6 ways to beat COVID’s academic and emotional ‘Thriving Gap’

'Thriving gap' remained consistent across gender, race/ethnicity, and socioeconomic status
By: | July 14, 2021
(AdobeStock)(AdobeStock)

A social, emotional, and academic “thriving gap” opened up between in-person and remote high school students during the pandemic, new research has found.

The American Educational Research Association study provides some of the first empirical evidence of how online learning harmed adolescent well-being, said researcher Angela L. Duckworth, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the founder and CEO of Character Lab.

“As policymakers gear up for national tutoring and remediation programs—which we agree are urgent priorities—we must recognize that our nation’s students are not just lagging as performers, they are suffering as people,” Duckworth said. “Meeting their intrinsic psychological needs—for social connection, for positive emotion, and authentic intellectual engagement—is a challenge that cannot wait.”

The study began in February 2020, when Duckworth and the research team surveyed 6,500 students in Orange County Public Schools, a large, diverse district in central Florida, about their social, emotional and academic experiences.

When COVID shut down schools, two-thirds of those students chose remote instruction. In October 2020, all of the students in the original sample then completed another Student Thriving Index survey developed by The Character Lab.

The survey included questions about fitting in at school and whether there was an adult at school whom the teens trusted. Teens also reported how often they felt happy, relaxed or sad. On the academic side, students were asked about their confidence levels, how interesting their classes were and whether they thought it was important to do well.

On a 100-point scale, in-person students were rated higher than remote students:

  • On levels of social well-being: 77.2 (in-person)/74.8(remote)
  • Emotional well-being: 57.4 /55.7
  • Academic well-being: 78.4/77.3

The thriving gap was larger among students in 10th through 12th grades than it was among 9th-graders and remained consistent across gender, race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status.

Recovery and enrichment

A growing body of research is also offering administrators strategies for helping students recover from the social, emotional and academic impacts of the pandemic—starting with summer school.

Six Principles for Summer Learning and Beyond,” from the Center on Reinventing Public Education, provides some guidance on implementing enrichment programs over the next several months:

  1. Tie summer plans to long-term recovery goals: Building cohesion between summer and school-year programs promotes consistency and supports interventions that accelerate recovery.
  2. Maximize summer learning time: Administrators must ease students back into rigorous multi-hour academic days while providing opportunities for joy, play and other social-emotional skill development. Educators should combine remote learning, in-person tutoring, summer enrichment activities, and relationship building.
  3. Prioritize attendance strategies in relationships and responsiveness: Leaders must communicate early and often, and design programming around student and family needs. To break down attendance barriers, for instance, districts can make home visits and even pay students to enroll in summer programs.
  4. Leverage community expertise: Districts should partner with community organizations and share resources to provide additional learning options.
    establish common goals and share resources for rapid recovery throughout this summer.
  5. Recruit, train, and pay high-quality educators: District leaders can work with nonprofits and state agencies to diversify the teacher workforce by creating new employment pathways and restructure licensing programs. Leaders should also consider pay raises to compensate teachers after such a challenging year.
  6. Connect students and families to critical social services: Administrators can leverage summer programs to launch a distributed approach to partnering for
    reconnection, re-engagement, and social services—such as screening, triage and ongoing support—that will be in high demand in the fall.