We all worry about our children, and we have had plenty of reason over the last year: social isolation, mental health generally, academic progress, and probably a number of other issues. Children, especially girls, are very attuned to our emotional states and they can easily absorb our worries, particularly if we talk openly about them. As we begin to move out of the pandemic, we adults play a critically important role in how our young people emerge from this unprecedented period.
Let’s begin by addressing concerns about academic progress. With some regularity, I receive questions from parents who are worried that their children have fallen behind. The first thing to remember is that the pandemic impacted children in every corner of the world. We all need to remember that our own children’s experience is not unique; all over the world, the pandemic disrupted education. Moreover, we now have preliminary research showing that in the U.S., pandemic learning loss seems to be less than anticipated. MAP test results for 4.4 million elementary and middle schoolers indicate that, in general, students demonstrated virtually no learning loss in reading and only a 5-10% drop in math learning as compared to the previous year. Even in math, they still made progress, just not as much as they had the previous year.
Tragically, data from around the world shows that the pandemic that hit under-resourced communities especially hard from health and economic perspectives also had greater impact educationally. We cannot forget that if this disadvantage goes unaddressed, it will widen existing achievement gaps, further limiting these young people’s futures. Holton students, by contrast, have benefitted from synchronous teaching from the beginning, smaller classes with more individual attention, guaranteed internet connections and devices, and families committed to education. Data bear out these advantages.
The Educational Records Board (ERB), which serves primarily private schools and suburban public schools, recently released comparative data for their middle school test takers for 2018-19 and 2019-20. When they analyzed data by achievement level (the lowest 25th percentile, the mid-50th percentile, and the top 25th percentile) and gender, they found that, with the exception of mid-level girls in Math, Reading Comprehension, and Writing Concepts & Skills (one category), girls did better than boys. The most interesting information in this data, however, is that the top 25th percentile girls actually demonstrated greater learning growth over the course of 2019-20 in both the Math, Reading Comprehension, and Writing Concepts & Skills category and the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning category than they did in 2018-19.
Looking at a specific Holton measure, this year’s 10th graders’ PSAT composite score was identical to the composite score for 10th graders in the spring of 2019, and, while their verbal (Evidence Based Reading and Writing, or ERW) declined somewhat, their mean math score was higher than the Class of 2021. Even more interesting is that the current 11th graders had the highest scores of the last three years (Classes of, 2020, 2021, and 2022) in both verbal and math, as well as their composite scores, and placed the School’s collective test-takers in the 99th-100th percentiles. I would never measure student progress solely on the basis of the PSAT. However, it does provide an annual, national benchmark and our students have done very well in spite of the pandemic. I think we can stop worrying about our girls academically.
Mental health presents a somewhat more complex situation. There is no question that students around the world have suffered in the isolation of quarantine and virtual school as well as from anxiety associated with the pandemic. There has been a significant rise in the incidence of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents and Holton's student body is no exception. In no way, do I want to minimize the suffering of those dealing with serious mental health conditions. However, the majority of our students are managing fine emotionally. They may have felt stressed, lonely, anxious (with a small “a”), sad, and frustrated. Those are all completely normal emotions under the circumstances (haven’t most of us felt them, too?). It’s important that we as adults acknowledge them, affirm their normality, and help our daughters work through them.
I am currently having lunch with seniors in small groups and I am asking them what they’ve learned about themselves through this last year. They have told me that they have recognized how fortunate they are; they appreciate aspects of life they took for granted; and they feel good that they have successfully navigated this difficult time. They have been resilient.
Our seniors are not the only ones recognizing the growth in student resilience. In a One Schoolhouse survey of independent school academic administrators across the country, over 63% of respondents rated this year’s seniors as equally ready for college compared to past years, but in different ways—qualities such as perseverance, independence, and self-advocacy: resilience.
Given the importance of resilience for a fulfilled and successful life, whether students learned as much biology as they might have previously matters little if they can come out of the pandemic as resilient young adults. I had already been thinking about how we could help our students see their resilience when Judith Warner wrote an article in the New York Times addressing this exact issue. As I expected, how we, as adults, frame this experience will influence how our children emerge from the pandemic. The article’s headline, “Parents, Stop Talking About the ‘Lost Year’” and the subtitle, “Teenagers and tweens will be fine, experts say—if adults model resilience,” pretty much say it all.
Parents, it turns out, have a huge impact on their children’s mental health, especially during the pandemic. Dr. Soniya Luthar, who works with high achieving schools, has been surveying 6th through 12th graders since 2019 and has concluded that parent behavior plays a more significant role in promoting young people’s depression and anxiety than any other factor. Specifically, feeling as though their parents are dissatisfied with them (which would include feeling as though they had lost a year of school) and parental moods deeply affect young people. This is particularly true since the pandemic when factors that might have buffered them—activities they love, relationships with a supportive teacher or coach, time with friends—have receded from their lives, leaving adolescents with “an unadulterated dose of parent distress.”
Just as parents can have negative impacts on their children, we also have the power to impact them positively. In no way should we sweep the hardship—even pain and loss—of the past year under the rug. However, dwelling on what they have lost won’t help any of those things return. What it will do is discourage our girls from moving forward and building on these experiences in positive ways. Adolescents, especially middle schoolers, are adaptable and with the right direction can quite easily recover. As Dr. Lawrence Steinberg, psychologist at Temple University and authority on adolescence, observes:
Do kids need certain kinds of experiences at this point in their lives in order to be able to develop normally? Yes, but there’s no reason to think an interruption like this is going to cause permanent damage. The plasticity afforded by the adolescent brain at this age allows for recovery.
Warner also quotes Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the chief science officer for the American Psychological Association, who observes:
We have to start considering how we are going to frame this period as we emerge from it. We need to focus not just on hardship and tragedy. We need to praise them for their flexibility and resilience and ability to change.
We need to help our girls identify what they have accomplished, how they have overcome adversity, how they have persevered in the face of all the challenges—how they have found a way or made one. If we do that, we can mold that brain plasticity in constructive ways that will ultimately make them stronger adults.