Learning struggles after Covid: what can help children

When drastic social distancing measures were implemented due to the spread of Covid-19, many experts began sounding the alarm about children’s development. And the risks of prolonged school closures. The raised alerts spanned from the lack of primary access to tools and quality teachings in the poorest areas to all the nuances of possible (if not probable) mental health issues. Particularly for those with some form of developmental struggle.

In this situation, the role of occupational therapists and occupational therapy (OT) has increased. In the US, in particular, the job outlook is projected to grow by 14% in the next decade, according to government data from 2021, “much faster than average”, with a median pay of around 85.500 € a year. Labour market and job opportunities aside, how is OT changed in the last decade, but more precisely during and after the pandemic? And how have children’s, parents’ and teachers’ needs evolved?

Needs and responses

«I have witnessed significant differences over the past decade», confirms Kim Cunningham, Senior Occupational Therapist for the NYC Department of Education. «These changes have had a profound impact on the needs of children and the attention and response from parents and teachers to the struggles they face».

The work of the American educator and founder of the Hands on Fun OT kit focus on early childhood development with a holistic and comprehensive approach to the care of her young patients. Sharing her knowledgeable insights on the topic, she confirms: «The pandemic and the ensuing restrictions have completely reshaped the landscape of pediatric occupational therapy. Following the introduction of those restrictions, I observed a noticeable difference in the needs of my patients. Remote learning, limited social interactions, and disrupted routines were among the most difficult obstacles to adjust to. Many children have experienced difficulties with virtual learning, increased anxiety, and heightened stress levels. As occupational therapists, we have had to quickly adapt our approaches to address these new challenges and find innovative ways to support» the patients and their families.

Today, are parents, teachers, and professionals more able and ready to recognize children’s struggles, thus, more prepared to intervene?

The pandemic has heightened awareness of children’s struggles. Parents and teachers have become more attuned to the signs and symptoms of various developmental difficulties. This increased awareness has led to a stronger emphasis on collaboration among parents, teachers, and occupational therapists.

While it’s difficult to generalize whether children struggle more or less, it is evident that the nature of their struggles has evolved. (An) heightened awareness has been driven by advancements in research, improved access to education and information, and the availability of resources and support networks.

As a result, as professionals, we are now better equipped to recognize the struggles children may be experiencing; we have become more adept at identifying the signs and symptoms of various developmental issues. It’s pertinent to acknowledge that there has been a positive change in the stigma associated with seeking help for children’s struggles. As awareness and understanding have grown, so has acceptance. Seeking intervention and support is now viewed as a responsible and proactive step towards ensuring a child’s optimal development.

The keywords in contemporary learning and teaching programs seem to be “collaboration” and “experience”. How crucial s to incorporate this approach among students (with or without difficulties), and between students and teachers? 

Collaboration and experiential learning are key elements in modern learning and teaching programs. By actively involving students in group activities and projects, they have an opportunity to learn from one another, share ideas, and gain different perspectives. This process not only enhances their critical thinking and problem-solving skills but also fosters social skills, such as teamwork, communication, and respect for diverse viewpoints.

For students with difficulties, working with peers provides a supportive and inclusive setting where they can develop a sense of belonging and build positive relationships. Through shared experiences, they can learn from their peers’ strengths and leverage their abilities, boosting their self-esteem and confidence. Additionally, collaborating with classmates who may have different strengths or learning styles can encourage a deeper understanding of the subject matter and promote peer-to-peer support.
Last but not least, experiential learning allows students to apply their knowledge in practical and real-life situations, so they can see the relevance and applicability of what they are learning.

What is your take on the use of screens vs or in combination with other “analogic” games? Who benefits more from which tool? Is there a difference?

Both offer unique benefits, and the optimal approach depends on individual circumstances and needs. On the one hand computers and tablets offer interactive and engaging learning experiences. They provide access to vast educational resources, facilitate virtual collaboration, and can cater to different learning styles. However, it’s crucial to strike a balance and set appropriate screen time limits to ensure healthy and well-rounded development, as excessive screen time may contribute to sedentary behaviour and potential exposure to inappropriate content.

On the other hand, analogue games, such as board games or hands-on activities, also provide valuable benefits. (They) offer tangible and multisensory experiences, promoting social interaction, fine motor skills, problem-solving abilities, and creativity. Analogic games are particularly advantageous for children who learn better through tactile and kinesthetic experiences. They encourage face-to-face interaction, cooperation, and turn-taking, fostering social-emotional development. Analogic games also allow for a break from screens, promoting a balanced approach to learning.

Rather than viewing screens and analogic games as opposing tools, incorporating both can create a well-rounded learning environment that caters to diverse learning styles and preferences. By combining these tools, educators can offer a variety of experiences and engagement opportunities to their students. The key is to consider the individual needs, preferences, and learning styles of the children.

How can access alternative methods (especially games) help bridge the gaps in learning curves that may be related also to families, communities or schools?

The unfortunate truth is that access to educational tools varies across different areas within a country and even within the same city (including New York City, which is where I live and work!). The unequal access poses challenges to children’s learning curves. However, integrating alternative methods, including games, can help bridge these gaps. Games provide interactive and engaging learning experiences that are accessible, cost-effective, and adaptable to different contexts. So, by leveraging games within families, communities, and schools, we can create inclusive learning environments that support all children in their educational journey, and by offering equal access to educational opportunities, we can empower children to overcome barriers and reach their full potential.

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