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‘Don’t Go Back to the Old Normal’: Opportunities for Adolescent Learning Revealed by COVID-19

COVID-19’s effects on childhood brain development and those up to age 25 provide some new insights.

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Long before the COVID-19 shutdown forced schools to launch remote learning, the nonprofit Challenge Success tracked student wellness, using the findings to encourage schools and families to rethink what constitutes “success” for students.

In the early months of the pandemic shutdown, some students and families experienced silver linings alongside COVID-19’s many challenges. Those included more time with family, and in some cases, more sleep for students learning from home. Some districts adopted policies prohibiting Fs on spring report cards.

But once fall 2020 rolled around, a lot of the grace given in the spring evaporated. Schools got back to some semblance of normality, even if instruction was often online. Standardized testing resumed. And students were back to feeling stressed, which was more elevated for girls and students of color, according to a fall Challenge Success/NBC News survey.

“There was a real increase reported in student-related stress,” said Challenge Success co-founder Denise Pope at the Education Writers Association’s 2021 National Seminar. “Parent expectations can be a protective factor; it can be a positive thing in a kid’s life, but if [students] don’t feel like they can meet the expectations, that’s where you can run into some problems.”

The pressure for high academic achievement has sometimes come at the expense of students’ well-being. Despite extensive research on the benefits of adequate sleep, downtime and strong relationships, the march to academic success often stretches students to the limit.

Those particularly attuned to brain development during adolescence might wonder about the pandemic’s impact on young people. Adolescence – the period between ages 10 and 25 – usually gets a bad rap as a time of growth spurts and mood swings. But the brain is going through its second most important developmental period after ages 0 – 3.

“It’s important to think about [adolescence] as a time of remarkable opportunity,” said Adriana Galván, a professor of neuroscience at UCLA who also spoke at the conference session. “And certainly, some of the key developmental milestones that happen during adolescence include establishing new social relationships, exploring the world, thinking about new activities and passions.”

The changes that occur in a child’s brain makes adolescence a period of testing boundaries, further developing a sense of self, seeking novel experiences and taking risks, all while awareness of social status is heightened. But when students are confined to home and distanced from their peers, should adults be worried?

Not necessarily, Galván said. Students took on new responsibilities over the past year, such as helping around the house, working to support their family, taking care of siblings, marching for racial justice and learning how to be safe during a pandemic.

Still, what worries Pope and Galván is that in the rush to leave pandemic schooling behind, communities will revert back to the way school was done before the pandemic.

“Don’t go back to the old normal,” Pope advised educators and parents. “They’re so excited about the old normal, they don’t realize the old normal wasn’t healthy. We had mental health problems, stress and sleep deprivation before the pandemic, so I’d like to see some real changes.”

Below are some changes Pope and Galván hope to see in the lives of adolescents.

School and Curriculum

Some of the changes schools made to their schedules, including later start times for teens, should be kept, Pope said. Block scheduling is more conducive to deeper learning instead of rushing through six to seven courses each day, she added.

Research has shown shifting attention requires a lot of mental load, and it takes time for someone to be primed to receive new information.

“We’re doing a lot of what’s called cognitive flexibility that your brain has to shift in what it’s thinking about rather than focusing on two particular, three particular main topics,” Galván said.

High engagement with school correlates with positive mental health, and curriculum can make that difference, Pope said.

“You have to make the curriculum engaging and exciting and developmentally appropriate, and that comes with giving students real things to think about, real tests to do,” Pope said.

She recommended service learning opportunities to make what’s learned in school more relevant.

Parental expectations about a child’s school performance is still a source of stress, Pope said. She hears from parents who worry a lot about their kids’ schools, grades and college prospects, but not nearly as much about sleep, which is connected to mental health problems, depression and anxiety.

As part of being a well-balanced individual, adolescents need to know how to develop positive coping strategies and how to be responsible for life skills, like doing chores around the house, she said.

Sleep and Mental Health

Despite some reports that found teens getting more sleep during distance learning, Pope’s survey results found just the opposite. This came as a surprise during a time when extracurricular and social activities were reduced by COVID restrictions.

“Those high-achieving students kept trying to stay up and do the work,” Pope said. Adding to this issue were so many people’s reliance on screens for socializing and entertainment, which could go well into the night.

“Some of us, myself included, got caught into that doomscrolling,” she said of people who spent a lot of time on their devices reading the news and absorbing social media to no end. “And then, I think the other thing that happened is the anxiety; the rates of anxiety and depression went up, and we know that’s related to sleep.”

Building Relationships 

Even though adolescence can feel like a time when adults are pushed away, they still play an important role. The Challenge Success poll found that nearly 50% of those surveyed saw a decrease in the strength of relationships with teachers and between peers. But fortunately, 72% of students said they had a trusted adult to turn to at school, and that can serve as a protective factor for student wellness. She also said advisory and regular check-ins can help with relationship-building.

“There is usually an adult who is going above and beyond, who’s tracking them down at their home, who’s making sure that they have extra help on something and so they’re … appreciating that, and I think that’s a sign of resilience as well,” Pope said.

Make Room for Exploration, Risk and Failure

Adolescence is a time for new experiences and taking risks. And even though when adults look back, they mostly see the difficulties, those experiences helped them grow.

Galván said it’s hard not to overreact when someone you love is hurting or failing, but supporting them is a normative part of development.

“Taking risks outside of one’s comfort zone is the way that we mature and that we grow, and it’s so necessary for adolescence,” Galván said, adding that it’s important to ensure one’s health is not compromised.

“What’s the worst thing that can happen if they don’t start their chemistry project until the night before? You know that’s going to be a train wreck,” Pope said.  Adolescents need to learn how to make good life decisions without their parents hovering over them.

“It’s hard to let your kids sort of fail, but it’s a safe fail, as opposed to letting them drive drunk,” she said.

Young people have a great capacity to bounce back from setbacks in adolescence – such as bad grades and social failures – and the adolescent brain’s extraordinary plasticity makes that possible, Galván said.

“Those are all learning experiences, and adolescents are remarkably resilient,” Galván said. “As adults, we can look back and say, ‘I was such a nerd and kind of laugh at that.’”

And the students who took on extra responsibilities to support their families during the pandemic or tapped into their beliefs to advocate for racial justice demonstrated just how capable they can be, according to Pope. “The resilience has been amazing.”