and complex, conversations with them. It’s tempting to want to reassure children or to minimize their big feelings. Instead, ask them about their feelings in open ways. Use language they will relate to, and then be quiet and listen. Be willing to sit with hard content and remember that you don’t need to have answers in the moment. Don’t try to “fix” whatever feels or situations your child discloses before asking them if they’d like your input. If you need some tips on how to have these conversations, my book Restart: Designing a Healthy Post-Pandemic Life has scripts and helpful tips.

5. Model well and seek help as needed. Children learn more from what the grown people in their lives do than from what they say. If they witness you naming and working through your own emotions, asking for help when you need it, they are more likely to do the same. If the needs are bigger than what you can meet on your own (for yourself or your child), seek help. Mental health workers, physicians and nurses, faith leaders, and even many friends may be excellent resources. De-stigmatize asking for help and also model offering it (in thoughtful ways and with consent) to others.

6. Remember that an ability to regulate emotions amplifies a child’s ability to learn. Attend to mental health markers as much as you tend to academic ones.

To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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