School lessons Zoom can’t teach

Downtime in the hall or cafeteria. The crushes and bullies. They make for uncurated experiences development scientists say you can’t recreate on a screen.

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Kaitlyn Rodriguez (left) and her cousin Nicholas Gonzales (right). (Courtesy Kaitlyn Rodriquez)

Kaitlyn Rodriguez (left) and her cousin Nicholas Gonzales (right). (Courtesy Kaitlyn Rodriquez)

This story is from The Pulse, a weekly health and science podcast.

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School sucks, ask any kid. But it turns out the only thing worse is not being able to go back to school.

That, and using Zoom.

“All you’re doing is just staring at a screen all day and not doing anything else,” said 10-year-old Nicholas Orlando Gonzales.

He lives in Philly and talked to The Pulse’s high school student reporter Kaitlyn Rodriguez, who’s also his cousin.

“When you’re actually at school, it’s different. You get to do activities with your friends and all this fun stuff,” Nicholas said.” And [at home] it’s just so difficult because you’re just staring at a screen all day, and it’s boring and it’s like being tortured by the internet.”

On the one hand, like lots of adults, he’s scared of the coronavirus.

“It’s the lungs that are affected, that they can’t breathe and that’s when all their lives are ending,” he said. “And I’m not trying to have that because I’m too young to die.”

But Nicholas misses his friends, and he talked about his best friend, Akim. How they used to hang all the time, and how they were fourth graders together and now they’re technically fifth graders. Only now, they’re not together really.

“And do any of those things, you know, make you sad that you can’t see your teachers and friends?” Kaitlyn asked him.

“Yes, it makes me very emotional and sad,” he said.

“And, well, how do you cope with being sad? What do you do?” Kaitlyn asked.

“I kind of, like, rest it off, or I just cry until I feel like I can stop crying, until I feel like I need to stop crying.”

Socialization happens in school

For kids like Nicholas, remote learning is all the boring parts of school without any of the fun little moments that make it worthwhile. There’s no more joking around in the few minutes between sitting down and the teacher demanding they turn to this page or that. The locker room razzing, the lunchroom roundtable discussions are gone.

But more is missing than just the fun. Development researchers say a different kind of learning happens amid the countless social interactions that going to school provides.

“In the beginning, nobody was talking about kids missing anything besides the academics,” said Becky Lakin Gullan, a professor of psychology at Gwynedd Mercy University in suburban Philadelphia. “We were not really thinking about these kids that might really be losing a lot of skills that take time to develop.”

Lakin Gullan studies a kind of socialization older kids and young adults go through called “emerging adulthood.” It’s something she thinks is lost in the coronavirus pandemic’s back-to-school debates.

“The American Academy of Pediatrics, they came out … in June, I think, and made a statement that said, ‘Kids should go back to school in person if at all possible.’” she said. “And I remember after that happened, people really, really, really got angry.”

People are still pretty angry, and with the virus picking up steam in parts of the country since then, they’re scared.

“And people weren’t wrong in what they were saying — look, this is really scary, and it’s a health issue,” she said. “But what the American Academy of Pediatrics was trying to do is say that it also matters to physically be present with other people.”

The social interactions we have at school as kids are practice for the roles we’ll play at work and in adult life, Lakin Gullan said. They help us code-switch between the person we are when interviewing for jobs, brainstorming with peers or talking to a boss. All that may feel effortless, but Lakin Gullan doesn’t think it is. We have to learn it.

The little friend and the big mean girl

Tamar Kushnir heads up the Early Childhood Cognition Laboratory at Cornell University. She talked about this lesson she learned in second grade.

“I very much remember having a friend who was a smaller girl, and she was easily picked on. She was smart and bookish. And we talked about books and things that, you know, things we read. …  But there was a big mean girl who found her  — she’s about half the size of this girl — and she just found her very easy to pick on.”

Kushnir, though, was a big kid herself.

“And I wasn’t afraid of this girl,” she said. “I came up to her head, as opposed to coming up to her knees.”

One day, the 8-year-old Kushnir decided enough was enough. It was time to act. She walked over to the big mean girl and her small bookish friend and stood directly between them.

“And I learned how to stand up for my friend when my friend was being picked on,” she said. “I learned how to put my body physically in between a person who was being mean and a person who I cared about.”

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that Kushnir did what she did without anyone telling her to — she made the decision. Researchers think healthy people are born with this innate sense of something like right and wrong.

“We’re social creatures, and we’re built with some capacity to understand harm and to be averse to it,” Kushnir said. “But that doesn’t mean we act.”

Whether we act, how we act, is where we get character, what Kushnir calls moral agency.

“One of the things that we in our lab think contributes to moral agency is just having made decisions yourself makes you feel empowered to do it again,” she said. “So having one experience where you felt like an agent, you felt like you stood up and you said, ‘No, this is wrong.’ Even just one experience like that can make you feel empowered to do it a second time.”

Kushnir’s interview took place around the height of the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the police killings of George Floyd and other unarmed Black Americans. Did she think about the demonstrations differently, knowing all this?

She said she sees all the strands of childhood social experience in the type of adults we become.

“I think it does start when we’re kids,” Kushnir said. “Standing up despite the fact that someone might be bigger and stronger than you is a lesson that a child can learn at age 7 or 8 or 15 in a context where people are different.”

We learn from everyone we interact with at school, even those we don’t even really talk to, she said. It’s not just friends or bullies, every person brings some different variable that does not exist at home among a child and parents and siblings.

“You have to learn who you are and in relation to other people, and you can’t learn any of that by doing worksheets or flashcards or math problems,” Kushnir said.

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These are things we learn by interacting with others. We learn about the complexity or others, and we also learn who we are, or can be. A big thing Kushnir talked about is the way kids push themselves in school, try their limits. But that’s not so easy in a virtual setting.

Kaitlyn, our student reporter, can attest to that.

“When COVID happened, I felt lost,” she said.

She’s a rising sophomore at a performing arts high school in Philly.

“I found myself becoming instead of this, you know, extroverted Kaitlyn, this Kaitlyn that was so outgoing, someone that wasn’t scared to do anything, I found that Kaitlyn becoming more timid,” she said.

Part of it, she thinks, is that the only role she gets to play at home is that of someone’s kid.

“That’s just how it is,” she said. “Teenagers all have their things they hide, and I’m someone who, you know, I have to put on that `I’m your child’ personality and not be 100% who I want to be.”

Kaitlyn said freshman year at her artsy high school was like a chance at a fresh start, to be what she considered the real Kaitlyn, kind of quirky, kind of out there. And it was, for a while. She said she thrived on the energy of her classmates, she spoke up. But she worried that’s changing.

“I found myself becoming more nervous about speaking in front of others, I found myself scared,” she said. “I found myself having that fear that I didn’t want to have. I found myself quiet.”

Lakin Gullan, the psychologist and researcher, said she worries about this type of thing happening to kids kept apart from their peers for too long. They unlearn the type of social interaction that used to be normal.

“You know, you start working out, you start exercising, and the first few days are just terrible, but then after a while you just get out of bed and you do it and it doesn’t feel as exhausting,” Lakin Gullan said. “And I think that it’s the same thing with social engagement. There was something to constantly working that muscle.”

Lakin Gullan’s big concern is that when schools finally do open in person, too narrow a focus on academic recovery will take up all the air in the room — things that build social interaction will be seen as extra. Recess will be cancelled.

That’s on Kaitlyn’s mind, too.

“Now we’re not going to go back to school until November,” she said. “I have to learn how to be the way I used to be.”

She’s decided she can’t just sit around waiting for school to open its doors.

“I have to learn how to learn from the situations in my own household, rather than the situations in school, and I have to learn how to thrive off of my own energy rather than other people’s energies,” Kaitlyn said. “That’s something that I have to work on.”

Editor’s note: In a previous version of the story, Becky Lakin Gullan’s speciality was misidentified. She studies a kind of socialization called “emerging adulthood.”

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