Coronavirus Affirms the Need to Connect More Deeply with Adolescents in High Schools

It’s springtime, yet rather than preparing for end-of-year assessments, graduation, prom, and summer school, educators and school personnel, along with community organizations and families, are grappling with the challenges of facilitating learning, keeping young people safe, and supporting their overall well-being when “out-of-school time is all the time.”  As educators try to find stop-gap measures to make learning accessible to every student, what are the most effective ways to engage and empower our adolescents, particularly in high school and beyond, so that they are equipped to manage change and difficulty?

Even under normal circumstances, adolescents deal with stress and anxiety as they undergo physical changes, social and academic stress, and identity development. They wonder about their worth, and try to determine who they are and how to fit in. In this time of a pandemic, some, especially high school students who are transitioning to postsecondary learning and the world of work, are worried about how this moment could change their lives for a long time to come. When will school reopen? What will it be like? Will I start college online? What about my summer job? What about a “real” job? What about my friends? Is my family going to be okay? Should I stay home to help?

What’s the good news? The adolescent brain has a remarkable capacity to adapt and adopt. In preparation for schools to reopen (see report on past emergencies) educators can learn from the science of adolescent learning and development, about how the pandemic can affect students and use this information to mitigate long term negative effects.

Adolescents are highly social, which makes them yearn for peer relationships. While students in high school are able to apply advanced cognitive skills, the emotional brain still has substantial control over decision-making. The increased sensitivity to peer and adult judgment including their need for belonging, acceptance, admiration, and respect, can add to the stress, putting them at increased risk for certain issues related to mental and behavioral health, including alcohol and substance use.  This need, combined with their increased need for autonomy and agency over their lives, also means that they are looking for opportunities to serve, innovate, and lead.

Adolescent development, in short, is relationship-driven. Schools that lead with this knowledge will be ahead of the curve.  At a time when learning loss and graduation credits are top of mind, it is laudable that many districts are already thinking about ways to prioritize social and emotional well-being and set up interventions and systems to identify and respond actively to accumulated stress. The entire school community — leaders, teachers, and students — will need more regular access to professional and support personnel such as school nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and mentors.  Administrators will explicitly need to build time into the school hours to access these services.  Equally important, they will need to allow time for more informal opportunities for students and staff to reflect – separately and together – so that they can make meaning of their experiences. And they will need to resist demands to scale back extracurricular activities to double down on academics. They will also need to acknowledge the role that all the adults in the school building, not just classroom teachers, can and should play in supporting social and emotional well-being.

These are hard calls to make. Making resources and time available to students on an ongoing basis will, however, likely become a hallmark of how students are served in a new approach to schooling.  Dr. Pamela Cantor, Turnaround for Children Founder and Senior Science Advisor, is one of the leading voices on student learning, development, adversity, and potential.  She offers three Rs that educators can prioritize to support and teach their students now from a distance and when schools re-open: relationships, routines, and resilience.

This sage advice parallels the statements being offered by students themselves as they reflect on what they miss and what they are doing.

They emphasize the importance of engaging students immediately and directly in re-opening plans and redesign efforts.

Tyrone Turner / WAMU

While it is not expected that schools will go back to the old “norm,” students, teachers, and families will be looking for some normalcy and routines – ones that help them feel connected and supported. High schools will benefit greatly from efforts that incorporate the perspectives of students and families, engage community partners, and use the science to plan meaningful and authentic learning experiences for students — beyond academics and beyond the school campus. Knowing that educators care enough about them to prepare for their unique needs can help all students, but especially those facing challenges in school or at home, to persevere and succeed.

Let’s use our understanding of how students develop, and how that development affects their learning, to put the supports in place to shift mindsets, reduce practices we already know to be ineffective, and increase positive learning conditions in learning settings where students spend time – formally and informally, in school and out. Everything we know about adolescence tells us that Cantor’s three Rs are the fastest way to ensure student success.