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Socializing the Remote Student: Reforming Social Skills During Virtual Learning and Beyond

By Gavin Alvarado

Photo by Kimberrywood from Shutterstock

2020’s covid pandemic resulted in a paradigm shift in the workforce, education, commerce, and social interaction in the blink of an eye. The abrupt exodus of employees and students from their places of work and study, the death of small businesses across the country, coupled with pandemic-related stress and trauma left many individuals struggling throughout 2020 and beyond. This rings true for students just as much as for adults. The almost instantaneous move from in-person to online schooling for students of all ages was just one aspect of the societal shift spurred by the pandemic, but one which may have lasting impacts on student development. The issue of students’ social development in a fully remote learning environment, for instance, may be of concern when returning to the classroom.

Fears regarding children’s lack of social skill development over quarantine are not at all unfounded. Adults and students of all backgrounds have been part of a worrying trend of atrophied social skills over isolation. This has manifested in variety of ways, from increased prevalence of social anxiety to bouts of depression or exhaustion relating to lack of social stimulation. Even for adults, these social symptoms of isolation can be daunting to deal with. For students, many of whom are still cultivating crucial social skills, the damage may run even deeper. Middle and high school students who have often already formed the groundwork for their social skills and interactions are prone to the same social backsliding that adults have experienced during the pandemic. The practices associated with enforced isolation have shown that for the 9 to 10% of young people with social anxiety disorder, the lack of social interaction hinders the efficacy of positive interventions such as exposure therapy and may further make classroom reintegration more difficult due to the entrenchment of “social phobias.” More broadly, the pandemic also saw a 31% increase in mental health related ER visits for 12 to 17 year olds between January and October of 2020. Psychologists also expect, due to pandemic isolation, for social anxiety disorder to become more common among young people and contribute to growing rates of depression.

For younger student demographics as well, the question of social regression due to remote learning has been of increasing relevance. In contrast to their older peers, when making the switch to virtual or remote learning, younger students (think grades k-5) have displayed a level of mental resilience that might come as a surprise. By and large, younger cohorts have managed to avoid much of the social and mental health issues that have afflicted middle and high schoolers. The differentiating factor for the two groups may be the relative importance of parental proximity and dependence upon routine. The fact of the matter is, for younger children during formative periods, their interactions with their parents are more crucial than with peers when it comes to regular childhood development. As such, at-home learning and the subsequent reduction in interpersonal interactions might not result in the same social decline seen in older students. For the younger students, it is the presence of a stable routine and a solid parental figure that is most important during this critical developmental period, both of which are not truly limited by pandemic restrictions. That isn’t to say that young children will emerge from isolation and reenter the classroom socioemotionally unscathed and perfectly adjusted. While interpersonal socialization is less critical to this demographic, the lack of formative socializing through the classroom setting runs the risk of stunting students’ social skills in the short term. The most common manifestation of this stunting is in the form of behavioral and etiquette issues among young students. While it may be the case that young students’ developmental resiliency will help mitigate long term damage to social skills, attention must also be paid to the short term lapses.

In either group’s case, there exists a necessity for positive social emotional intervention to reduce the impacts of remote-learning isolation. For older groups, positive mental health interventions and altered methods of socialization and emotional support (such as virtual activities, check-ins, and connecting via social media) may serve to alleviate some of the stress brought on by increased loneliness/isolation and resultant mental health crises or disorders. For younger students, meanwhile, social emotional learning should serve as a critical tool to reacclimate students to positive social interactions in the classroom. SEL may be used to address any extant socioemotional gaps in student learning that might weaken the foundation of future social skills and competencies. Further, an important indicator of student social and mental health throughout the pandemic was healthy parental/familial interaction. Parental financial insecurity and hardship, for example, can contribute to a chain reaction of stress that can result in negative behavioral and emotional outcomes for children. Parental distress over the pandemic is also an indicator of behavioral problems, and for teenagers, perceived parental dissatisfaction and negative parental mood are the strongest indicators of depression and anxiety. When it comes to returning students to social normalcy, positive parental and familial involvement is crucial to the success of social emotional interventions in returning students’ social skills to baseline following remote learning.

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