Heffner column: The reality of going back to school

Dr. Elaine Heffner
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Savannah Morning News

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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The word is that children have returned to school but what that means seems to vary considerably depending on geographic location, grade level and most significantly status or prevalence of COVID. Whatever the individual situation, there certainly is no connection to what we used to think of as “school days, school days, dear old golden rule days.”

Education these days seems to depend in large measure on remote or online teaching and learning. One kind of schedule frequently reported consists of classes divided in half with each half attending classroom in school the first two days of the week, the middle day used for sanitizing the premises, and the other group attending the last two days of the week.

I checked in with my teenage-reporter who is on this kind of schedule to learn how such a plan is working in reality. The one-word summary I got in response was, “challenging.” This is a student who had responded well to the closing of school last March and the completion of classwork online but was expressing a different reaction to the situation now.

Her response to my reminding her about that was that initially it seemed like a temporary situation coming after almost a year of hard work and so was actually a relief. Now they are confronted with the same difficulty and rigor but with the need to learn remotely online. After two days of being in class doing a familiar kind of learning one is suddenly left on one’s own to continue the process.

What I had not understood previously was that the second group is actually part of the same class, continuing the material with the same teacher on site, while the first group is now learning the material remotely. The student explained that it is not an interactive process and that basically you are simply watching the class from your home. It is as though you were watching a tv program and you no longer are part of the process.

Interaction deprivation seems to be the greatest difficulty for many. The burden on young people is great as interacting with peers is so important a part of their development. In that regard an issue raised relates to the wearing of masks. Questions have been asked by parents and others as to whether masks worn by children, caregivers or teachers may interfere with development, such as in speech, language and social interactions. Those who study the development of facial recognition skills in children point to possible problems masks might pose for children interacting with classmates or teachers.

Young children may have difficulty recognizing people because they often focus on individual features. I could relate to that as an adult, having returned home after a long absence and finding difficulty recognizing well-known neighbors as a result of masks.

In addition, a lot of emotional information is shown through the movement of our facial muscles which is obscured by a mask and children may have issues with emotional recognition and social interaction. This may also be true for more than young children. One student commented that it is hard to read people’s emotions and you’re not sure if they are serious or joking when they say certain things. Also, although we think of speech as related to sound, a great deal of information is communicated visually.

Children are adaptable and after spending time masked and around masked people, they may improve their ability to read a variety of others’ cues. Parents and teachers can help by emphasizing gestures and paying attention to their tone of voice.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.