There are many tangibles of traditional classroom learning that can be replicated at home: Desks, pencils, electronics and workbooks are largely available.
It’s the intangibles of school-based learning that parents are struggling to provide this fall: socializing with friends on the bus; finding resolution after a conflict at lunch; collaborating on a science project.
“When a kid is at school for seven hours there is a good chunk of time that is social or play,” said Jason Horowitz, a clinical assistant professor in the UW-Madison Department of Psychiatry. “We have to recognize there’s more to school than learning. We need to try to replace all the different aspects that help a kid grow.”
Much of this is considered social emotional learning, and there’s a lot of study surrounding its importance and why children need this type of learning to become well-rounded human beings.
“Now, in the time of COVID, social and emotional learning is even more important,” said Yorel Lashley, director of arts in the UW-Madison School of Education, whose research focuses on social emotional learning. “Most people are suffering some sort of isolation. Everyone is going through it.”
The focus of his research is on how social emotional learning happens and how teachers and schools can build opportunities for students to practice these skills.
Lashley explains social emotional learning as five major areas: self awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.
“It’s not a top down thing,” he said.
Teachers and schools have to create atmospheres and environments through classroom routines and priorities focused on developing these social and emotional skills as well as the skills more commonly associated with classroom teaching, he said.
“We send our kids to school to become whole, healthy, functioning people, not to become mathematicians, nor to learn academics in ways that isolate those skills from practical applications,” Lashley said.
The role of extracurriculars
One place where children find these outlets for socialization is through extracurricular activities, which this summer have been forced to move online or greatly reduce their programming to allow for safe interaction.
Popular craft and nature programs are continuing through Madison School and Community Recreation and other community organizations this summer, but in a modified format.
The organization’s popular Art Cart, co-sponsored by the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, is offering prepackaged kits to be completed at home instead of as a group in a park.
MSCR also is hosting summer elementary and middle school camps online and providing families with supply kits that students can use while they follow the programming virtually.
The organization also is providing essential child care, but all other programs are outdoors.
“We are doing drop-in nature programs for families,” said Mary Roth, MSCR operations manager. These activities include limited interaction with staff and are designed to be done as a family, she said.
Activities such as tennis, paddling and boating also have restarted in a modified format to allow for safety and social distancing and will continue through August, Roth said.
“I think people have been really receptive to the new restrictions and requirements,” Roth said. “Kids are resilient.”
In an effort to engage children outside this summer, the Madison Children’s Museum painted international hopscotch-type games in 64 neighborhoods around Dane County using longer-lasting spray chalk.
A map of where the games are located, templates for creating them yourself and some background about each one can be found on the children’s museum website, madisonchildrensmuseum.org.
The museum has continued to offer some programming online, mostly through Facebook.
“A lot of our kids developed connections with specific staff members and our online programming replicated that,” said Kia Karlen, director of education for the Madison Children’s Museum, adding staff are still thinking through tweaks in programming for the fall.
Children’s Theater of Madison decided to move all of its three-week camps, which run three hours a day, five days a week and culminate in a production, online.
“I feel like at CTM I think the initial reaction was to grieve what was being lost, but then our next step was to figure out how we could push the boundaries in this online medium, “ said Erica Berman, CTM’s director of education and community engagement.
Much of the camp’s success came from its structure and ability to have students work in a variety of small groups during Zoom calls; in addition to providing needed breaks and chances to socialize, Berman said.
After weeks of online school, students said their hopes were not high for virtual camps, but many were pleasantly surprised.
“I auditioned and got into the “Pippin” (CTM) camp before COVID,” said Kai DeRubis, 16, who attends Clark Street Community School through the Middleton-Cross Plains School District. “I was really disappointed about doing it online. I thought it was going to be a lot less fun than it was, actually.
“It actually works fairly well and I still enjoy it,” Kai said. “It was fun to add my own creativity to everything.”
“Kai has taken over the whole downstairs of our house,” added his mother, Sarah DeRubis. “The rest of us are up in the bedrooms with the dogs to keep them from barking on camera.”
Kai said he spent an increasing amount of time on preparing for the three-week camp outside the Zoom hours as the production proceeded. The last week of camp, “tech week,” was “eight to 10 hours a day as a family getting it recorded in Kai’s costume,” said his dad, Mike DeRubis.
He helped a lot during camp’s after hours — learning, on the job, lighting, film and sound production.
“This has all been kind of new and kind of fun to explore,” said Mike DeRubis. “We all had this abundance of time (during quarantine). I learned a new set of skills that I didn’t know I needed.”
At first the family was pulling equipment from around the house to provide a working studio for Kai.
“Every lamp in the house came out,” Sarah DeRubis said.
“I actually rigged (the computer) up on a rolling table so the Zoom meetings could be more mobile,” Mike DeRubis said. And more recently he invested in a boom stand and decent microphone for better quality production.
“But it’s awesome .... it keeps us busy, keeps him busy .. and I love the music,” said Sarah DeRubis.
Jinger Schroeder, of Madison, said her daughter Pippa was reluctant to try CTM’s virtual camp.
“For Pippa, after school went virtual it was hard for her to sit and do multiple Zooms and spend hours on the computer,” Schroeder said.
However, they both have been pleased with how her “Alice in Wonderland” production with CTM has turned out.
“They kept it moving along and took plenty of short breaks,” Jinger Schroeder said. “I heard a lot of laughs, plus she got a chance to work with some incredible teaching artists and fellow campers,” she said.
Like other families, Pippa’s did a little “redecorating” to help her build a suitable studio space.
“We changed the whole dining room into her theater studio,” Jinger Schroeder said. “We took down all the art on one side because her choreography demanded some tricky moves and we didn’t want her bumping into things, plus she wanted no background distractions for the performance.”
In addition to her CTM camp, Pippa, 12, who goes to Hamilton Middle School, has been finding other ways to occupy her time safely during the pandemic. One activity has been creating her podcast “DayBreak.”
“She has been podcasting since school got out so that’s been taking a lot of her time,” Jinger said.
“I interview people with really awesome occupations and really interesting jobs,” Pippa said. She and her friend also do “crazy news stories.”
Pippa also created the Dudgeon-Monroe Graphic Novel Library where she and a friend lease out and deliver graphic novels to people in her neighborhood.
Pippa said these different interests have helped the summer go by faster and connect her with friends. “Especially all the people that I know have different rules with what you can and can’t do” during the pandemic, she said.
Pippa said the CTM camp allowed her “to see other people and make connections over the virtual screen.”
“Virtual school was really hard because the teachers were always trying their best, but it got really tiring. I was nervous that I was going to be sitting around and not doing as much as I would do in person with CTM. It wasn’t the full (CTM experience, but) they exceeded my expectations completely. It was not like school. It was so much more engaging.”
Still able to participate
Sherry de Alvarez, who home-schools her son Sam, said summer is their time to get out of the house and be with other people. “I pretty much had the whole summer planned out” when COVID hit in March, she said.
“I tried not to panic too much” as one after another camp and vacation were canceled, de Alvarez said. “I knew we had other resources.”
This was Sam de Alvarez’s third summer doing a CTM camp, and they decided to try the virtual option being provided.
“We had a pretty reliable space in our school room that we use,” Sam said about his in-house studio. “We made it work because we had to do a dance in the show. We needed to stay in frame. I had to restrain myself a little bit.”
One aspect that Sam said he liked about the virtual camp was being able to record his vocal solos over and over until he had them perfect — something you can’t do during a live show. He also got to sit and watch his show, which he doesn’t normally do.
“I never really get to do that so it was interesting to see what I did well and what I could improve on,” Sam said.
In addition to CTM, Sam has been doing his voice lessons virtually with his voice instructor and his climbing and martial arts clubs online.
“Not a lot has changed in what he’s been able to do; it’s just the way we’re able to access it,” Sherry de Alvarez said.
Better than before
Lashley said he was focused on the work of social emotional learning before COVID-19 but that the pandemic has brought this work to the forefront.
Now parents and teachers are looking at how to create spaces in these virtual learning environments to facilitate social and emotional learning.
“I think this is a time to be as mindful and nurturing as possible to students as they go back to school, and I think the best way to do that is to think about the (social emotional) learning across all five competencies: self awareness, social awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making and relationship skills.”
Teachers and parents need to set aside “real time for real talk,” Lashley said, “where kids can problem solve and work through things. At the end of the day you have to prioritize it and make time for it.”
Lashley said teachers also have to know how to do it.
Lashley, whose current work includes developing an online social emotional learning course, took an informal survey of teachers, school staff and administrators that showed a wide range in the depth of knowledge about social and emotional learning among teachers and staff.
“Staff are going to need support and training to do this work,” he said. “It’s not likely to be an easy shift.”
However, Lashley said it’s important to make the most of this moment.
“If we think we’re just going to wait for things to become ‘normal’ again ... we’re going to miss an opportunity. We know there are a number of kids, especially Black, Indigenous, people of color, Black and brown students, that were not being served well by our educational systems before COVID. Ideally we should try to come out on the other side of this doing this better than we did before.”
Social emotional learning at home
Social emotional learning can be a lot to wrap your head around. But Lashley said parents can do it.
“For parents I think the key is just to check in with your young people,” Lashley said. “I’m checking in with (my kids) about their mental health, hopes and dreams, fears, and I’m also responsible for helping them develop social skills and a positive sense of identity. Parents have to set aside regular space and time so that open communication is possible around these issues.”
“Everyone is in the same house, but that doesn’t mean you’re attentive and present,” Lashley said. “We’re (also) trying to facilitate some normalcy,” he said, citing socially distant visits with friends and other activities that make children feel “whole and happy.”
“Social emotional learning is most simply equipping ourselves to be whole people who have healthy awareness of ourselves, so we can contribute positively to our communities and have power over our own lives,” Lashley said.