The Importance of Connection in Isolation

Girl in Solitude from Social Distancing in COVID-19 coronavirus crisis stock illustration

The education difficulties of this year represent the first time in our careers that teachers everywhere have been challenged by a universal connection—remote schooling as a result of a pandemic. Like children entering school for the first time, educators entered virtual learning from diverse levels of knowledge, technology skills, and dispositions. Reentry issues will impact parents, educators, and students alike. We are becoming aware that other aspects of our well-being—besides physical wellness—are just as important.

Psychological, Social, and Emotional Needs

This past April, while I was homeschooling my 7-year-old granddaughter, I noticed that though she was tending to her schoolwork, the lack of social interaction was taking a noticeable toll. She would arrive at my house for school each day. We had established a routine that she managed as we dealt with math, reading, language arts, critical thinking, science, fine arts, and—of course—recess. Her attention to task and resulting progress flowed nicely. But her declining emotional state became evident. Her breathing became short as her anxiety increased. She made comments regularly about people being unsafe going to the grocery store. Shortly after this, “I can’t” became a frequent phrase when encountering school-driven tasks. She harbored a heightened level of fear that could easily shift the stasis in her system for handling challenges and concerns.

As an educational consultant working with teachers on the educational and neuroscience practices of learning, I wondered whether the short- and long-term effects of increased stressors could likely increase the production of cortisol/adrenaline in the brains of school-aged children. Students were getting it from all sides—adult concerns and fears, overall social isolation and lack of socialization, the media’s barrage of impending outcomes, and school-work. I knew that the prolonged presence of high levels of cortisol/adrenaline has been found to cause significant long-term manifestations (depression, anxiety, PTSD, etc.) across all ages.

My granddaughter attended a Zoom class every day for 30 minutes in which she could see her classmates and teacher—who did an incredible job of working with students to keep them on task and moving through the curriculum. I applaud the teacher’s efforts on behalf of her students. However, the absence of face-to-face socialization was becoming evident with this 7-year-old. Two things became clear. One was that we needed to extend our schedule to include field trips—to get out and go anywhere that would escape the overwhelming psychological weight of confinement. Out-of-doors around the house was no longer sufficient.

Our first trip was to a fish hatchery. No one was there, so it was quite safe, and science/nature education flourished. In later weeks we ventured to a nursery, takeout food establishment, and so forth, working to diminish the fears that had set in. The second was to investigate the possibility of having a classmate visit one day each week so the two could accompany each other in both schooling and play. By the next week, we had located a classmate whose family had also noticed similar needs in their daughter. After sufficient review of each family’s habits when in public places, we determined that the benefits of their getting together far outweighed the minimal potential of exposure to the virus. Upon first sight, the utter glee on their faces was more than sufficient proof that this was something impacting them—and youth everywhere. Their feet lifted and spirits soared. Healing was becoming possible.

Critical Elements From Neuroscience

Stress can kill neurons and diminish networks available in children’s brains. Fear also induces fight or flight responses and is accompanied by increased cortisol and adrenaline in the brain that shuts off full access to thought processes. Memory production is more than likely hampered as a result. In other words, one can complete schoolwork adequately, yet not accrue long-term memory from having done so. Confounding this initial deficit is that if one learns something amid emotional fear, anxiety, and stress, then the negative emotional tag will accompany recall. Thus, when the learner’s memory is cued back to conscious use, it will reactivate the negative emotion that was in place during the learning circumstances—which stimulates, once again, cortisol and adrenaline production. This is not good for continued learning or application at future times. Clearly, this is not the outcome anyone desires.

Neuroscience and the Use of Screens

The issues point to very early uses of screens. Dr. Patricia K. Kuhl’s work out of Washington University notes the deficits of early language acquisition via screens versus in person. Infants exposed to exact video recordings of the same interactions retain little to nothing compared to their face-to-face counterparts. In “Association Between Screen Media and Academic Performance Among Children and Adolescents: A Systemic Review and Meta-analysis,” Adelentado-Renau et al. found that “excessive use of screens in early childhood (0–5) is linked to the inability of children to pay attention and think clearly, while increasing poor eating and behavior problems. Children who used more than the recommended screen time had lower levels of development in the brain’s white matter—a key area in the development of talking, reading, and thinking skills.”

Dr. Manfred Spitzer has warned for years that regular overexposure to screens will irrevocably alter the wiring of the brain during developmental times. The ramifications will be unknown until it’s too late to make desired adjustments. His work extends through adolescence into young adulthood, suggesting that computers do not add much to essential learning and should not be introduced until much later on in schooling. There is sufficient research to prompt serious dialogue around how screens are used and how much screen time is acceptable—virus or no virus. Tending to remote, hybrid, or other venues for educating youth, we must consider these findings instructive as the journey moves forward.

Remote Learning Challenges

Early on as remote teaching began, I would watch my granddaughter turn on her tablet and go to IXL—a personalized learning app—as instructed. This is an online, leveled program for several subjects. She would open a segment on place value or adding and subtracting and look at the first question. One of three things typically happened: She understood and continued working through the items presented; she would begin and stumble on the second or third item and say, “I can’t do this” and shut it off; or she would begin and struggle to understand what the problem format was asking of her. In most cases, she did understand, if it was explained at the beginning. If I was not there to guide her through the first difficult moment, she would most likely flit from one item to another and tell herself it was too hard or that she didn’t know how to do it, concluding that she was not capable. The result of not having an adult there to guide initial success was disastrous—leaving a little girl feeling unworthy. Though these educational programs are logical and very organized, even sequential, when left to the child to figure out what the instructions require—negative outcomes are all too frequent. This is the exact opposite of the program’s and our educators’ intentions and is harmful to students’ emotional well-being and confidence regarding the ability to learn.

While technology has provided some form of a bridge during this time at home, it has fallen far short of sufficiency in long-term memory production and learning outcomes. Heavy reliance on screens is not a sustainable, viable response to learning for our young people.

Decision Makers—Managing Overall Implications

It has become clear that there is far more than a physical fallout resulting from the avoidance of this virus. Unfortunately, the virus will rear its head repeatedly over the next 12–24 months. We know that this will happen—regardless of reopening or not. We should expect that.

It is time for the psychological associations to weigh in on the rami-fications of emotional and psychological well-being, as it is also time for sociologists to do the same regarding implications for families and others they serve. More importantly, it is time for our educational community to stand as a profession on behalf of the overall well-being of our students to offer a concerted voice from those trained to address the needs of the whole child—that the youth are the ones most at risk at this point in time. Their overall well-being is far more than physical health alone. Family health, educational ramifications, emotional health, and mental health demand an equivalent, if not prominent, position. Many of our schools have stepped up and worked diligently to support children and their families through this altered course. Much has been explored. Much has been learned. If we’ve learned anything—we need to full-on address the well-being of our youth through these times.

Meeting the Challenge

Although many educators dug in during the final 12 weeks of the school year and worked to provide options for parents thrust into working at home alongside managing their child’s education, the shortcomings were profound. Parents are not educators. The struggles to tend to tasks led to “Just get it done,” “I’m working,” “Go watch TV,” and basically, “whatever …” as a reported 75 percent on average attended virtual class offerings about four days a week. Many assignments were little more than busy work—trying to help parents manage an impossible situation. Amid some stellar activities designed by creative educators, we were all simply trying to get through this ordeal.

At best, students missed about 60 days of school to end the year. Add summer out-of-school time, and it will have been up to 120 days of not attending school. An estimated 25 percent of students did not even attempt remote learning. When these students come back, educators will have a monumental challenge on their hands determining how to assess who made what level of progress and how to help bridge the gaps.

Schools must reconsider CDC and governmental restrictions regarding opening schooling to the population they serve. Surely, they must determine how best to do this—not virtually—in person. Educational research on social aspects of learning as well as high-impact and low-impact learning strategies are abundant. The profession knows what is best for the overall child and needs their voice to be heard amid other considerations. Allowing the medical perspective to override best practices for the overall well-being of youth would be an abdication of the responsibility of the educational profession. It’s time to stand and be heard to let the public know of the serious concerns regarding the welfare of our young people’s overall well-being and the role that schooling plays.

Schools cannot remain silent co-conspirators while preK–12 students are victim to but one perspective of this virus. Reason can prevail, with options for individuals who do not wish to reengage. What cannot happen is for schools to let the exceptions to the rule dominate decisions in the best interests of the well-being of their population.

The potential permanence of our youth’s overall well-being need not be a sacrifice to myopic thinking. We’re better than that, if we choose to be. Let’s respect-fully take all aspects of our lives into consideration and determine what that might look like for the masses—and stop managing by exception. It’s time to manage by “rule”—that is, where the data from multiple perspectives leads and what is best for all, or at least most. The welfare of our children begs that we stand and be counted. Psychologists, please speak up. Sociologists, please speak up. Economists, please speak up. Parents, please speak up. Educators, please speak up. All perspectives on the well-being of all aspects of the community need to weigh in!


Robert K. Greenleaf, EdD, is an educational specialist, author of eight books, a former educator, superintendent, principal, and coordinator of 25 international institutes on neuroscience and learning. Reach him at bob@greenleaflearning.com.