• Dr. Emily W. King

How To Measure Student Success In a Post-COVID World

Roughly one year ago, I sat stunned as my boys jumped all around me on the couch. I had been home with them for just two weeks when I began formulating my thoughts to share with fellow parents at the start of quarantine. "This just isn't going to work," I recall thinking. "As parents, we are already at full capacity, now we will be supervising learning from home? While working from home?" Here were my thoughts at the time.

I don't know about you, but there were a few things I didn't hate about those early weeks of quarantine. Trashing my calendar, wearing pajama pants, and reading novels in the sun on my porch were among them. Now, we are being asked to manage multiple calendars and follow COVID rules all while wearing real pants. Re-entry feels harder than going into lock-down. Our kids are also being asked to re-enter school IRL and I think we are going to have some problems to solve.

A Look Back at Education Pre-COVID

High school was a pressure-cooker before COVID. In a world where teachers are measured on student performance and schools earn status based on student outcomes, no wonder kids are getting the message that only academics are important.

Taking AP English and placing out of Freshman English is a good thing, right? Maybe not. Some students benefit from taking English 101 and skipping it means missing an opportunity to develop college-level writing skills. And for what? To graduate earlier? To take more classes? To double major? To complete for jobs after college only to decide to go to graduate school because a Bachelor's Degree isn’t enough anymore?

Our system of education in America is stuck in an arbitrary timeline that stigmatizes weaknesses and glorifies checking the boxes. Even Michelle Obama wrote about being a box-checker in her memoir, Becoming, a practice that unhappily landed her with a shiny job in a law firm before she realized she didn't even want it.

As a child psychologist, I can tell you that it's possible for a high school valedictorian to drop out of college just as it's possible for a student who gets waitlisted by a university to go on to earn a Ph.D. from that same university. Why? Because academic achievement is not the sole measure of success. We also need interest, motivation, grit, executive functioning skills, interpersonal skills, and the ability to emotionally regulate when we are faced with problems to solve.

Parents of young children are beginning to understand the important role that social and emotional development plays in Kindergarten readiness. In fact, it has become common for parents to question sending their 5 year old to school "on time" because Kindergarten is the new first grade. Limited funding and standardized testing have led to cookie-cutter curriculums for our kids' unique brains. While a standardized curriculum works adequately for most, it's not the best for some who need differentiated instruction, such as students with disabilities and those who are academically gifted. Guess who else needs differentiated instruction? Students who have been learning remotely during a pandemic.

Reframing Success in the Post-COVID World

Because of the vast differences in remote learning opportunities our kids experienced this past year, students will return to the classroom with academic skills all over the map. Not to mention the divide that has been created with many private schools reopening in-person while public schools stayed online. Beyond academics, students' social and emotional functioning will also vary greatly depending on their family’s quarantine practices. School-based mental health education and support must finally be prioritized if we truly want to prepare our children for a healthy future.

Some students will be able to return to the school building without missing a step and some will need support. Differentiated instruction needs to be normalized and we must promote a new idea of success for our kids: One they can feel.

Do they feel proud of their accomplishments?

Did they reach their goals? Not their school’s goals. Not their parents’ goals. Their goals.

What did they learn and how does the outcome inform their next goal?

We must instill independence in kids young enough so that they can define their own goals in the first place. Otherwise, they will just follow the script laid out in front of them and check the boxes to please those around them.

So, how do we reconstruct the boxes we've put our kids in based on arbitrary timelines? Let me offer a reframe: Time only exists in alignment with a child’s skill development. When we force a child to do something they are not developmentally ready to do, we get stressed kids who very likely turn into stressed (and unfulfilled) people.

Let's use the lessons we've learned about our kids during COVID and just do the next right thing for them. Here's what I think we are going to need:

More Kindergarten Classrooms: Think of all the parents with four and five year olds who realized their child would be doing Kindergarten online in 2020. Those parents decided on one more year of preschool or at-home play. While this was likely a sound decision, it's possible we will have double the number of incoming Kindergartners in the fall of 2021.

Social/Emotional Learning for Everyone: Can homeroom teachers begin with a meditation every morning? Check in on how students are feeling. Talk about how teachers are feeling. Ask your PTA to sponsor seminars on managing parent stress. Ask teachers if they are getting support from their school administration. Seek therapy for your child if they need it. Seek therapy for yourself, too, if you need it.

Combination Classes: Maria Montessori was onto something. Multi-age classes can have social benefits for some kids who learn best through teaching others or who learn best by watching others show mastery.

Normalize Retaking Classes: For high schoolers, let's normalize that some students are just going to have to take some classes over again. Not because they aren't smart, but because they didn't effectively master the concepts the first time around due to COVID-style school. Also, When we teach children from a young age that everyone has different abilities, even within regular education, we help to de-stigmatize anyone with a disability or difference.

Be Gentle With Those 6-7th and 9-10th Graders: Some rising 7th and 10th graders will be entering their school building for the first time. That means that roughly half the student body won't know their way around. Be gentle and spread kindness all day long.

Embrace the Gap Year: America, it's TIME. Why have we not adopted the gap year? 18 year old brains are not fully developed. They need real-world experience and practice to master so many skills we cannot learn in a classroom. There is nothing magical about being finished with college at 22 years old. The teen brain doesn't fully develop until 25 years old anyway. There is so much time!

So, when you have to choose how to measure success, look to your child to be the barometer. Define success by how your child feels when they have achieved it. Not grades, not time frames, not keeping up with others: Choose your child.

If your child feels they want to move on to the next grade with their peers, then allow it and figure out academic support on the side, if needed. If your child is stressed and being pushed beyond their capacity, slow down and take more time. There is literally nothing to be late for. There is literally no one to be behind. Help your kids see that their education is a journey and not a destination. Only then will they develop a life-long love of learning.

Stay connected!

~Dr. Emily

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