Q&A with a child psychologist: The social impact of virtual learning

Mouse 1280

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused school districts across the country to make tough choices about the fall 2020 semester.

Some have opted to hold in-person classes, while others made the switch to virtual learning or a hybrid plan featuring both.

Dr. Julia Shah, a child psychologist with SSM Health in Madison, answers four common questions about the social impact of the unique school season.

What social benefit does traditional schooling provide?

For many decades, schools have created structured activities and groups for kids to exist within. It’s where many of us have learned to manage peers, conflict, leadership skills and cooperation. It is a significant change when everyday give-and-take reciprocal relationships in dyads and groups are lost. Even when time is spent in unstructured situations at school (in the lunch room, on the playground), social skills are learned and practiced. With virtual schooling, these cannot be easily or as richly recreated.

For younger kids, we know that physical play and social interactions are how they learn so many foundational skills – how people work, how things work, social reciprocity, cause and effect, self-confidence, self-regulation, gross and fine motor development.

For tweens and teens, this is the exact time in their life when their peer group is the main source of social development. Friendships become deeper, more complex and nuanced with subtleties that are more challenging to read and respond to within a virtual environment.

All that being said, we know that many kids who are in homeschool, or who completed school online prior to the pandemic, have social skills and develop into wonderful people. However, they historically have been able to seek out opportunities in other community endeavors. That’s the difference within the pandemic: so many community outlets are simply shut down.

How might more virtual schooling impact kids?

We all need human interaction: hugs, high fives, novel and dynamic experiences. I think the middle school and high school kids may be most impacted. If they undergo extended isolation without a way to compensate within the community or their families, they are going to cumulatively miss out on many important social experiences and opportunities that are the very practices they need to form healthy adult relationships.

Adolescence is just such an important time in their developing brains prior to adulthood. They need to practice social complexities, conflict resolution, developing trust and managing betrayal. On the bright side, this generation of kids grew up with technology as a clear component of their relationships, so it is a platform that they are comfortable with and has already been part of their social thread.

How can potential issues be spotted or recognized?

Parents are the experts on their kids. Look for changes in their sleep, diet, withdrawal from their typical connections and relationships. Do they not seem like themselves? More negative? More apathetic? Anxious and on edge? Approach them with curiosity and listening — focus on connection with them rather than asking a lot of questions or giving advice. This will help them to open up to you.

If you feel like you need help sorting this out, reach out to your child’s doctor who can connect you with a therapist. SSM Health has implemented telehealth technology for several service lines, including behavioral health.

Is there anything parents or caregivers can do if their child is struggling with school format changes?

Acknowledge and validate your child’s experience of the social losses and changes. Give them full permission to have the feelings they have. Don’t assume their experience is the same as yours. For some kids, virtual school is less intense compared to typical school, so there actually might be a sense of relief in being online.

For younger kids, social skills can be practiced with siblings and family. Parents can encourage interactive activities. Some kids will come out of the pandemic with strong attachments to their family, an improved tolerance for boredom, and increased creativity.

Lastly, don’t take teens’ desires to have more alone time personally. For them, expect more screen time or wanting to be alone. Have a conversation about the guidelines with the phone or computer to set up expectations in order to prioritize sleep and healthy habits. Many teens, in their amazing resilience and creativity, have figured out cool virtual ideas like watching movies or playing games together on videoconferencing apps and websites.

Overall, prioritize your child’s mental health and social relationships this year. We have an opportunity to emphasize a narrative about kids handling stress and change with resilience and strength, prioritizing community over individual, and finding hope amidst sadness and grief.