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From the Mouths of Kids: What We’ve Learned from Students Schooling at Home. Part 5: Belonging and Connecting with Friends

by David Engle | Jul 30, 2020 | 6 min read

As parents deliberate whether to send their children back to school in the fall, amid skyrocketing COVID-19 cases in many parts of the country, perhaps we should all listen to some people who will give it to you straight, who have experienced learning at home first-hand–kids.

As we shared in the first three parts of this blog series (catch up here, here, here, and here), YouthTruth, a national nonprofit organization, conducted an anonymous survey of more than 20,000 students, who provided more than 40,000 open-ended responses to the following three questions related to schooling at home during the spring 2020 school closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • What about learning at home do you like? Are there things you hope will stay the same next school year?
  • What about learning at home do you find challenging? How can your school help?
  • Since your school building closed, briefly describe your day…

From there, YouthTruth analyzed the responses, categorized them accordingly, and created a list of five benefits and five challenges associated with learning at home (remember, learning at home is not the same as homeschooling!).

These are some really interesting and valid insights that neither parents nor educators may have been fully aware of. And they deserve as much consideration as the challenges when deciding the right course of action for the upcoming school year. But right now, we’re going to focus on the challenges since there may be solutions that can be implemented either by you as a parent or by school administrators. In part 1 of this series, we discussed distractions and ways to minimize them; in part 2, we talked about the challenges of online schoolwork and schedules; in part 3, we got into lack of motivation. In part 4, we focused on stress at home. In our fifth and final part of the series, we will discuss belonging and connecting with friends.

This is such a key component and consideration as parents wrestle with the idea of sending their kids back to school. For many parents, their children’s social lives may even be more important than the educational aspect of distance learning. And I don’t mean that as a swipe–while in-person learning is obviously much more ideal for most students, it is still possible to receive a great education from a distance, whether that’s through virtual learning or via homeschooling. But COVID-19 has really put kids through the wringer when it comes to the important connections they have with their friends. Quarantines and social distancing have really challenged the resolve of kids–and adults. And sure, FaceTime and Zoom and Google Meet and online gaming help bridge that gap somewhat…but it’s simply not the same as being able to hang out in person.

The following statements came directly from students who suffered from stress at home throughout distance-based learning during the spring.

One student feels “lonely when [they’re] at home doing all the things they used to do at school but without friends.”

This is a sentiment that could probably apply to kids from kindergarten through 12th grade. Kids want to be with their friends, plain and simple. When they can’t be, they’re miserable. This student’s statement could refer to school projects, lab work, recess activities, eating lunch, talking in the hallways, extracurricular activities. What used to be a fun group activity is now a boring, lonely, solitary activity, and many children are having a legitimately hard time with this.

Even if/when kids return to school in person, things aren’t going to be the same as they used to be, pre-COVID. No more group lunches, no (or minimal) recess, no group work. So, even being back in school, kids still may not experience the same excitement as they did with their friends a year ago. This might even lead to more stress for some kids. But others will probably find some comfort in just being able to see their friends face to face and talk to them without having to use a screen.

Assuming there is at least some remote learning happening, most families are hopeful that it will occur in the form of live, virtual classes. So, even if kids aren’t seeing each other in person on some days, they can still experience some of the interaction that takes place in a live classroom environment; this was something that was lacking, if not entirely absent, from many schools during the spring.

“My main motivation to go to school was being able to see my friends, and now that I don’t have that motivation it is very challenging to get schoolwork done.”

Total transparency here…I’m not really sure how one relates to the other. Seeing friends never motivated me to do schoolwork. Of course, I enjoyed being with my friends, and that was clearly my favorite part of going to school. But I never correlated one with the other. Seeing my friends was separate and apart from having to do schoolwork, whether that was in class or at home doing homework by myself.

I do understand that for many students, their friends are the #1 attraction for going to school. It certainly wasn’t the schoolwork for me! Perhaps it’s simply the way the student phrased this response. I would think that the sadness and disappointment of not being able to see friends could directly cause a lack of motivation or desire to do anything school-related; that’s understandable. And kids’ overall moods are undoubtedly impacted by the isolation of not being able to socialize with their friends at school, and that mood would certainly be a factor in a lack of motivation.

It’s certainly easier said than done, but students need to be able to compartmentalize schoolwork and their studies and their social lives. And many kids are unable to do that–it’s a coping mechanism that can take years to understand and apply. Some adults never figure it out at all. Separating and compartmentalizing are major challenges for people of all ages, and those who have trouble doing that would probably benefit from speaking to someone. It could be a teacher or a guidance counselor. It might be a parent. Or perhaps it’s a doctor or therapist. That may seem drastic, but if students are having that much difficulty motivating themselves to achieve greatness in school because they are unable to see their friends, they might need help separating the two entities, enabling the students to succeed despite not socializing as often with friends.

Some students would like teachers to set up “a Google Meet so that you can talk to your friends” both inside the classroom and out.

This response came from a question asking students how the schools could help them feel more connected with their friends. Having a teacher or administrator set up some Google Meets or other similar group settings for kids to gather and “hang out” virtually is a pretty easy fix. Maybe some school-related meeting spaces designated for talking about schoolwork only, as well as separate meeting “rooms” for casual socializing. Or even a setup for virtual after-school clubs and activities, so kids can still bolster their college applications while taking part in some much-needed social interaction in a safe environment. This is something that could easily become reality for the upcoming school year.

But will that be enough for some students? After all, these ideas (as thoughtful and beneficial as they are) still amount to virtual socializing. There are some people who just crave face-to-face interaction, and these types of proposals may not be satisfactory for them. Unfortunately, we still live very much in a pandemic, so it’s just not a feasible option to fully reopen at this point. That’s no consolation for some, but we all have to play the hands we’re dealt right now.

Perhaps this is where parents can provide their kids with some much-needed perspective. Not to sound like a grumpy old man (really, I’m not that old!), but kids today are pretty lucky that they get to see their friends as often as they’d like. Literally. They’re a couple taps away. Back in my day…which really wasn’t THAT long ago…we didn’t have the luxury of being able to see a loved one’s face at the touch of a screen. It was a phone call or nothing. We’re all fortunate to have technology like FaceTime, Zoom, and any other video conferencing app that allows us to look at and talk to people across the globe whenever we want. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it. But, it’s all about perspective; kids today have grown up with this technology, so a FaceTime call to them is no different than a phone call was to us back then. Sometimes, though, a little chat with kids about perspective is a good idea–some may even appreciate what they have at their fingertips and understand how lucky they are to be able to see their friends at any given moment.

When you break it all down, kids are just kids. It’s in their nature to want to hang with their buddies and do what kids love to do. So it’s natural that they really miss seeing their friends in the hallways, in classrooms, on the playground, and on the bus. It’s important to be a sympathetic ear for your children, but to also give them a little bit of perspective. Yes, it stinks not being able to see your friends in the same way you’re used to, but school is important, and you still need to focus on getting good grades…even if it’s at home. Kids are resilient, and they’ll persevere through the remainder of the pandemic. But it’s imperative not to lose sight of how this can affect children; as parents, we need to remain vigilant and ensure that our children’s spirits are kept high and that their priorities are in focus.

How have your children been dealing with not being able to see their friends during the COVID pandemic? How have you been helping them through it? Share in the comments below.

David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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