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As school restarts, University of Iowa psychologist predicts range of academic, emotional needs among children
‘My biggest concern is there are equity issues’
IOWA CITY — Like adults, kids have had a broad range of pandemic experiences.
Where some students had in-person instruction all last year, others either were forced into or chose some degree of virtual learning — including many who haven’t been in a classroom since March 2020.
Among the virtual learners — again — experiences varied, according to Alissa Doobay, a licensed psychologist and supervisor of psychological services at the Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education and Talent Development in the University of Iowa College of Education. Some kids thrived in an independent setting. Others didn’t.
“In some ways I've been really impressed by kids and their resiliency,” Doobay told The Gazette about children she’s seen in the clinic who have experienced plenty of academic interruptions and hiccups throughout the pandemic. “I would say many of the kids are doing pretty well coping with the circumstances as they are.”
Still, as students across Iowa prepare to head back to class — this time largely in person but with some pandemic protections in place — Doobay said parents, teachers and the kids themselves can expect transition tensions and hitches to emerge.
In a conversation with The Gazette, Doobay offered insight into what to expect and how to respond — beginning with the academic side.
Q: What can families and teachers anticipate this fall after last year’s tumultuous experience?
A: “My biggest concern is there are equity issues, where some children had a lot more resources, they had a lot more individualistic work because of their financial situation or the school system they were in, and I think a lot of those kids are on track and doing well academically,” Doobay said. “And then there are other kids who just didn't have those same resources and support. And I'm worried that those are the kids that are going to fall a lot more behind.”
She acknowledged those types of equity gaps are not new.
“But I think those discrepancies are going to be much bigger,” she said. “I see just huge discrepancies, depending on their exposures and opportunities over the past year and a half.”
Q: Are you saying teachers — even within one classroom — are going to be faced with a wider range of abilities and instructional needs than usual?
A: “That’s what I suspect,” Doobay said, noting implications not just for kids needing more help but for those who are farther ahead.
“I think there's going to be a much greater need for differentiation for those students, so we don't have kids sitting there relearning everything they did last year and other kids who are completely lost because they hadn't had any exposure,” she said. “I think schools might need to really think about how they're managing those discrepancies in student progress and how to support those students with their different learning needs.”
Q: Is there a certain age range or grade range you think will be particularly impacted by this transition back to school?
A: Kids across the age spectrum vary in their degree of success over the last year — depending on their personality and personal experiences, including whether they had to deal with an illness or family crisis.
In general, though, Doobay mentioned those in early elementary grades as potentially needing more space for catch-up, given the import of hands-on learning at that age and difficulty staying focused on a computer screen for extended periods of time.
“In some of the first-, second- and third-graders I’ve seen the biggest academic impact — not to say that they won’t be able to catch up,” she said. “I think they just had much less exposure in many ways to the curriculum, either because they were doing hybrid or online learning.”
Q: What can families and students expect emotionally in transitioning back to class?
A: Like she foresees with academics, Doobay suspects of wide range of emotional responses — given the vastly different experiences students have had.
“For some families, COVID has affected them greatly,” she said. “Maybe they've lost a loved one or they've been very isolated or there's been a lot of talk about it in the home.”
Other families might not have talked about it much, or altered their routine, or had any severe infections.
“So I think, just like with academics, there's going to be a very wide range.”
Some will feel a lot of anxiety about their personal safety, resocialization and separation from parents. Others might have minimal to no emotional reaction beyond the typical back-to-school butterflies.
“I’ve seen with my own kids, they've been home for the past year and when they see other kids now, they're so excited, they almost don't even know how to approach them — they’ve just been so out of practice,” she said of her kindergarten, third grade and fifth grade kids.
Q: What are tips you’d give parents and educators about how to deal with any emotional distress or over-excitement for the start of school?
A: First, Doobay reiterated the resiliency of kids and noted, “They may have less anxiety or fears going into it than we have about them going back.”
But for children who are anxious, Doobay urged parents communicate with them — listen to their concerns and help prepare them for what they might experience. She suggested giving their children tools — like talking points — to use when others ask where they stand on topics like masks and vaccines.
“I think we just need to be really patient with kids, too,” she said.
Q: In what way?
A: “There may be some issues with stamina, with how different this last year has been,” she said. “We may see more irritability, we may see more boundary pushing.”
She suggested parents and educators strike a balance between imposing structure, boundaries and clear expectations, while also staying flexible.
“If kids know exactly what's expected, that feels a lot safer than trying to navigate that ambiguity of not really knowing what the right thing to do is,” she said. “That takes a lot of mental energy to figure that out.”
Q: Given how divisive COVID-19 has become in some families and communities — along with related topics like vaccines and masking — do you foresee conflict emerging among kids in schools?
A: Doobay said she expects some conflict.
“But I don’t know that it’s completely new,” she said, noting — for example — that political ideology long has found its way from the dinner table to the lunch room.
“So it's just a new thing that kids can be divided about, and I think absolutely you're going to see a reflection of the parent values at home coming out with the kids,” she said. “And I think it can lead to conflict, it can lead to bullying, and it's going to vary a lot by community.”
Regarding masks, Doobay said mandates might — in that sense — make things easier on children. (Local mask mandates in schools are prohibited by state law.)
“Without there being a choice for the kids, it may be it’s less ambiguous and maybe a little easier just to go along with it,” she said. “But now that it's a choice, I think it'll be a little harder for kids to navigate.”
Q: Can you identify some red flags that parents can watch for as their kids start back?
A: Doobay said stress and anxiety can manifest as irritability, meltdowns and disrespectful behavior.
“If they come home from school and they’ve been really holding it together during the school day, they may really struggle to maintain their emotions at night, they may act out,” she said.
Some kids might complain more or exhibit “avoidance behaviors,” like dragging their feet in the morning and making it hard to get to school on time.
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