Although U.S. school districts that chose a remote learning model had more time to prepare for online school this school year, according to the American Psychological Association, psychologists who specialize in education research are concerned about how students will continue to cope psychologically with the ongoing loss of access to the friends, teachers and routines associated with going to a physical campus.
“We have to be careful and acknowledge just how big a change this has been for kids and families,” Beth Doll a professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, said, according to the American Psychological Association. “We have taken away the context that supports their engagement in school and their overall well-being, plus they are dealing with the tremendous uncertainty about the future.”
One of the reasons parents may see some children skipping assignments or losing focus and interest in their academics is linked to the fact that relationships at school inspire motivation for many students.
“Kids are not used to learning in isolation,” Doll said, “In classrooms today, teachers have students learning in groups, discussing lessons, and asking peers for help.”
Those moments when working alongside a friend or asking a teacher for guidance allows students to feel connected to others, and this sense of belonging influences students’ engagement in class.
Allison Ryan,a professor in the combined education and psychology program at the University of Michigan, recently studied middle school students in more than 50 math and science classrooms. She found that those who felt like they had friends and teachers who cared about them found classwork more interesting, were more engaged in school and were more confident that they could complete their work.
“Spending time with friends is often a student’s favorite part of school, and without that sense of belonging, it may be harder for kids to stay focused,” Ryan said, according to the American Psychological Association.
Even within Harvard-Westlake (HW), students have been noticing online school’s affect on their mental health.
“I think in general, my mental health has definitely been worse because the workload has increased, as it is justified to being in ninth grade and all, but I’m not getting the interactions in school with friends and teachers and peers that compensate for all the work and make it all feel less overwhelming,” said Harper Fogelson ‘24.
Distance learning can provide opportunities for Harvard-Westlake students to develop better time management skills as the workload has increased significantly. Students might have several assignments with deadlines throughout the week, so they must create strategies to accomplish the tasks and evaluate their progress. However, as Fogelson stated, doing this is more stressful and overwhelming without the in-person and genuine interactions.
Another HW student, Ava Seib ‘24 also stated that “Although my teachers have been very supportive, I am still struggling to get through all of the work they assign and cope with everything that is going on in the world.”
Although the mental health consequences of staying home for school may be tough, psychologists believe that it’s possible to mitigate the impact on students when teachers and students can work together to create a collaborative and engaging learning environment.