Kids’ Behavior Worsened With Remote Learning: Study

Parents, brace yourselves.

As the Omicron variant surges and U.S. schools deal with a substitute teacher shortage and related pandemic fallout, don’t be surprised if a return to remote or hybrid learning leads your kids to act out, a new study warns.

Previous shifts from in-person to remote or hybrid learning (a combination of the two) during the COVID-19 pandemic have posed challenges for kids that have caused them to act out, according to Harvard University researchers.

They began a large study of learning and behavior before the pandemic, but the new conclusions stem from a look at 4½ months last year — January through May — when about 57% of kids switched learning formats.

“As we looked at how children’s behaviors were linked to those learning formats, we found that it seemed like remote learning — which comes as no surprise to probably many parents — poses a challenge for children’s behavioral health and functioning, and this really aligns with what we know about how stress and disruption affects children’s behaviors,” said study leader Emily Hanno, a postdoctoral researcher.

The conclusions emerged from four surveys of 405 parents of kids participating in the broader Early Learning Study at Harvard.

In the surveys, parents gave their take on their child’s general behavioral health, including a number of “maladaptive” behaviors, including aggression or withdrawal. They also cited the frequency of “dysregulated” behaviors, such as limited attention span or difficulty switching between tasks.

Compared to when they were in school, kids showed more of these unwanted behaviors while learning remotely — and their general behavior was worse overall, the parents reported.

Behavior during periods of hybrid learning landed in between remote and in-person.

“We think that this is probably a function of the turbulence of switching between learning formats, and the instability and insecurity of switching to remote learning, but also probably the stress that households are feeling as they’re adjusting to remote learning and also confronting the broader public health conditions that often coincide with remote learning,” Hanno said.

Children thrive in predictable environments with clear, consistent routines, she pointed out.

“We think that a key way forward is making sure that children feel safe and supported and have the resources that they need to manage and navigate the stress that we’re all experiencing in these unpredictable times,” Hanno said.

The survey results illustrate the parents’ perceptions of their child’s behaviors, according to the study. The researchers said those working with kids and families should address not only the academic consequences of the pandemic, but also its impact on children’s social, emotional and behavioral well-being.

“When children feel safe and supported, we know that they can more easily bounce back from challenges and be resilient,” Hanno said. “I think it underscores that if we focus on building the conditions of supports that empower children’s families and educators to navigate these complicated times, children should be able to more easily recover from these setbacks in the long run.”

It’s also essential to make time for kids to process what’s going on, she said.

“It’s tempting to want to jump straight into learning, to combat ‘learning loss,’ but we also need to understand that children are going through a lot socially and emotionally and giving them space and time to process and understand what that means is really important, too,” Hanno said.

The findings were published online Jan. 10 as a research letter in JAMA Pediatrics.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. kids’ behavioral health was already in decline, according to Dr. Cora Collette Breuner, a professor of pediatrics and adolescent medicine at the University of Washington in Seattle. She said the reasons are unknown.

The pandemic added to that by contributing isolation, stressed parents, lack of robust tech support for children trying to learn remotely, and loss of interaction with teachers who could provide a safety net for those living in dysfunctional homes, she said.

“It shouldn’t surprise people that kids become more withdrawn. They tend to regress to younger behavior,” Breuner said.

To help keep kids at in-person schools, everyone should be wearing masks, Breuner said, including during sports activities. Parents, kids and teachers also need to be honest about any symptoms they experience that could be COVID-related and get tested, she said.

Breuner suggested parents should check in with their pediatrician if they have any concerns about their kids’ behavior or mental health.

“If a parent is noticing a kid doing any of the behaviors that are mentioned in this paper, which are being more withdrawn, having more irritability, microaggression, maladaptive behaviors, difficulty switching activities or limited attention, they really need to find their health care provider and just chat with them about it,” Breuner said.

More information

The U.S. Department of Education has COVID-19 resources for schools, students and families.

SOURCES: Emily Hanno, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Harvard Graduate School of Education, Cambridge, Mass.; Cora Collette Breuner, MD, MPH, professor, pediatrics/adolescent medicine, and adjunct professor, orthopedics and sports medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, and attending physician, Seattle Children’s Hospital; JAMA Pediatrics, Jan. 10, 2022, online