Between this virus and racial angst, how are our children going to be able to learn?
Research has proven time and again that one of the most important predictors of success in a classroom is how physically and emotionally safe students feel in an educational setting. And I have serious concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased fear and racial anger ignited by the tragic death of George Floyd, and the recents riots at the Capitol are starting to create monumental challenges for student learning and mental well-being.
The adolescent brain, fear, and learning
Because children’s brains are not yet fully matured, they have lessened abilities to perform what is called “executive functions.” These functions occur in the frontal lobes, sections of the brain that are not yet fully developed until the mid-twenties.
Because of these “immature” sections of the brain, the following actions (all needed in an educational setting) are less successfully managed, even by well-adjusted and happy children:
- the ability to control inhibition
- the ability to maintain the memory of needed facts when engaging in complex endeavors
- the ability to regulate and manage emotions
- the ability to be flexible and adjust to difficulties encountered, including revising thoughts and changing behaviors in the presence of new information or environments
- the ability to sustain attention and remain focused on a task
- the ability to plan and prioritize things based on their importance
While teachers see these age-related cognitive and emotional limitations commonly in the normal educational setting, it is well known that trauma further negates these functions.
And looking at the physical and psychological upheaval of the last year, it is easy to see the added ramifications that these chaotic times may have on learning, as children are likely experiencing an educational setting that seems more foreign and physically threatening than ever before.
For example, school-age children may experience fear as a result of the drastically changed school environment they are facing face due to safety concerns stemming from COVID-19. Their anxiety over new school procedures in conjunction with a heightened fear of increased exposure to a highly contagious virus are extremely detrimental to these already lagging executive functions. This elevated anxiety as it relates to COVID-19 may be specifically related to things such as the following:
- exposure to a crowded school environment where children may feel more susceptible to the virus
- the close proximity of others and fear of infection due to school activities such as group work or one on one teacher-student interactions
- concerns about the large number of school surfaces that may hold the potential for contamination
And the more fearful children feel, the less likely they will be to learn needed information and function successfully in an educational setting. The article “This is a Student’s Brain on Trauma” best summarizes the negative impact of traumatic events in the following statement:
“With fight or flight responses over-activated in the brains of students of trauma, the learning and memory centers of the brain are conversely turned down. When the primary function of a child’s brain is to protect itself and process fear, normal brain development is affected. You might see students become forgetful, disengaged, or unable to concentrate. Over time, the effects can actually permanently alter the brain, making it increasingly difficult for a child of trauma to learn when it’s constantly fighting for survival.”
In addition to the fears inspired by the deadly virus that is pervading our country and the world at large, there is also the presence of another threat that heightens the fear response in children and further impedes learning.
Students may be afraid that the racial conflicts and violence seen in the media at this point in time will also permeate their school environment.
And these fears seem to be valid ones based on additional research relating to the adolescent brain.
While the frontal lobes are responsible for the successful management of most adult behavior, studies have shown that children and teens tend to rely more heavily on the section of the brain known as the amygdala, often known as the fear center of the brain.
An article published in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience states that many researchers have found that this imbalance in functioning between the frontal lobes and amygdala makes adolescents “less effective at regulating their emotions and more affected by emotional context when making decisions.”
This inability to regulate emotions may not only show itself in the form of excessive fear but may also express itself in the form of increased aggressive behavior. And in an environment where racial and political tensions are high, students may react to corresponding situations more emotionally than logically and more violently than calmly. These responses impact the learning environment, creating a powderkeg of feelings and behaviors that make learning next to impossible.
And the aforementioned fact that these psychologically traumatic situations make students unable to focus during instruction and remember things after instruction may be only one negative educational outcome.
An emotionally charged school environment may also result in learning gaps due to the byproducts of fear and anger, such as chronic absenteeism and worsened or newly emerging mental health issues such as anxiety and depression.
How we can help our children and lessen their anxieties this school year
While we cannot immediately solve the tensions and fears that are plaguing our nation, we can use our power as parents to help our children more successfully adjust to the challenges that the year ahead may present.
Discuss and educate your children about the situations facing our nation.
A child that is knowledgeable about events in the world today will be better ready to encounter the changes and difficulties that lie ahead in the school year.
- Inform them of the facts, so that false information or misconceptions are eliminated and fear is lessened.
- Ask them questions about their worries and concerns.
- Validate their feelings while seeking to help them put anxieties in perspective
Discuss the changes that they are undergoing in the current school year.
Discuss the changes students have been facing in school and let then talk about the different environment they find themselves in. This lets them sift through their feelings and lessens their sense of anxiety when they can purge these emotions by talking to a loving caregiver. Discuss possible scenarios that may occur and the reasons why these situations may present themselves. Be open and honest, yet reassuring.
Anticipate and role-play situations that may occur so that they can respond appropriately.
Parents should not only discuss possible scenarios that may present themselves, but they should also role-play these situations in order to help their children respond in a safe manner. Ask your children things such as “What should you do if ______________occurs?” Discuss the pros and cons of different ways to address stressful situations.
The bottom line:
Child psychologist Haim Ginott said that “children are like wet cement. Whatever falls on them makes an impression.”
And as parents, educators, and members of society, we must use ourselves as shields to help our children navigate a world right now that is full of panic, fear, and instability. If we don’t, not only will their learning suffer, but something much more tragic will occur: they will lose their hope and belief that the world can be a beautiful place again where they can feel happy and unafraid. Don’t let them lose faith in tomorrow.