As learning environments continue to shift during the COVID-19 pandemic, parents are concerned about their child’s academic progress. Atlanta Parent talked to some area families and education experts for insight on how to make sure children are getting the most from their school experience.
Kids go to school for many reasons, but academics are at the core. Since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in spring 2020, the school experience has been very different for metro Atlanta’s students. This school year, while many private schools were able to return to in-person learning, some had periods of at-home or hybrid instruction. Most public school districts have reopened or have given parents a choice of remote or in-person learning; others have not announced plans for a transition to in-person learning. This has left parents to wonder and worry about how children will fare academically.
Research is showing this period of time will result in reduced and slowed academic gains, and those losses will be far more significant for children who are already at a disadvantage due to inequities in educational systems. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, analysis of Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing results in Georgia show a decline in math scores when comparing 2019 to 2020.
Dr. Chenyi Zhang, a researcher and associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at Georgia State University, encourages families to try to see beyond the short-term and focus on learning motivation. “Instead of thinking, what can we do to make children have higher test scores, let’s ask ourselves, what can we do to make their process of learning a specific subject more enjoyable and happier. A positive learning experience will lead to great learning outcomes.”
That perspective has been key for Martha Barbieri, a Decatur mom who is attempting to work full-time from home while also supporting a kindergartner and a fourth-grader through virtual learning. “I was really anxious about our kindergartner early on because she has so much to learn and so little school experience,” said Barbieri. “But to my surprise, watching her class online has allowed me to see how she interacts with her teacher and with the other students. I’m observing her learn in real-time. Yes, some things might not be happening as quickly as they would in person, but she’s positive and engaged, and that is what matters the most to me right now.”
The challenges are different for every family and for every child. On the opposite end of the school-age spectrum, Sallyann Rossiter is confronting how to support her son who is a senior at St. Pius. “He is heading to college in the fall, so this is when he needs to learn to manage his time and to be independent,” Rossiter said. “But these strange times are leaving more room for apathy on his part, so I find myself looking for ways to be a little more involved.”
For Rebecca Treacy-Lenda of Roswell, the priority is to make sure her ninth- and tenth-grade daughters are engaged and getting what they can from their experiences. “I’m not super concerned about them catching up, or what that even means,” she said. “We are in a pandemic, and we need to focus on doing the best we can.” For her family, that has also meant paying attention to each child individually. One of her daughters is learning virtually while the other attends some classes in-person due to the hands-on nature of the courses. “Those classes are what bring her joy, and they just don’t work entirely virtually. So we are working together as a family to make that option safe for her and us.”
Those kinds of choices, made collaboratively among families during these difficult and dynamic times, offer a learning opportunity. “The quality of interpersonal relationships determines our wellbeing and development,” said Zhang. “Parents may want to think about how to make all the interactions between them and children more enjoyable and productive, rather than simply about what children can do.”
Zhang notes that this time period can be a chance to develop perspective-taking skills. “Explain the rationales behind your family decisions and invite children to think from different perspectives while acknowledging their concerns,” Zhang said. “[Having discussions such as] ‘I understand you are not happy about the new learning arrangement. Nor am I. But do you think your teachers want to do that? They must want you to be back in school as well. However, it is a special time that we all need to make collective changes. If we do X, what do you think would happen? How does that make Y feel?’ Perspective-taking allows children to understand and practice compassion, to consider what we can do to contribute to others, rather than what others should change to meet our needs.”
Compassion will surely be key as the consequences of the pandemic ripple across the coming years – and in real time. “I have students who are working overnight to help support their families, I have students who are logging in to school from their jobs during the day, and students facing overwhelming anxiety,” said Karen Tolmich, who has a college-age and a tenth-grade son and teaches in Gwinnett County – both in-person and synchronously with students who opt for virtual learning. “While students might miss some content, I believe that they are learning how to adapt and overcome obstacles, and those skills will definitely be useful later in life. This isn’t what we are used to, but we have to keep teaching and learning and try to adapt.”
Resources and Real Advice
Whether your child is learning remotely or at school, use these strategies to enhance their educational experience.
- Visit gastandards.org to learn about state academic standards. Check your school’s website for further guidance on their academic programs. This knowledge can help you gauge your child’s progress.
- Integrate topics and skills being taught at school into everyday family experiences.
- Get all the information. Make sure you’re receiving all communications from your school system, your school and teachers. Check parent and student portals and review them with your child as appropriate. Don’t hesitate to reach out to a teacher if your child needs help.
- Recognize children’s emotions and concerns before explaining the necessities of the school’s learning situation. Take time to protect your own emotional well-being – because you reflect your feelings to your children.
- Reframe conversations to avoid putting your child on the defense. Instead of, “why did you get this grade?” try, “what was this assignment about, and what were you learning?”
- Use school breaks and holidays to pursue curiosity. Academic gains do not have to happen in a classroom setting. Ask children what they want to know more about, and find ways to support their interests, whether it’s a camp, museum or a documentary.
Tips for Parents
For parents who work from home, supporting students who are also learning from home presents unique challenges. Try these tips:
- Post a weekly schedule during school hours. Have breakfast and lunch at the same time each day, outdoor “recess” time, etc.
- When your child logs in at the beginning of each day, take a few minutes to have her review what she completed the day before and what she will be working on for the day.
- You are not the teacher or the technology guru for your child. When she has questions, make sure she is comfortable asking her teacher. Keep the communication lines open.
- Have independent activities for your child to do when she finishes schoolwork early, like Brain Pop, the Libby reading app, Mystery Doug and Osmo.
- Try to work on the same schedule as your child. When school work is over, work time and screen time should be over for you as well.
- Consider designating a half or full day each week where you and your kids plan a hike or a picnic during schoolwork hours.
– Sherry V. Crawley