When COVID-19 first hit, it didn’t take long to see the negative psychological effects that were brought upon us when schools were forced to close, leaving remote learning as the only option.
District leaders struggled to find EdTech tools, devices, equipment, and platforms suitable for meeting all needs of their teachers and students. Teachers were throwing together lesson plans while desperately trying to navigate the world of online learning without proper training, support, or instruction.
Students were ripped from their daily routines and were thrown into this new world of digital learning—needing a quiet space that wasn’t always available so they could focus their thoughts on learning while dealing with the discomfort of being separated from their peers, and the isolation that COVID-19 put us all through.
As tensions rose and stress and anxiety became a regular part of everyone’s daily routine, school districts quickly learned how unhealthy this was for the sake of learning. The mental health of students became a popular topic of conversation for school psychologists and counselors. They needed to come up with new ways to better connect students with their teachers and peers, plus provide additional help for all staff and students.
After some failed trial-and-error processes, school leaders and teachers collaborated with colleagues across the globe to listen to what parents and students had to say about this dire situation.
Once they started listening, they started providing more effective learning techniques. And with that progress they saw other benefits: stress and anxiety levels in both students and teachers had decreased, everyone was smiling again (as we saw through the beauty of online videoconferencing), and there was an increase in participation, engagement, and achievements throughout all grades.
Most students were adapting well to this new way of learning, and there are several psychological reasons behind its success. Read on to learn the noticeable psychological benefits remote learning has created, plus hear what psychologists, educators, and parents have to say about creating a productive learning environment that’s suitable for every student.
Benefit #1: More Focus on Mental Health
Because the pandemic put a strain on everyone throughout the system, school leaders needed to provide staff and students with easier access to mental health services. Teletherapy proved to be more effective than some psychologists first thought. Remote appointments and online scheduling made accessing mental health resources easier for students. Most students prefer having their sessions in the comfort of their own space rather than meeting face-to-face in an office.
The convenience alone reduces a number of stressful triggers: “How will I get there? Take the bus? Ask for a ride? Well, if I make someone wait for me outside the office, will they hear what I’m talking about”?
Not to mention the stressful physical triggers of being there in person: sights, smells, sounds. “I’m nervous about how I look. Are they judging me? Am I saying the right things? What should I do with my hands? Am I sitting up straight enough? Maybe I should sit back. No, I know. Maybe I’ll just leave.”
When students are comfortable in their own environment, they feel safer and less intimidated. This offers a greater opportunity for them to be more open with their feelings, which leads to more serious and productive conversations.
Now that more things are opening up and restrictions are easing, in-office sessions are becoming more available. However, most therapists will continue offering virtual appointments because of all the learned benefits.
The more focus put on mental health, the more we realize the profound effects it has on a student’s well-being. Counseling and therapy sessions aren’t just about recovering from pandemic trauma anymore, they’re for everyday stressors and anxieties—school, home, peer pressure, bullying, and more.
Eric Rossen, Ph.D., from the National Association of School Psychologists, says, “We’ve been seeing a broader appreciation for the fact that mental health is a prerequisite for learning rather than an extracurricular pursuit.”
With proper training for teachers, there is the hope of seeing emotional learning and social components becoming part of daily teachings, like using the simple act of mindfulness to calm stress and anxiety or to resolve conflict. The hard part is getting students to take it seriously. As a group, they’ll be harder to control, but splitting them up into smaller groups ensures a better chance of success.
Benefit #2: Autonomy Inspires and Motivates
Learning remotely gave students the flexibility to study on their own schedule. With a wider selection of resources and reading material, students could easily study during the hours they preferred.
One strategy that many teachers found to be very beneficial in boosting autonomy was to choose a specific day for posting homework online. Most would choose Sunday, as this gave students time throughout the week to work at their own pace. Another useful strategy was to give students the option of working on high-interest projects independently and then sharing them with the class at a later date. Giving students of all ages the option to work on something they’re passionate about is highly motivating and inspiring.
Assistant professor of psychology at Virginia Tech, Rosanna Breux says she’d like to see this flexibility in learning continue and progress as we move forward, where similar to college students, students of all ages have the option to guide their own learning according to personal interests or when they feel most productive.
Allan Wigfield, a psychology researcher, wrote about the benefits of autonomy in his 2016 paper. He made the case that students are more motivated and eager to learn when they have more choices about the materials, activities, and resources they can use. This leads to enhanced learning capabilities and academic success.
A 2020 survey done with more than 600 parents showed that flexibility was one of the biggest benefits of remote learning. Self-pacing has improved the learning capabilities in a high number of students, especially among older ones. And not just having flexibility in scheduling, but also in the way students learn.
Learning to be more independent with individualized learning allows children more free time for hobbies, sports, and other interests. The flexibility allows them to learn when they feel they’re most likely to succeed. It also gives students a break from the solid 8:30-3:30 routine, allowing time for socializing, taking breaks, exercising, getting outside, and to even just being bored—all things that research shows to be very beneficial.
An English teacher in Washington, Mark Gardener, says he’s learned the importance of student-centered learning and how the fact that learning actually happens is more important than when or how it happens. He used the example of how one student excelled in his studies when given the choice to complete his studies in the evening since he was busy looking after his siblings during the day.
Gardener was just one teacher who started posting homework online on Sundays. “Going forward, we want to create as many access points as we can for kids to engage with learning,” he said.
COVID-19 forced many teachers to be creative about how to better engage with their students. Sharing virtual curriculums among school districts allowed students of all ages to take part in more interesting or challenging courses than what was available during in-person learning.
Professor and Vice Dean Hunter Gehlbach, from John Hopkins School of Education, talked about how much where motivation stems from is learning the unique things that students find interesting. So the more you can offer students things they’re actually interested in, the better it is all around.
Rosen hopes that as we move to the future, shared virtual curriculums will continue to offer students greater flexibility and a wider selection of courses to suit their interests. Being able to take part in remote courses like foreign languages or accounts payable, that wouldn’t otherwise be offered at the school, is a sure way to set students up for the path they wish to take.
Benefit #3: Increased Parent Involvement
The pandemic pushed many parents to become more involved in their children’s learning. And because of it, parents now have a better understanding of their children’s needs, their learning styles, and the content they’re learning about.
Realizing how integral parent involvement is with having so many positive effects on their children, more parents are becoming deeper engaged. By having the flexible option of attending virtual parent-teacher conferences, remote board meetings, and virtual parenting workshops, more parents can become involved without needing to pay for a babysitter they can’t afford or take time away from home or work commitments.
Professor of educational psychology, James C Kaufman, Ph.D., has a son in elementary school and one in high school, “I’ve had a front-row seat for my sons’ learning for the first time. Watching my kids learn and engage with classmates has given me some insight into how to parent them.”
Becoming more involved allowed some parents to witness firsthand just how much their children had been struggling with learning. This revelation gave them the option to look into having their children evaluated for admission into an Individualized Education Program (IEP)—something they may have missed before becoming more involved. All around, parents are now learning how to collaborate with schools to get the best education, well-being, and academic success for their children.
“My takeaway from this is that more parents need to be involved in their children’s education in a healthy, and helpful way,” said Florida-based clinical psychologist and mother of a middle school daughter with anxiety, Samantha Marks, PsyD when she spoke up about how remote learning made it obvious that she needed to teach her daughter to be more independent so she could improve her cognitive functioning.
Benefit #4: Decreased Bullying
The U.S Department of Education states that most bullying occurs in person and usually in unsupervised areas. Research suggests that kids with behavioral, emotional, and physical health needs, along with those of different races, are more prone to falling victim to bullying. But when children were forced outside of the classroom during COVID-19, parents, teachers, and school leaders noticed a decrease in bullying.
Associate Professor Scott Graves, Ph.D., from The Ohio State University believes that the increased supervision by teachers and parents during remote learning likely helped to reduce the temptation for bullying. With remote learning in place, Graves is less worried about his Black sons falling victim to microaggressions and racial bullying. There has also been a decrease in racial bullying reported by Asian American families since students have been learning from home.
Seeing a reduction in bullying isn’t just beneficial for the long-term health and mental wellbeing of students—decreased bullying results in lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and better moods. Each of these factors can greatly impact a student’s ability to learn.
Associate professor Patricia Perez, Ph.D., from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology says it’s important for schools to offer a better environment for cultural expression and support for children from targeted backgrounds. She suggested doing this by offering culture-specific clubs, providing safe spaces to talk about and share feelings with trusted teachers and professionals, or holding all-school assemblies to address racism and cultural related issues.
Many schools are planning to restructure their environment to offer better support for students at risk of bullying. One principal heard from their students how intimidating it was to use the multi-person bathrooms. They wanted to avoid the potential for gathering in small spaces once in-person learning began anyway, so the principal switched to only having single-person bathrooms. Their students are now reporting feeling much less stressed when needing to use the washroom.
Benefit #5: Getting More Sleep
Because many students were no longer being woken by an early morning alarm clock, teachers started noticing a difference in their academic performance. This only makes sense because of the correlation between student success and adequate sleep patterns—duration, quality, and consistency.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (APA) suggests that children between the ages of 6 to 12 should be getting 12 hours of adequate sleep per night, while teens should be between 8 to 10 hours nightly. Unfortunately, a 2018 study found over 70% of students get insufficient sleep.
When asked about what she liked best about remote learning, high school student Ingrid said, “I have the time to sleep eight hours a night every night [now],”
The debate about school start times has been a long-standing disagreement for some time now. But one Seattle school district took matters into their own hands when they extended their school start time by 1 hour. The study proved that with the extra hour of sleep, the students had better focus and improved grades.
Ashlee Tripp, a high school English teacher, believes her students are doing better because they have the freedom to study and learn at their own pace. It also helps for them to be in control of how they want to go about their day. Whether that involves starting their studies later so they can sleep in and work into the evening, or starting earlier so they can head to sleep sooner. And most students will agree.
“The reason I enjoy online learning is because of the opportunity to structure my day efficiently. I am able to work out, relax, and complete the work in a timely manner, with no distractions,” said an anonymous 10th-grade student.
California high school teacher, Holly Ross, believes that the students who have a harder time getting to school by 8:30 may do better by having just a couple extra hours in the morning and arriving by 10:30 rather than 8:30.
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