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Path out of the pandemic: The right way to help students returning to schools

Research shows that the single best thing schools can do to help young people persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic is to build and strengthen relationships with and among them.

Photo by Morning Brew on Unsplash

Across Minnesota today, students are returning to school after months of distance learning. As they do, a growing number of educational leaders and commentators across the country are arguing that schools should focus first on addressing the “learning loss” that students likely suffered since schools closed last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The policies being proposed include: extended summer school, year-round learning, grade retention, intensive online and in-person tutoring, and boot camps during which students concentrate on making up for lost ground in mastering basic skills.

While learning loss is an issue that we must understand and address, young people’s path out of the pandemic should not begin with boot camps. Starting with that strategy would only exacerbate the inequities that the COVID-19 pandemic has already laid bare.

But if focusing on learning loss is not the right way to help students return to school, what is?

A wide body of research shows that the single best thing schools can do to help young people persevere through the COVID-19 pandemic is to build and strengthen relationships with and among them. Toward that end, the studies that my colleagues and I have conducted at Search Institute suggest that both practitioners and parents can do five things to help students transition from learning at home to learning at school and to process the traumatic experiences that many of them have had during the pandemic:

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  1. Express care: Ask young people about their experiences during the pandemic and validate those experiences and the emotions young people have about them. Let them know you are glad to have them back in your school or program. Praise them for having persisted.
  2. Challenge growth: Remind young people of the central role that education will play in their lives. Let them know that over time you will expect them to put their best effort into learning even though that is not the top priority as we emerge from the pandemic.
  3. Provide support: Guide young people through the changes in structure and culture that many will encounter as they shift from spending their days at home to spending them in school and programs. Stand up for young people when programs and systems do not meet their needs.
  4. Share power: Give young people voice and choice in decisions that affect them. Invite them to join you in imagining and identifying ways that schools, programs, and society can address the longstanding inequities that COVID-19 further exposed.
  5. Expand possibilities: Ask young people to think about how their experiences during the pandemic may have influenced their goals for the future. You might share with them that applications to earn graduate degrees in public health have surged as thousands of young adults have decided to enter a field that will be critical to fighting future pandemics.

When young people experience relationships with adults that are characterized by high levels of these five actions, they are engaged in a truly developmental relationship. The urgent need to help more young people experience that type of relationship was powerfully demonstrated by a recent Search Institute report. The report summarizes data collected through a survey of almost 5,400 young people in grades 4-12 that was administered across Minnesota just before the pandemic began. The study found that only 38% of all students in our state experience strong developmental relationships with their teachers. That means that even before the pandemic, most students did not have the kind of relationship with their teachers that science shows helps them succeed in school and in other areas of their lives.

Kent Pekel
Kent Pekel
The relationship gap in our state is now so wide that schools cannot close it alone. Fortunately, the Search Institute report also found that young people in Minnesota (and nationally) are twice as likely to experience strong developmental relationships in out-of-school time programs as they are in schools. With that finding in mind, the federal government, states, school districts, local governments, and foundations should increase support for out-of-school time and mentoring organizations as we help young people emerge from the pain of the pandemic.

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Search Institute’s research has shown that when young people experience strong developmental relationships with teachers, parents, and staff in out-of-school-time programs, they are significantly more motivated to work hard in school and possess stronger social and emotional skills. That is why helping students re-enter school through relationships is not a detour from helping them make up for the learning loss they may have suffered during the pandemic, but a longer and more humane route to the same destination.

Kent Pekel, Ed.D., is president and CEO of Search Institute, a nonprofit organization that partners with schools, youth programs, and other organizations to conduct and apply research that promotes positive youth development and advances equity.

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