For better or worse, pandemic altered learning: child psychologist says it’s not all bad news

COVID-19 might have changed how schools are operating, but a leading psychologist suggests it created learning opportunities for both parents and students to boost mental stamina, strengthen creative thinking, sharpen problem-solving skills and challenge individuals to implement new ways of working through seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

“The coronavirus and school closure did not automatically kill personal ingenuity,” asserts Dr. Valerie Knowles, a child and adolescent psychologist with more than 20 years of experience.

While acknowledging it’s “unnatural and potentially dangerous to the social fabric of a nation” to have large groups of children removed from face-to-face learning for nearly two years, Knowles noted potential bright spots – learning never ceases, even if it’s forced to occur in a different place and at an unfamiliar pace.

She argued that three “power tools for learning” – curiosity, persistence and mental flexibility – do not reside exclusively behind school walls.

“Children bring these tools to the classroom with them. They can be sharpened anywhere by anybody. Curiosity is what drives exploration and cultivates a thirst for knowledge and learning new things. Closed school doors won’t kill this trait,” she said.

“A questioning child is a child at work. Parents and guardians should try, as much as possible, to minimize the number of times they say, ‘shut up’ or ‘don’t ask me any questions’. Rather, replace a negative response with a probing question which could enhance a child’s curiosity, start them thinking and searching for answers. This ultimately enhances their learning.”

Persistence in learners is a lifelong strength, the psychologist said. It’s a character trait she believes could outlast any book or factual learning, prompting the individual to not be deterred from reaching their goals.

“In our hectic movement from one activity to another, we may continually find ourselves telling our children to ‘hurry up’. This microwave lifestyle – more than COVID and school-closure – could rob our children of experiences that develop their persistence and stickability.”

Meanwhile, those who possess mental flexibility are not threatened by others’ opinions, ideas or realities different from their own.

“They can find multiple solutions to a problem or can see different sides to a story. With the right communication skills, they have the capacity to fiercely debate and defend all sides. They are able to defend their world view, while still listening to other perspectives, and borrowing from those perspectives when needed,” said the 2018 recipient of the Tim McCartney Award, an honor which recognizes outstanding contributions to psychology in The Bahamas.

“At times, it may be important to warn those in this category to ‘stay away from friends’ or ‘learn to stay and play by yourself’. Sometimes encouraging group talk becomes the mechanism that bring bright ideas into existence.”

Although not every student has an ideal home environment in which to learn, the psychologist stressed the importance of finding effective ways to support students’ diverse learning styles and sense of wellness.

“There are some children who have learnt to repair their electronic devices in their own peculiar ways. Others have opened themselves up to an endless reservoir of constructive knowledge using search engines like Google. Then, there may be hands-on learners who are working on the engines of old cars parked in the neighborhood,” she said.

“Look carefully at the children around you and see if you notice any positive difference. It is important to remember that there is more than one way to be smart. We have emotional intelligence, musical intelligence, spiritual awareness-intuitive intelligence, verbal intelligence, mechanical intelligence, humanistic-people-oriented intelligence and many other facets of the world all interact to add to the quality of our existence.”

In some homes, virtual learning is helping to build time management and independence skills youth will need in life, she said. It has opened up a whole new world of learning experiences that would have remained untapped by many had the world not been touched by the pandemic.

Undeniably, the coronavirus forced a sweeping transformation in the education sector revealing challenges, inequalities and, in some instances, opportunities. While The Bahamas has come to terms with the disruption, Knowles noted that learning is no longer dependent upon “one teacher, with one book, standing in the front of the class”.

“Let us not ignore the possibility that there will be some children who are stronger for not having been confined to a nine to three structure for almost two years. Additionally, the forms of learning and the kinds of skills that may be needed to survive in the challenging times ahead, may not necessarily be found in a structured academic setting. Therefore, managing COVID-related stresses may have strengthened their emotional stamina and overall crisis management skills,” said Knowles, whose areas of practice also include behavior management.

“In coming to grips with the impact of COVID-19, let’s not forget to appreciate and harness the creative energies, resilience and diverse learning styles of our Bahamian children as they undergo a crucial restructuring of their learning environment.”

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