Early adolescence is a time of rapid cognitive changes, when kids assert their independence from parents, form their own identities and become hyper-dependent on (and sensitive to) interactions with peers. Their “social brains” are developing quickly, and they are Hoovering up information from the world around them to figure out who they are and how they fit in.
That’s why educators and researchers who study child development say school shutdowns resulting from the coronavirus pandemic may be particularly disruptive to middle schoolers. These kids are being sequestered at home at the stage in life they need their peers and teachers most.
The isolation “flies in the face of what their brains are telling them they need,” said Kenneth Ginsburg, a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
When puberty hits, the brain reorganizes dramatically, said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University, who specializes in adolescence. The neural pathways dealing with social connections become more active, helping adolescents become attuned to what other people are thinking and feeling and how best to relate to them.
It’s at this age that, through interactions with peers and adults, young people acquire the ability to read facial expressions and interpret nonverbal communication, Steinberg said. There’s an evolutionary reason for this social learning: Figuring out how to get along with others is key to flourishing in life.
Kids this age are “practicing who they are in relation to a complicated social world, with hierarchies, rules and nuances,” said Ronald Dahl, the director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley. “They are learning at a phenomenal rate.”
But accomplishing all this social learning without in-person interactions is difficult, if not impossible. “The dose has been dramatically diminished,” Dahl said.
Schools can help by providing real-time instruction online, opportunities for teacher-student interaction, and efforts to help students feel part of a group, even when they are working at home. But studies show that many students aren’t being engaged in this way, especially kids who lack Internet access at home. In a survey of teachers released in early April, only 39 percent reported interacting with their students at least once a day. The most common form of communication was email.
Students say they miss real-time feedback from teachers and peers. Class discussions can be stilted and awkward, if they happen at all. Group projects are very difficult to pull off. There are no chances to chat with peers in between classes and casually develop new friendships, at least not in the same way.
“I’m FaceTiming with my friends and everything but it’s not the same. Like I don’t feel that same like human connection,” said Seamus Lynch, an eighth-grader at Lincoln Middle School in Park Ridge, a suburb of Chicago. And the way he works academically has changed, too. Before the shutdown, if he and classmates were writing a story in English class, he’d normally workshop his writing with others. Now that’s not as easy to do.
Seventh-grader Saige Jensen lives in rural northeastern Oregon, attending Heppner Junior/Senior High School. She doesn’t have a smartphone or use social media, so it’s difficult to connect with peers. “[It’s] weird,” she said. “I’m used to like tons of kids talking all the time. And it’s quiet now.” While she has live online classes with her teachers every other day, her family’s slow Internet connection makes it difficult to participate. She can email questions, but her teachers are busy and can’t always respond right away. “You’re trying to do work on your own that you may not know how to do,” she said.
Missing out on social connections is hard for middle schoolers in general, and especially so for kids in sixth grade who are just beginning to create their social networks, said Geoffrey Borman, a professor of education policy and analysis at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
“To have that just suddenly taken away from them, to have to essentially be relegated to living in a cave with their parents at home … that I think is especially a daunting circumstance,” said Borman, who led a study last year on how to improve middle schoolers’ academic achievement and emotional well-being.
Teachers say they can see the toll social isolation is taking on their students. Andrea Nelson, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade language arts and social studies at the Oregon school Saige attends, said that in a journaling assignment, kids wrote about how lonely they are. One student messages her four or five times a day and sends her pictures of her pets. “I have kids where I’m like, ‘Okay, now log off, our meeting’s done. And they like are hanging on,” she said.
Even in non-pandemic times, early adolescence can be a precarious period academically. When kids transition from elementary to middle school, sometimes their grades drop because of all the changes they experience, researchers say. Instead of being assigned one homeroom teacher, they move among classes; school is often bigger and farther from home; and the social experiences in middle school, while exciting, can also be overwhelming.
There’s some evidence that middle-schoolers may be particularly vulnerable to learning loss resulting from the shutdowns. A worst-case scenario outlined in a paper released in May projected that sixth- and seventh-graders would retain an average of only 1 to 10 percent of their normal learning gains in math for the year, and just 15 to 29 percent in reading. For younger kids, even in the worst-case projection, the learning losses were less acute.
But many educators are doing their best to ward off social isolation and learning loss. Teachers at Mott Hall Bridges Academy, a public middle school in one of Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods, are trying to mimic the classroom as closely as possible. Principal Nadia Lopez said many of her teachers are reading books aloud through video instead of assigning them, and they’re holding live discussions afterward.
Still, more than two months into the shutdown, Lopez worries about the mental health of her students. When her teachers call homes and talk to parents and students, they’re hearing that some kids are staying up later, sleeping in more. Until it closed, the school was open until 6 p.m. every weekday, with kids engaged in all manner of after-school activities — basketball, cooking, art, softball.
“We’re really concerned about depression,” Lopez said. “Because our children thrive from being together.”
At the same time, there are some middle-schoolers who report learning better online than in person. That’s in part because kids’ intense connections at this age can often get complicated. Molly Hudgens, a school counselor at Sycamore Middle School in Tennessee, said several of the students she works with say they are happier with distance learning because they can avoid conflicts they have with other students.
Meagan Daughtry, a seventh-grader at Lopez’s school in Brooklyn, said she’s more comfortable working from home than at school. It helps that she has a quiet space to work and that her mother, Rose Daughtry, has been there to help with any computer glitches. Daughtry was sent home from her job with the Metropolitan Transit Authority for weeks after showing symptoms of covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Back in Virginia, Leah Hampton has struggled to stay focused on schoolwork without her friends around. “I'm definitely not as motivated as I was before,” she said. “I don't think I'm learning as well as I was when we had to go to school.”
Her mother worries what that will mean for next school year, especially if online learning continues into the fall.
“I'm concerned that her teachers won't get to know who she is, she won’t get to know who her teachers are — you know, the relationship won’t be there,” said Hampton. The last few months of quarantine, meanwhile, have proved just how important those relationships are.