Children across the globe are adapting to the new digital learning space. Image: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

Addressing the unmet needs of students: Through the Pandemic & Beyond

By Anushka Ashok and Isha Jain

The pandemic’s uprooting effects have been particularly harsh for children — their generally well-structured years of education and learning face a serious hurdle. More than 1.6 billion children and youth were affected by school closures in over 188 countries. This crisis is universal, with lifelong implications for some children.

In terms of the economy, it translates into a reduction of available human capital, with negative effects on growth, innovation and employment, including lower future earnings for the student cohorts directly affected by the lockdown. However, from a socio-emotional standpoint, there are other, far-reaching costs. A clear tension exists between schools’ custodial role (housing, feeding and safety) and their educational role (actually teaching children). Too often, when we talk about “school” we really mean “childcare” — with nutrition, healthcare services, and social-skills support.

Keeping these in mind we explore how this form of education and learning has left students, specifically between ages of 5 –12, with certain unmet needs. First, we understand the current situation of how remote learning affects children and second, we look at crucial aspects of physical school learning environment that they are now devoid of.

Conflict with Technology

As strong efforts to improve access to EdTech continue, one must assess the effects of the child getting access. The same children who were repeatedly given the unequivocal message of technology = ‘bad’, are now forced to form new associations.

In addition to increased screen time and a resultant drop in attention, the new association technology = ‘okay only for school’ has caused conflict for children. The EdTech industry may celebrate the drastic increase in adoption of applications, but whether this has resulted in better learning for children is yet to be proved. It brought with it the ability to ‘hack’ out of school and assessments. Students focus on finding new ways to avoid zoom calls and increasingly cheat on tests through search engines or by slyly keeping their books open. Their continuous interaction with screens and gamified platforms also creates patterns of addiction.

The new association with online learning is that of hackability and mundaneness.

Conflict at Home

The pandemic has led to poor conditions for learning. In extreme circumstances of high disease risk, isolation and a global recession, normal support mechanisms within communities may not be available as caregivers are under more duress than ever. Furthermore, students who are confined at home with their parents may feel more stressed and anxious. Studies show that children who were isolated during pandemic diseases are more likely to suffer from acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder, and grief, having a detrimental effect on learning.

School was a lifeline of normalcy that they were clinging to. For some children, especially girls, going to a physically different space to learn gave respite from the challenging and often violent circumstances at home. Now, more young people are reporting mental health problems, and there are also apparent increases in self-harm — particularly among girls.

Schedule Disruption

For children, change is manageable if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. Earlier, there was a tangible sense of progress within the school environment (i.e., progressing to a new classroom with moving up a grade) which is now met with a sense of stagnancy (of the uniform zoom video). Previously as this movement forward was strengthened, they could tackle larger changes: walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at a store, going on a school trip, etc.

This past year has resulted in disrupting a foundation that is crucial for child development — leading to anxiety and a decreased ability to cope with life changes.

The second important lens is what they have missed as a result of not being in the school environment

Lack of Social Learning

Rather than only a physical space, a school is a social environment which allows interaction between friends, teachers, and higher-grade peers. It provides opportunities for practice and skill building. Something as small as “playtime” with friends is as important to children’s development as food and good care; as it helps children be creative, learn problem-solving skills and learn self-control.

Additionally, simply observing peers and teachers physically at school helps improve their understanding of the world and the consequence of behavior across various situations. Teachers shape the classroom behavior of students by modelling appropriate behavior and make practices explicit to students through feedback and rewards. Moreover,peer relationships allow children to broaden self-knowledge of their capabilities. Peers serve several important efficacy functions; experienced and competent peers provide highly informative comparisons for judging and verifying one’s self-efficacy.¹ ² ³

During formative years, schools function as the primary setting for the cultivation and social validation of cognitive competencies. The influence of their teachers and peers highly impacts their learning outcomes.

Reduction in Kinesthetic Learning

Brain development continues long after early childhood. Neuroscience indicates that that active learning — “where the learner is moving, acting, and interacting” — can change the way the brain works and accelerate learning process.⁴ ⁵ Therefore, passive learning doesn’t favor brain activity since children are better at acquiring skills by doing rather than observing. Additionally, there are significant changes in brain activity when dance and music are combined in the learning context, which are missing for now.

How might we address these unmet needs?

Move Focus to Holistic Growth

The primary priority of all institutions would now be to measure academic performance and rectify the shortcomings of the previous academic years. While that is important, it is crucial to not forget the students’ unmet social and psychological needs. This disruption can be utilized as an opportunity to build a new system to track holistic growth of the student, which expands to psychological, development and social skills that have been particularly hampered as a result of the pandemic.

Prioritize the “Extra”

As returns to school are planned, a keen focus on bridging the content gap is important, however it should not be at the expense of subjects that are considered “extra” like P.E., art, drama and music since they are essential to build skills of peer interaction, emotional growth, grit, etc. For many, they are what make school bearable.

Give Students More Agency

After a year of dealing with uncertainty related to illness, no interaction with the outside world, and ambiguity of when school will begin again, a focus on re-instating agency in children is needed. Schools need to provide moments of agency and choices for students to feel more in control of their life. Even allowing them to choose an instrument they want start playing would give them a sense of control, a role in shaping their own narrative.

Change the Role of Teachers

Somehow the weight of responsibility always falls of teachers. Instead of adding more to the plate of already overworked and overwhelmed teachers, looking at their role differently may aid the learning process. The advantages of digital learning will continue, the plethora of modularized content and standardization of assessment will create space for teachers to be trained in a slightly different way — having them pay attention to children’s need for emotional support and encouraging more meaningful in-person interaction.

It’s startling how little schools have changed over time. Most schools are stuck with formats that don’t reflect new needs from the future of work, advances in cognitive science or child development. As we yearn for the new normal, we shouldn’t give away the opportunity to think about a “better” normal.

Final Mile brings unique and proven capabilities in addressing complex behavioral challenges. As one of the first Behavioral Science & Design consultancies, Final Mile has had the opportunity to bring these to practice in a wide variety of sectors and contexts. We have executed highly complex behavior change projects across a wide variety of areas covering Global Health (HIV, TB, Maternal Health, WASH), Financial Inclusion, Safety across Africa, Asia, Europe, and the US.

Final Mile is also building a pandemic playbook that can be used as a potential toolkit by policymakers and implementors in mitigating Covid19 and future such pandemics.

Reach out to us at contact@thefinalmile.com.

References: In addition to the hyperlinks available in the article, the following have been cited in the article.

  1. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/10888691.2018.1537791
  2. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/333/6045/959
  3. Bandura, A. (1994). Self-efficacy. In V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.), Encyclopedia of human behavior (Vol. 4, pp. 71–81). New York: Academic Press. (Reprinted in H. Friedman [Ed.], Encyclopedia of mental health. San Diego: Academic Press, 1998).
  4. https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/39684/why-kids-need-to-move-touch-and-experience-to-learn
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4562024/

Final Mile is a research and consulting firm solving tough and relevant behavioral problems across the globe