Why Aren't Our Kids Learning Like They Were before the Pandemic?

  • by Kelly Harmon
  • March 10, 2022, 2:05 p.m.

Are we stressed out? Every time I turn on the news, a new wave of fear and anxiety wash over me. We were forced into a "new normal" in our lives and schools. Many of our children are going through a lot of stressful situations and this impacts on their learning.

This new normal demands that we pay special attention to getting rid of the "bad" stress and creating "good stress" in learning situations. Bad stress overworks the amygdala in our brain. When a person is in a state of bad stress, the amygdala sends information to a lower part of the brain. This part of the brain sends us into fight, flight, or freeze. We can't logically process or evaluate the information. Thus, we don't learn anything new. Fear or concern about "being behind in learning" essentially causes our brains to regress even further! Only the person who thinks, learns. You can’t think when you’re in a state of emotional stress. According to Judy Willis, neuroscientist, turned elementary teacher, our brains react to boredom exactly the same way it does to bad stress. According to Dr. John Hattie, If our children are going to learn, we need to make sure to create lessons that are "not too hard, not too easy, and not too boring."

Here are 10 ways to help our students relax and get into a productive learning mindset.

1. Just BREATHE! We can all benefit from taking some deep breaths, especially before taking on new learning. Start each lesson with a moment of breathing and mindfulness. Have students inhale and as they look around the room noticing little things in the environment, exhale. This mindfulness brings us into the present and helps us let go of all the negative noise going on in our heads.

2. Breathe belief into your students. Have you seen the show Ted Lasso? I highly recommend it! The first thing Coach Lasso does is hang a "Believe" sign in the locker room. As a first time coach of a professional soccer team, he may not know much about soccer, but he believes he can learn it and he also believes in the players on the team. This is a powerful message that our learners need.

3. Have frequent, short conversations with students about their progress toward a learning goal. These conversations only take a few seconds. It’s critical to give students timely feedback in order for them to keep moving forward. They need to realize they are making incremental progress towards a learning goal as they are learning.

Think about video games for a second. When you’re playing, the game gives you incremental feedback on your progress towards the goal. It is this feedback that helps you adjust your strategies. The more feedback you get, the more thinking you do and adjusting your next steps.

In the classroom, it’s critical to be specific with feedback. I like to utilize the success criteria for giving feedback to students. Every time we tell them “look at the thinking you are doing right now,” we are helping them build their self efficacy. We are communicating that they are on the right track. If they are not on track, we should give them feedback about what is the correct course and offer a prompt or cue to get them to think about next steps.

Many students develop learned helplessness due to lack of feedback. We all want to know if we are on the right track. The words of a teacher/coach is exactly what we need so we don't give up.

4. Disrupt the learning situation with novelty. Change the students’ expectations of today’s lesson. Do something new and novel. For example, have a students stand up and create a freeze frame (act out without language) to show a previously learned concept or skill.

Another ideas is to show a photograph or short video that seemingly has nothing to do with the content of the lesson. Generate interest and conversation around the media. Then ask students to think about how the picture is related to the new content.

5. Always connect to the students' background knowledge. Start class by activating prior knowledge related to the topic. Have students pair up and and share things that each one knows about the topic. This type of activity doesn’t have to take a long time. Just a couple of minutes of social interaction can get the brain ready for the new learning. When we start with something students already know, they feel safe and confidence.

I recommend not sharing your lesson learning target until after the students have activated any related knowledge they have to the new learning. We want to keep kids in a state of low stress, so keep the conversation grounded in ideas that everyone has experienced. Monitor the conversations and note ways that you can bring in their background knowledge during the direct instruction of the new content.

6. Create curiosity. For students who don’t believe they are capable of the new learning, start the lesson with wonderings. Ask students to generate questions about the topic or situation. Have students make a prediction that will be confirmed or modified throughout the lesson. Be sure and have every student make the prediction in a private way. Many students fear being wrong, so it’s important to stress that a prediction may need to be changed at some point. Provide students wipe off boards to write on and then erase as they have new ideas through the lesson.

7. Create a safe environment for making mistakes. My friend Ryan Doetch had a bulletin board outside his classroom for years. It said "Mistakes are expected, inspected and respected." Let students know that we learn more when we make mistakes. Mistakes are not an indication of our intelligence, but rather of our current thinking. We must start communicating this belief to students very early in the year or in their learning careers.

8. Avoid the cognitively heavy new learning on Mondays. Many of our students may have had a weekend in which the bad stress level was incredibly high. We need to spend time helping our students relax and get in a state for learning.

9. Monitor self-efficacy. Do your students believe that they can figure things out? Do they have strategies? We might not know something right now, but we believe we can learn it. If they don't believe in their own ability, this must be one of our goals for them. See #3 for how to help students build self-efficacy.

10. Celebrate learning effort! Be sure to close each learning session with a celebration of the learning effort. Tell students exactly what you noticed about their thinking and willingness to take a learning risk. Ask them to reflect on new learning. Ask students the following closing questions:

  • What did you learn?
  • How has your thinking changed?

Don't miss the opportunity to give students a verbal high five.

If we’re going to help children overcome the bad stresses in their lives, it’s critical that we create environments in which they feel safe, loved, heard, and respected. We need to be breathing belief into our children daily.