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“The kid that can’t fit in the box did better because the box fell apart.”

The pandemic turned learning upside-down. But for some who never fit in, it’s been a blessing in disguise.

Carey Grandt is grateful. For two of her three children, remote learning proved to be better than the “traditional educational system.”

One of her sons, who was high school age during the COVID shutdowns, suffers from learning disabilities. As she puts it, “He has a very different kind of atypical mind. He had an IEP/learning disability that was identified very late. And he doesn’t fit in any of the boxes, and the school district only works if you’re in a box… He benefited from the shutdown.”

Taking a walk on the calm side

The young man, who is taking a combination of anti-depressants and focus-enhancing drugs, grows antsy when confined in indoor spaces. He likes to take walks during breaks in his learning process. And he has a difficult time relating to other children.

It’s probably not a surprise he was struggling in a traditional learning environment. Left more to his own devices at home, with more control over his environment, he did much better.

One of Grandt’s other children, while not exactly excelling in at-home instruction, didn’t mind the change either. She feels this younger child, who was in fourth grade when the pandemic started, did about as well at home as he would have in class and didn’t report any difficulty other than missed after-school band practices. “The middle school music program is phenomenal; you can really see the impact that missing foundation has had.” But in other areas, where the learning process was more solo, he fared well.

These stories are not unique

Her story, while not exactly typical, is far from unique. Other mothers have reported their children were more comfortable being isolated from—one might even say protected from—other kids. The mother of another student, John, says her child always felt overwhelmed in school, despite special attention.

But then things changed. “There was a huge change in his stress levels and he was able to concentrate on his schoolwork.” When John’s mother allowed him to play video games on weekdays, something not allowed before the pandemic, she says he started to plan out his schoolwork so that he could take Fridays off. She says he got so efficient that he eventually was able to take off half of Thursday as well.

“The challenge of in-classroom [learning] can be the social interaction. And for some kids, that’s actually really hard,” says Lynette Guastaferro, chief executive officer of Teaching Matters, a nonprofit that focuses on increasing teacher effectiveness. She says independent kids who appreciated working alone under clear instruction benefitted most. For many of these kids, the social elements of school can be anything from a distraction to outright frightening.

The box fell apart

It’s no secret that school can be an intimidating place. For those who don’t fit in, every day can be an ordeal. We’ve all heard the tragic stories of kids who couldn't take one more day of bullying; often their parents and teachers had no idea anything was wrong. A personal aside here, my own time in school was not dissimilar, and this was long before the advent of social media. (I was a student back when the Apple II Plus and 128K Macintosh were cutting edge.) While decidedly not one of the “cool” kids, I was surprised to learn later that many of my former classmates felt like they were outsiders too. “I couldn’t show my real self,” one admitted after friending me on Facebook so many years later. “I wouldn’t have been popular.”

So maybe it’s not surprising that some students have found remote learning to be liberating. As Carey Grandt put it, “The kid that can’t fit in the box did better because the box fell apart.”

Some educators are now trying to apply beneficial aspects of remote learning to the in-school experience. These include having more social and emotional check-ins with students, classroom experiences tailored to individual ways of learning, and respecting different ways children learn. The catch is that these new approaches will require more staff and, therefore, bigger budgets in a world where teachers are stretched to the limit.

Long-term effects

The question exists: will remote learning yield children who have awkward social skills and difficulty bonding? Is that anxiety we go through as part of growing up necessary for thicker skin later in life? The truth is we really won’t know for years. It’s always difficult to get a perspective when up close.

Having said that, I think today's children will indeed emerge different from preceding generations, for a myriad of reasons, only one of which will be the remote learning experiences. The entire world children grow up in today has changed so quickly in the past decade, and they face challenges the rest of us probably can’t possibly understand.

Then again, we are different from previous generations as well, as those generations were different from the ones that preceded them. Despite undeniably serious challenges, despite an educational system that has serious cracks in its very foundations, today’s kids will undoubtedly find their own ways of interacting that will work for them—and probably puzzle the rest of us. There is reason to be concerned. But we also need to remember that we humans are a resilient bunch.

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