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School sucks, ask any kid.
But it turns out the only thing worse is not being able to go back to school — and using Zoom.
“All you're doing is just staring at a screen all day and not doing anything else,” says 10-year-old Nicholas Orlando Gonzales.
At his school in Philadelphia, he says he partakes in fun activities with his friends. In contrast, remote learning is “like being tortured by the internet,” he told The Pulse’s high school student reporter Kaitlyn Rodriguez, who’s also his cousin.
On the one hand, like lots of adults, he’s scared of the coronavirus because he feels he’s “too young to die.”
But Nicholas misses his friends, and he talked about his best friend, Akim: how they used to hang out all the time and how they were fourth graders together but now they’re technically fifth graders. Only now, they’re not together really.
Not seeing his teachers and friends makes him sad, he says. To cope with his emotions, he rests and cries until he feels he needs to stop.
For kids like Nicholas, remote learning is all the boring parts of school without any of the fun little moments that make it worthwhile. There’s no more joking around in the few minutes between sitting down and the teacher demanding they turn to this page or that. The locker room razzing, the lunchroom roundtable discussions are gone.
But more is missing than just the fun. Development researchers say a different kind of learning happens amid the countless social interactions that going to school provides.
Socialization happens in school
When the pandemic hit and schools went remote, people weren’t talking about what kids would miss beyond academics, says Becky Lakin Gullan, a professor of psychology at Gwynedd Mercy University in suburban Philadelphia.
“We were not really thinking about these kids that might really be losing a lot of skills that take time to develop,” she says.
Lakin Gullan studies a kind of socialization older kids and young adults go through called emerging adulthood. It’s something she thinks is lost in the coronavirus pandemic’s back-to-school debates.
In June, the American Academy of Pediatrics made a statement saying kids should go back to school in person if possible. This angered many people, Lakin Gullan says.
People are still pretty angry, and with the virus picking up steam in parts of the country since then, they’re scared.
“And people weren't wrong in what they were saying — look, this is really scary, and it's a health issue,” she says. “But what the American Academy of Pediatrics was trying to do is say that it also matters to physically be present with other people.”
The social interactions we have at school as kids are practice for the roles we’ll play at work and in adult life, Lakin Gullan says. They help us differentiate between the person we are when interviewing for jobs, brainstorming with peers or talking to a boss. All that may feel effortless, but Lakin Gullan doesn’t think it is: We have to learn it.
The little friend and the big mean girl
Tamar Kushnir heads up the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory at Cornell University. She shares a lesson she learned in second grade.
“I very much remember having a friend who was a smaller girl, and she was easily picked on. She was smart and bookish. And we talked about books and things that, you know, things we read. … But there was a big mean girl who found her — she's about half the size of this girl — and she just found her very easy to pick on.”
Kushnir, though, was a big kid herself.
“And I wasn't afraid of this girl,” she says. “I came up to her head, as opposed to coming up to her knees.”
One day, 8-year-old Kushnir decided enough was enough. It was time to act. She walked over to the big, mean girl and her small bookish friend and stood directly between them.
“And I learned how to stand up for my friend when my friend was being picked on,” she says. “I learned how to put my body physically in between a person who was being mean and a person who I cared about.”
The crucial thing to keep in mind is that Kushnir did what she did without anyone telling her to — she made the decision. Researchers think healthy people are born with this innate sense of something like right and wrong.
“We're social creatures, and we're built with some capacity to understand harm and to be averse to it,” Kushnir says. “But that doesn't mean we act.”
Whether we act, how we act, is where we get our character — what Kushnir calls moral agency.
At her lab, researchers think independently making decisions empowers kids to do it again, she says. One experience that gives a child a feeling of agency can empower them to take action again.
Kushnir’s interview took place around the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans.
Did she think about the demonstrations differently, knowing all this? She says she sees all the strands of childhood social experience in the type of adults we become.
“I think it does start when we're kids,” Kushnir says. “Standing up despite the fact that someone might be bigger and stronger than you is a lesson that a child can learn at age 7 or 8 or 15 in a context where people are different.”
Kids learn from everyone they interact with at school, even those they don’t even really talk to, she says. It’s not just friends or bullies, every person brings some different variable that does not exist at home among a child and parents and siblings.
Children learn who they are in relation to others at school, she says — something neither worksheets, flashcards nor math problems can teach.
These are things we learn by interacting with others. We learn about the complexity of others, and we also learn who we are or can be. A big thing Kushnir talked about is the way kids push themselves in school to try their limits. But that’s not so easy in a virtual setting.
Student reporter Kaitlyn Rodriguez can attest to that.
“When COVID happened, I felt lost,” the rising sophomore at a performing arts high school in Philadelphia says. “I found myself becoming instead of this, you know, extroverted Kaitlyn, this Kaitlyn that was so outgoing, someone that wasn't scared to do anything, I found that Kaitlyn becoming more timid.”
Part of it, she thinks, is that the only role she gets to play at home is that of someone’s kid. All teenagers hide some parts of themselves from their parents, she says, and being at home all the time takes away the opportunity to express them.
Kaitlyn says freshman year at her artsy high school was like a chance at a fresh start, to be what she considered the real Kaitlyn, kind of quirky, kind of out there. She says she thrived on the energy of her classmates and she spoke up. But she’s worried that’s changing.
“I found myself becoming more nervous about speaking in front of others, I found myself scared,” she says. “I found myself having that fear that I didn't want to have. I found myself quiet.”
Lakin Gullan says she worries about this type of thing happening to kids kept apart from their peers for too long. They unlearn the type of social interaction that used to be normal.
“You know, you start working out, you start exercising, and the first few days are just terrible, but then after a while you just get out of bed and you do it and it doesn't feel as exhausting,” Lakin Gullan says. “And I think that it's the same thing with social engagement. There was something to constantly working that muscle.”
Lakin Gullan’s big concern is that when schools finally do open in person, too narrow a focus on academic recovery will take up all the air in the room — things that build social interaction will be seen as extra. Recess will be cancelled.
That’s on Kaitlyn’s mind, too.
“Now we're not going to go back to school until November,” she says. “I have to learn how to be the way I used to be.”
She’s decided she can’t just sit around waiting for school to open its doors.
“I have to learn how to learn from the situations in my own household, rather than the situations in school, and I have to learn how to thrive off of my own energy rather than other people's energies,” Kaitlyn says. “That's something that I have to work on.”
This segment aired on September 23, 2020.
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