When We Look at Learning Loss, Let’s Remember the Support Adults Need

May 25, 2023

Two researchers, Tom Kane and Sean Reardon, a professor of education and economics at Harvard and a professor of education and sociology at Stanford, respectively, recently wrote Parents Don’t Understand How Far Behind Their Kids Are in School

The two gentlemen are part of a team of researchers from Harvard, Stanford, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, and the testing company NWEA — the Education Recovery Scorecard project—to understand where test scores declined the most, what caused these patterns, and whether they are likely to endure. 

Education Recovery Scorecard

Interestingly, their research showed that parents were optimistic about their children catching up from pandemic losses, in spite of the fact that their research showed that as of Spring 2022, children were 1.5 years behind in math and a third of a year behind in reading.

What piqued my interest was that, according to the researchers, school closures were only part of the story. Some other factors contributed to declines in students’ academic performance extended to curtailed social activities, as well as the stress and depression that parents felt–in addition to losing loved ones due to the pandemic.

The bottom line was that every aspect of disruption to children’s lives resulted in declines in academic performance.

So we may ask ourselves what can we do to help children deal with trauma, stress, and anxiety? 

It all comes down to us–the significant caregivers. How stress, anxiety, and trauma is experienced and managed depends upon children having responsive, empathic, and supportive relationships. This means caring adults who read their cues, address their needs and help them manage their emotions and deal with the trauma at hand.

The importance of responsive relationships is not only to buffer and support children through adversity and trauma but also to facilitate healthy development and resilience. Without the presence of responsive relationships, children’s cortisol levels remain elevated, impacting healthy brain development and the body’s ability to regulate stress. The result: learning, behavioral, mental health, and health issues that can last into adulthood.

As key socializers, your emotions matter, and what you do with them matters most of all. Before we can help children deal with the big emotions around trauma, we need to lay the foundation of being able to be aware of, deal with and manage our own emotions first. 

In my peer-reviewed research, children who participated in programs using the begin to ECSEL approach by learning how to manage their own emotions and understand those of others outperformed their peers not only in self-regulation and empathy but notably in executive function. This research proved that children cannot learn if they aren't first taught how to regulate their emotions. 

When the brain is overwhelmed by dysregulated emotion it cannot learn. When children are emotionally dysregulated, they cannot adequately tap into their executive-function skills, our ability to problem-solve, think, and focus. Their brains are hijacked by their emotions, obstructing their ability to learn.

Learning loss in our children is at a critical juncture. The solution is not just tutoring or more classes in math and reading, but bigger picture, it’s about first addressing the emotions that are impairing their ability to learn. 

For kids to be available to learn, they need to have support from adults to deal with their emotions resulting from the stress and anxiety of ongoing disruption, including the loss of people, routines and social systems. 

We must remember that adults, too, have been greatly impacted and are struggling with their own stress, anxiety, and depression. 

For parents and educators to help kids, they need to have the support to deal with their own needs first – the oxygen mask rule. Let’s supply the emotional oxygen to both the children and the adults to help them not only recover but also thrive both in learning and in life. 

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