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The Negative Effects of Remote Learning on Children's Wellbeing

How a focus on social-emotional learning can better help children — in school and at home — as we cope with recent challenges and begin to emerge from the pandemic.
A Cause for Optimism in Education

Before COVID hit, Professor Stephanie Jones and Lecturer Emily Hanno were already tracking young children's development as part of the Early Learning Study at Harvard. As the pandemic began unfolding, they started to see shifts among the thousands of families and children participating in the study. 

In their newest findings, they share that families reported a rise in temper tantrums, anxiety, and a poor ability to manage emotions, especially among the young elementary-aged children during remote learning. These findings may not come as a surprise to the many families who endured remote learning with their children, however, Jones and Hanno say these experiences remain important now, even as we inch toward a possible endemic. 

“We have to be ready to support children as they transition between these different things — these different modalities, these different experiences — and support adults in kind of learning about enacting strategies that support children as they navigate the changes,” Jones says. “Those are things that we know about ... from work in social and emotional learning, in supporting positive behaviors, and supporting the wellbeing of adults.”

In this episode of the Harvard EdCast, they talk about how educators and families need to invest in social-emotional learning before learning loss or lost classroom time. They share ways to support educators facilitating classroom experiences for children that allow them to process the experiences they've had. They also offer easy strategies for families to check in with their young children's wellbeing. 


Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast. 

Harvard Professor Stephanie Jones and lecturer Emily Hanno's recent study explored how remote learning negatively affected children's behavior. This probably doesn't come as a surprise to the many families and educators who endured remote learning, yet it was another piece for Stephanie and Emily in understanding children's wellbeing, and a cue for schools and families to embrace social and emotional learning. They had begun tracking children's development years ago, as part the Early Learning Study at Harvard. When the pandemic hit, they started to see a shift in wellbeing and behaviors among the elementary aged children and their families in the study. They say it's important now, more than ever, for parents and educators to pay attention to children and help them navigate their emotions. I wanted to hear more about this and strategies adults can use with kids. First, I asked Stephanie what made remote learning affect children so negatively.

Stephanie Jones: I think it's a couple of things going on. What I don't think is that there's something about the screen itself. So the experience is remote learning, and I think it's association with some of these more challenging behaviors that parents observed, suggests that there's sort of a signal about what's going on generally for families and for children during the periods of time when remote learning is necessary. So I think it's a signal about the strain that families are under when remote learning has to happen, when those conditions are such that children have to be at home. For many parents, having a six or a seven year old at home on a screen learning while one is working and managing a household and doing all of the things that adults do, that is really very stressful. We know that strain is tied to challenging behavior among children.

So I think the remote learning is more of a signal about the other kinds of things that are happening in families. The second thing is that I think it's hard for six and seven year olds to learn on a screen as their main modality for learning. It's hard. They have to learn how to do that, and that, of course, comes with all kinds of challenges. Sometimes when kids are struggling and they're frustrated, their behavior shifts. It can look more negative, more dysregulated, they fall apart more often. Emily, what do you think?

These findings aren't necessarily going to be a surprise to anyone who's weathered remote learning with a child at home. So in some sense, this is meant to be confirmation of what many of us have suspected, that, yes, these are things that we're observing at scale on a more systematic way. Our hope is to draw attention to the fact that children's behaviors are shifting and that we may expect to see children coming back to school and behaving and operating in different ways than they did before the pandemic. So I think there's a risk of jumping immediately into trying to address learning loss or lost time in classrooms with children to focus on academic skills, but if we understand that children's behaviors have shifted in negative ways, we can support educators in facilitating classroom experiences for children that allow them to process the experiences that they've had, as well as support and scaffold behaviors in the classroom.

Jill Anderson: Does this mean remote learning just needs to be taken off the table altogether?

Stephanie Jones: I don't think that that's something that we can say, given that we are still in this situation, for sure. I think what these findings tell us is that we have to be ready for the challenges that come along with these various decisions. So for young kids, for kids who are six and seven years old, for adults, disruption can be really challenging. Changes to routines sets everybody off. Young children in particular, because they're just learning how to manage all the changes that are just part of life. So I don't think it means that remote learning is off the table, because that should be driven by public health considerations. I think what it does mean is that we have to be ready to support children as they transition between these different things, these different modalities, these different experiences, and support adults in kind of learning about enacting strategies that support children as they navigate the changes. Those are things that we know about from work forever, from work in social and emotional learning, in supporting positive behaviors, and supporting the wellbeing of adults. We have material we can draw upon to support kids and adults.

Jill Anderson: So you're talking about strategies and things that can be done to manage some of these pivots. Can you talk about what that might look like for educators and parents?

Stephanie Jones: There are lots of things. Some seem really sort of overly simple, and in their simpleness, they are profound. So asking children, asking adults how they're feeling. So, "What has it been like for you, as you went from being at school to being at home? How are you feeling as you're coming back to school? What is it like for you to go through this?" So just allowing some time and space for processing what's happened and the feelings that go along with it. We're really talking about how to support young children as they move between all these situations, but truly it's about the adults too, who need as much support and care as do the children. So one strategy is to really just open up space for processing and talking about how everyone's feeling, and it doesn't have to take a long time. It can be really quick, but it's really important.  

Emily Hanno: Another simple, yet profound strategy is routine. We know that children thrive with predictability and that's what's been so hard about this whole pandemic, is that we've had little ability to predict what's coming next and how long it's going to last. So both families and educators can support children's wellbeing by creating predictable routines that are going to happen no matter what's happening in the broader ecosystem of children's lives. So small things like family walks, consistent mealtime routines can really make a difference for children, and I think back to what Stephanie said, sometimes these more break-like or fun family routines can present space for children to have the sorts of open conversations about how they're doing. So while you're doing a puzzle together, or cooking dinner, those might be spaces where children feel most comfortable talking about how they're doing.

Jill Anderson: A lot of these strategies sound like the things that we should just be doing in general, even whether the pandemic existed or not, right?

Stephanie Jones: Yeah. One of the things that we've learned in this experience, and we certainly hear from educators and from parents increasingly about their interest in this field, which is that adults and children, the world of social, emotional, and behavioral wellbeing are really important, and these experiences have sort of made that ever clearer. There's lots of interest in strategies and supports for those areas in particular. So I would say, as someone who works in that area, I would say, "Yes. This is always important. Children really benefit from routines and it's always helpful to share how you feel. It builds relationships and it brings everyone into the space together." But right now, when we're facing these kinds of challenges, it is particularly important. As we get back into it, we address some of the real issues that we're facing, which is that children need some catch up, there are things to be learned and done.

If we leave out a focus on the core social, emotional, and behavioral supports and skills, we'll struggle to address those other things. So we'll set ourselves back even more, and so taking time and thinking about how to bring children and adults back into a more regular routine of teaching and learning, and school, family and relationships, taking time to do that well and focusing on how people are feeling and what they've experienced is so important. It will help us in the long run, it'll move the other work forward faster.

Jill Anderson: Is there really a resistance to it, or is it kind of a case of there's so much that people are trying to do and mitigate, that it kind of might be falling by the wayside? I'm talking about social and emotional learning.

Stephanie Jones: I think that there is a great deal of belief and buy-in. I think when it comes down to the pressures of school and schooling, and the enormous challenges and pressures that educators are facing right now, it's hard to set aside time for these kinds of things because there's such a press to get back to normal, to get on with things. It's a tough moment and a conundrum. My advice is always, "Spending a little time here will accelerate your other efforts," because children and adults will feel more ready for it. So it's like, "Put time here," it feels like you're taking away from something else, but it will benefit the "something else" in the short and the long run.

Jill Anderson: I know my own kid has a class every week, that I suspect is social and emotional learning, called Nexus, and she loves it.

Stephanie Jones: Yeah.

Jill Anderson: It's her favorite class. We don't know what the heck happens in there, but this isn't happening everywhere, I suspect.

Stephanie Jones: It is varied, how it happens in different places. I think one thing you're highlighting that's so important, and something that we would all do well to remember, which is that children love to talk about how they feel and their relationships with others. It's a really important part of their life. It's what's in the front of their minds. You can take advantage of that and say, "Let's really think about how to support that. They're so engaged in that world. Let's think about how we can support that in other areas of instructional work." So let's bring in that interest in the social world, the emotional world, and see where it fits in these other instructional domains, because kids are really... They care about that stuff and they want to talk about it.

Jill Anderson: It was fun when she brought the trigger sheet home and I was listed as one of her triggers, but that's okay.

Stephanie Jones: All parents are a trigger.

Jill Anderson: Dad didn't make it on there, but I did. I know I'm taking us way off course there, because I think a lot about social and emotional learning, and I ponder how much parents really know and understand about that.

Stephanie Jones: Yeah. But just as you described, you see it in your relationship.

Jill Anderson: Right.

Stephanie Jones: Many parents feel it, it's intuitive, and sometimes it's not always clear from a kind of surfacing and explicit standby, like, "Which part of this is actually that social and emotional learning that they're talking about in school?" So making that connection sometimes doesn't happen, but in its core, it's really about forging connected, close, high quality relationships between adults and children, and children and children, and sort of in the whole ecosystem.

Jill Anderson: To get us a little bit back onto the pandemic, talk a little bit about some of the changes in behavior that you were seeing in these studies among children.

Emily Hanno: Just quickly to go back to Stephanie's point, I think one of the things that she's highlighting, and in our work together we've thought a lot about, is how do you integrate social and emotional learning into everything that you're doing in classrooms and at home? There's a potential hazard of thinking of social and emotional learning as having to be a specific learning block, or an hour a week, when in reality, it's happening every moment of every day that we're interacting with children and interacting with each other. One of the things that we've thought a lot about is how do you develop supports for families, supports for educators that allow them to integrate more explicitly social and emotional learning themes throughout the day when they're with children? Going back to your question around what behavioral changes we observe and parents observe, we saw that parents were reporting that their children's behavior tended to be more dysregulated when they were in remote learning.

So they're having trouble putting the brakes on and switching between activities flexibly. We saw parents reporting that children were having more temper tantrums, and more anxious and removed behavior, so a whole slew of different types of behaviors. It doesn't mean every child that we learned about was experiencing these specific behaviors, but what it does indicate is that the response can look a lot of the different ways. It can be in more internalizing symptomatology, where children are a little bit withdrawn or quiet, or it can be in externalizing symptomatology where children's behaviors are really quite prevalent and you're observing it in a more dysregulated behaviors too. So we saw a diversity of responses.

Stephanie Jones: So that's a good point, the diversity of responses to sort of challenge and disruption. We often get the question, from parents and from educators, "What should I notice and pay attention to?" Building on what Emily just described, it's really sort of a change in your child's behavior from what you're used to. So for some children, and even for adults, it can be this kind of drawing back or withdrawing, and for others, it can be a form of sort of falling apart, and yet others, it can be a form of kind of externalizing or acting out and responding to big emotions in big ways. So it's really the kind of shift that is the thing to look out for, and then, "How are you feeling? What's happening with you?", getting into a conversation about what's going on.

Jill Anderson: It sounds like it's important for parents to carve out time every day to just sort of have these little check-ins, that  that could be the most important thing to do.

Stephanie Jones: As you said before, there are many of these things that are sort of great all the time, but especially when things really feel like they're tense and out of control, and having that little check-in can be the routine. So every day at this time, we're going to have our chat. We're going to sit together and hold hands, or it can be anything. We're going to sit with the stuffed animals and talk with them, find out how they're feeling during this unusual time. So there are lots of little strategies, little ways to check in with children, and I would say, again, with other adults, that just open up that place for sharing something that might be going on. Doing it in a regular way increases the likelihood that a child who is uncertain is going to share something. So it might not be the first time, "I'm feeling okay," but the next time, "Actually, it's kind of hard for me. I don't know what to do when I have to be on the screen. I'm nervous about that, or that makes me bored, or overly excited," or whatever it is.

Emily Hanno: Some of these routines may feel unnatural at first, and making them part of daily behavior takes time to build the habit and to make it integrated into your normal everyday life. I would just underscore a theme that we've touched on over and over and over again, is that here, we're talking a lot about child wellbeing, but the adults' wellbeing, whether that's at home or at school, is so foundational to the child's wellbeing. Many of us have just been doing what we need to do to survive, to get through this current moment, but allowing and giving ourselves time to pause and think about how we're doing and how we might do more self care.

Jill Anderson: We're in this really weird space in the pandemic right now where things aren't back to normal, but we're kind of pretending they're going to go back to normal. We don't know what the normal is anymore. Some of the work that you do explores the role of parents and caregivers modeling positive behavior through adversity. Why is that important, and what does that look like?

Stephanie Jones: One of the primary ways that children learn how to manage their own experiences, their own emotions, their frustrations, their excitement, is by watching others do it. Children learn from the adult around them in every kind of way, and so how adults model their own management of stress and disruption is really important. That doesn't mean that it's terrible if an adult falls apart, that's a learning experience for a child too, which is that sometimes we fall apart and then we put ourselves back together. That's an important thing to see. A strategy for adults who really feel like they need a tool to manage some of those up and down kind of moments might be to do some out-loud self talk. So, "Gosh, I am feeling so frustrated right now because I can't get this computer to turn on. When I feel frustrated, I really want to hit the table, but I take a deep breath and I keep trying."

So here I've just narrated something that happens to me all the time. I get frustrated by something and I want to fall apart, but I have to do something to help myself not fall apart. What we've found in our work is that young children are captivated by the internal world of adults. They don't hear about it all that often, and when they do, they really pay attention. So once an adult starts to sort of narrate their own internal world, those little ears are perking up and it can be really influential. So in a funny way, it's a way to do two things at once. It's a way for an adult to manage what's happening with themselves, self-talk can be a useful strategy, but also to model a way to manage for a young child who's having some trouble and listening closely.

Emily Hanno: We also know that there can be cascades between how adults and children are doing. If an adult is feeling really stressed and frustrated, they can maybe respond more tersely to children, and that in turn feeds into the child's behavior, who's also responding shortly with their adult caregivers, and then that in turn exacerbates adults' behaviors and feelings as well. So I think it's important to understand that feedback loop between adult behavior and child be behavior, to be able to stop and see it happening, and then do something about it. As the adult, take a moment, stop, and address the burnout cascade.

Jill Anderson: So what are you looking at now, and just what to keep in mind going forward?

Emily Hanno: So we're continuing to follow these children for as long as they'll have us follow them, and our hope is to continue to understand how children's behavioral wellbeing and general wellbeing is shifting over time as we hopefully return to normalcy, so we understand whether or not these changes we've observed are enduring over time. The other thing that we're starting to do right now is to go back to our families and assess the children, not just in the areas of social and emotional learning, but also in more traditional academic areas, language development, literacy development, math skills, to understand whether or not we've also seen changes in those areas and how they align to changes in children's behavioral health. So is it that children whose behaviors have suffered more during the pandemic are also those that are struggling academically as well?

Stephanie Jones: Yeah. Exactly. Overall, we're really interested in connecting children's experiences, families' experiences to their trajectories over time, across all sorts of areas. So we'll do that forever, as Emily said, if we can, and feed the information back to educators, to systems, to families.

Jill Anderson: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Stephanie Jones: Thank you.

Emily Hanno: Thank you.

Jill Anderson: Stephanie Jones is a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a faculty director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. Emily Hanno is a postdoctoral researcher with the Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative. She is also a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. They are working on the Early Learning Study at Harvard, a population-based study that examines children's development in context of their early education and care. I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.


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