With schools open again after more than a year of teaching students outside the classroom, the pandemic sometimes feels like a distant memory. The return to classrooms this fall brings major relief for many families and educators. Factors such as a lack of reliable technology and family support, along with an absence of school resources, resulted in significant academic setbacks, not to mention stress for everyone involved.
But for all the downsides of distance learning, educators, psychologists, and parents have seen some benefits as well. For example, certain populations of students found new ways to be more engaged in learning, without the distractions and difficulties they faced in the classroom, and the general challenges of remote learning and the pandemic brought mental health to the forefront of the classroom experience.
Peter Faustino, PsyD, a school psychologist in Scarsdale, New York, said the pandemic also prompted educators and school psychologists to find creative new ways of ensuring students’ emotional and academic well-being. “So many students were impacted by the pandemic, so we couldn’t just assume they would find resources on their own,” said Faustino. “We had to work hard at figuring out new ways to connect with them.”
Here are some of the benefits of distance learning that school psychologists and educators have observed and the ways in which they’re implementing those lessons post-pandemic, with the goal of creating a more equitable, productive environment for all students.
Prioritizing mental health
Faustino said that during the pandemic, he had more mental health conversations with students, families, and teachers than ever. “Because COVID-19 affected everyone, we’re now having mental health discussions as school leaders on a daily and weekly basis,” he said.
This renewed focus on mental health has the potential to improve students’ well-being in profound ways—starting with helping them recover from the pandemic’s effects. In New York City, for example, schools are hiring more than 600 new clinicians, including psychologists, to screen students’ mental health and help them process pandemic-related trauma and adjust to the “new normal” of attending school in person.
Educators and families are also realizing the importance of protecting students’ mental health more generally—not only for their health and safety but for their learning. “We’ve been seeing a broader appreciation for the fact that mental health is a prerequisite for learning rather than an extracurricular pursuit,” said Eric Rossen, PhD, director of professional development and standards at the National Association of School Psychologists.
As a result, Rossen hopes educators will embed social and emotional learning components into daily instruction. For example, teachers could teach mindfulness techniques in the classroom and take in-the-moment opportunities to help kids resolve conflicts or manage stress.
Improved access to mental health resources in schools is another positive effect. Because of physical distancing guidelines, school leaders had to find ways to deliver mental health services remotely, including via online referrals and teletherapy with school psychologists and counselors.
Early in the pandemic, Faustino said he was hesitant about teletherapy’s effectiveness; now, he hopes to continue offering a virtual option. Online scheduling and remote appointments make it easier for students to access mental health resources, and some students even enjoy virtual appointments more, as they can attend therapy in their own spaces rather than showing up in the counselor’s office. For older students, Faustino said that level of comfort often leads to more productive, open conversations.
Autonomy as a key to motivation
Research suggests that when students have more choices about their materials and activities, they’re more motivated—which may translate to increased learning and academic success. In a 2016 paper, psychology researcher Allan Wigfield, PhD, and colleagues make the case that control and autonomy in reading activities can improve both motivation and comprehension (Child Development Perspectives, Vol. 10, No. 3 ).
During the period of online teaching, some students had opportunities to learn at their own pace, which educators say improved their learning outcomes—especially in older students. In a 2020 survey of more than 600 parents, researchers found the second-most-valued benefit of distance learning was flexibility—not only in schedule but in method of learning.
In a recent study, researchers found that 18% of parents pointed to greater flexibility in a child’s schedule or way of learning as the biggest benefit or positive outcome related to remote learning (School Psychology, Roy, A., et al., in press).
This individualized learning helps students find more free time for interests and also allows them to conduct their learning at a time they’re most likely to succeed. During the pandemic, Mark Gardner, an English teacher at Hayes Freedom High School in Camas, Washington, said he realized how important student-centered learning is and that whether learning happens should take precedence over how and when it occurs.
For example, one of his students thrived when he had the choice to do work later at night because he took care of his siblings during the day. Now, Gardner posts homework online on Sundays so students can work at their own pace during the week. “Going forward, we want to create as many access points as we can for kids to engage with learning,” he said.
Rosanna Breaux, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology and assistant director of the Child Study Center at Virginia Tech, agrees. “I’d like to see this flexibility continue in some way, where—similar to college—students can guide their own learning based on their interests or when they’re most productive,” she said.
During the pandemic, many educators were forced to rethink how to keep students engaged. Rossen said because many school districts shared virtual curricula during the period of remote learning, older students could take more challenging or interesting courses than they could in person. The same is true for younger students: Megan Hibbard, a teacher in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, said many of her fifth graders enjoyed distance learning more than in-person because they could work on projects that aligned with their interests.
“So much of motivation is discovering the unique things the student finds interesting,” said Hunter Gehlbach, PhD, a professor and vice dean at the Johns Hopkins School of Education. “The more you can facilitate students spending more time on the things they’re really interested in, the better.”
Going forward, Rossen hopes virtual curricula will allow students greater opportunities to pursue their interests, such as by taking AP classes, foreign languages, or vocational electives not available at their own schools.
Conversely, Hibbard’s goal is to increase opportunities for students to pursue their interests in the in-person setting. For example, she plans to increase what she calls “Genius Hours,” a time at the end of the school day when students can focus on high-interest projects they’ll eventually share with the class.
Better understanding of children's needs
One of the most important predictors of a child’s success in school is parental involvement in their education. For example, in a meta-analysis of studies, researchers linked parental engagement in their middle schoolers’ education with greater measures of success (Hill, N. E., & Tyson, D. F., Developmental Psychology, Vol. 45, No. 3, 2009).
During the pandemic, parents had new opportunities to learn about their kids and, as a result, help them learn. According to a study by Breaux and colleagues, many parents reported that the pandemic allowed them a better understanding of their child’s learning style, needs, or curriculum.
James C. Kaufman, PhD, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut and the father of an elementary schooler and a high schooler, said he’s had a front-row seat for his sons’ learning for the first time. “Watching my kids learn and engage with classmates has given me some insight in how to parent them,” he said.
Stephen Becker, PhD, a pediatric psychologist at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said some parents have observed their children’s behavior or learning needs for the first time, which could prompt them to consider assessment and Individualized Education Program (IEP) services. Across the board, Gehlbach said parents are realizing how they can better partner with schools to ensure their kids’ well-being and academic success.
For example, Samantha Marks, PsyD, a Florida-based clinical psychologist, said she realized how much help her middle school daughter, a gifted and talented student with a 504 plan (a plan for how the school will offer support for a student’s disability) for anxiety, needed with independence. “Bringing the learning home made it crystal clear what we needed to teach our daughter to be independent and improve executive functioning” she said. “My takeaway from this is that more parents need to be involved in their children’s education in a healthy, helpful way.”
Marks also gained a deeper understanding of her daughter’s mental health needs. Through her 504 plan, she received help managing her anxiety at school—at home, though, Marks wasn’t always available to help, which taught her the importance of helping her daughter manage her anxiety independently.
Along with parents gaining a deeper understanding of their kids’ needs, the pandemic also prompted greater parent participation in school. For example, Rossen said his kids’ school had virtual school board meetings; he hopes virtual options continue for events like back-to-school information sessions and parenting workshops. “These meetings are often in the evening, and if you’re a single parent or sole caregiver, you may not want to pay a babysitter in order to attend,” he said.
Brittany Greiert, PhD, a school psychologist in Aurora, Colorado, says culturally and linguistically diverse families at her schools benefited from streamlined opportunities to communicate with administrators and teachers. Her district used an app that translates parent communication into 150 languages. Parents can also remotely participate in meetings with school psychologists or teachers, which Greiert says she plans to continue post-pandemic.
During stay-at-home orders, kids with neurodevelopmental disorders experienced less bullying than pre-pandemic (McFayden, T. C., et al., Journal of Rural Mental Health, No. 45, Vol. 2, 2021). According to 2019 research, children with emotional, behavioral, and physical health needs experience increased rates of bullying victimization (Lebrun-Harris, L. A., et al., ), and from the U.S. Department of Education suggests the majority of bullying takes place in person and in unsupervised areas.
Scott Graves, PhD, an associate professor of educational studies at The Ohio State University and a member of APA’s Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education (CPSE), said the supervision by parents and teachers in remote learning likely played a part in reducing bullying. As a result, he’s less worried his Black sons will be victims of microaggressions and racist behavior during online learning.
Some Asian American families also report that remote learning offered protection against racism students may have experienced in person. Shereen Naser, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Cleveland State University and a member of CPSE, and colleagues found that students are more comfortable saying discriminatory things in school when their teachers are also doing so; Naser suspects this trickle-down effect is less likely to happen when students learn from home (School Psychology International, 2019).
Reductions in bullying and microaggressions aren’t just beneficial for students’ long-term mental health. Breaux said less bullying at school results in less stress, which can improve students’ self-esteem and mood—both of which impact their ability to learn.
Patricia Perez, PhD, an associate professor of international psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology and a member of CPSE, said it’s important for schools to be proactive in providing spaces for support and cultural expression for students from vulnerable backgrounds, whether in culture-specific clubs, all-school assemblies that address racism and other diversity-related topics, or safe spaces to process feelings with teachers.
According to Rossen, many schools are already considering how to continue supporting students at risk for bullying, including by restructuring the school environment.
One principal, Rossen said, recently switched to single-use bathrooms to avoid congregating in those spaces once in-person learning commences to maintain social distancing requirements. “The principal received feedback from students about how going to the bathroom is much less stressful for these students in part due to less bullying,” he said.
More opportunities for special needs students
In Becker and Breaux’s research, parents of students with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), particularly those with a 504 plan and IEP, reported greater difficulties with remote learning. But some students with special learning needs—including those with IEPs and 504 plans—thrived in an at-home learning environment. Recent reporting in The New York Times suggests this is one reason many students want to continue online learning.
According to Cara Laitusis, PhD, a principal research scientist at Educational Testing Service (ETS) and a member of CPSE, reduced distractions may improve learning outcomes for some students with disabilities that impact attention in a group setting. “In assessments, small group or individual settings are frequently requested accommodations for some students with ADHD, anxiety, or autism. Being in a quiet place alone without peers for part of the instructional day may also allow for more focus,” she said. However, she also pointed out the benefits of inclusion in the classroom for developing social skills with peers.
Remote learning has improved academic outcomes for students with different learning needs, too. Marks said her seventh-grade daughter, a visual learner, appreciated the increase in video presentations and graphics. Similarly, Hibbard said many of her students who struggle to grasp lessons on the first try have benefited from the ability to watch videos over again until they understand. Post-pandemic, she plans to record bite-size lessons—for example, a 1-minute video of a long division problem—so her students can rewatch and process at their own rate.
Learners with anxiety also appreciate the option not to be in the classroom, because the social pressures of being surrounded by peers can make it hard to focus on academics. “Several of my students have learned more in the last year simply due to the absence of anxiety,” said Rosie Reid, an English teacher at Ygnacio Valley High School in Concord, California, and a 2019 California Teacher of the Year. “It’s just one less thing to negotiate in a learning environment.”
On online learning platforms, it’s easier for kids with social anxiety or shyness to participate. One of Gardner’s students with social anxiety participated far more in virtual settings and chats. Now, Gardner is brainstorming ways to encourage students to chat in person, such as by projecting a chat screen on the blackboard.
Technology has helped school psychologists better engage students, too. For example, Greiert said the virtual setting gave her a new understanding of her students’ personalities and needs. “Typing out their thoughts, they were able to demonstrate humor or complex thoughts they never demonstrated in person,” she said. “I really want to keep incorporating technology into sessions so kids can keep building on their strengths.”
Reid says that along with the high school students she teaches, she’s seen her 6-year-old daughter benefit from learning at her own pace in the familiarity of her home. Before the pandemic, she was behind academically, but by guiding her own learning—writing poems, reading books, playing outside with her siblings—she’s blossomed. “For me, as both a mother and as a teacher, this whole phenomenon has opened the door to what education can be,” Reid said.
Eleanor Di Marino-Linnen, PhD, a psychologist and superintendent of the Rose Tree Media School District in Media, Pennsylvania, says the pandemic afforded her district a chance to rethink old routines and implement new ones. “As challenging as it is, it’s definitely an exciting time to be in education when we have a chance to reenvision what schools have looked like for many years,” she said. “We want to capitalize on what we’ve learned.”