Supporting K-5 Students With Self-Regulation Skills During Covid-19
by Melissa Tebbs Bitalvo, LCSW
Shifting to Emergency Remote Teaching (ERT) in the midst of the Coronavirus-2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has presented a challenge for elementary school students, families, teachers, and clinicians. Children and their parents/guardians express how overwhelmed they feel trying to adapt to the technology and instruction while also managing significant psychosocial stressors such as isolation, job loss, food insecurity, and, of course, COVID-19 itself. From a personal experience as a social work clinician, I find that teachers and other professionals at the urban elementary schools my program collaborates with also share this feeling of being overwhelmed by the same stressors, while simultaneously feeling concerned about how to meet the diverse learning needs of their students.
A consistent question from parents and teachers is, “how do I help my students regulate themselves?” A common answer has been to have parents act as the default co-regulators of their children’s learning (Carter, Jr. et al., 2020). School social workers have an opportunity to directly address this concern during the pandemic.
If social workers and teachers collaborate to integrate self-regulation skills into the curriculum and modify how they support student self-regulation for the current reality of ERT, it may move some of the burden off families, and provide the necessary self-regulation skills that students need.
Challenges During the Pivot Online
Schools had to pivot quickly from an in-person model of instruction to a virtual platform when the pandemic hit. Universities offered online coursework for many years to students engaged in higher education, and there is an abundance of pedagogical research on distance learning in this space. However, the current change is different in that it is unplanned, rapid, and no longer optional, leading many researchers to characterize it as Emergency Remote Teaching (Aguliera & Nightingale-Lee, 2020; Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020; Hodges et al., 2020), a particularly-novel environment.
Any research on self-regulated learning skills in online education will need to be adapted quite significantly, then, to meet the needs of K-5 students in an ERT situation.
The shift to ERT also comes along with a loss of the stability and routine of school (Aguilera & Nightengale-Lee, 2020; Lee, 2020), critical to the mental health of many children who now find themselves without their “anchor” (Lee, 2020) during this stressful time. We know from previous disease outbreaks (e.g., SARS and Ebola) that there are significant psychological impacts during these periods (Chew et al., 2020). As described by Torres-Pagan & Terepka (2020), even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, the students served by urban school-based health centers presented with significant trauma histories as well as dysregulation, poor attendance, and poor sleep hygiene. With ERT, students such as those focused on by Torres-Pagan and Terepka (2020) are likely to struggle with the self-regulated learning skills needed for success. The move to ERT also affects student engagement, motivation, and social connection (MacMahon et al., 2020).
Disparities in Emergency Remote Teaching
Self-regulation skills in elementary students affect their learning and school engagement (Blair & Raver, 2015; Hamre & Pianta, 2001). Social workers who partner with students in our most at-risk schools, then, must include self-regulation skills during ERT, lest the educational inequities already in place before COVID-19 continue to widen.
Indeed, as social workers, we must keep in mind that, as Adam (2020) suggested, the pivot to ERT is tied in with privilege and disparities that cannot be ignored during the pandemic.
Whereas online learning in higher education was optional for students, ERT for grade school students is not (Bozkurt & Sharma, 2020). Schools are providing virtual instruction to students who many times are not prepared to fully participate and benefit from it. There are technological disparities, including the lack of high-speed internet, device access, and technological literacy that must be addressed (Adam, 2020; Aguliera & Nightengale-Lee, 2020; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People [NAACP], 2020).
Self-Regulation Skills in At-Risk Children
Self-regulation skills predict academic achievement (Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Urasche et al., 2012) and children with better self-regulation skills are more resilient (Blair, 2010; Blair & Raver, 2015). Since research tells us that poverty may limit the development of self-regulation skills (Evans & Kim, 2013) and stress can affect the development of self-regulation in some children (Blair, 2010), it becomes critical to help our at-risk ERT students, especially since we know these skills remains malleable (Blair & Raver, 2012) at young ages. Yet, during the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers are limited in their ability to support self-regulation (MacMahon et al, 2020), at the same time that students are asked to be more self-directed and regulate their own learning (Bol & Garner, 2011; Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004; Delen & Liew, 2016) due to the nature of online learning.
Self-regulation skills include executive functioning skills such as working memory and the ability to avoid distractions (Urasche et al., 2012). Developmental models link the development of emotion regulation and executive functioning (Urasche et al., 2012). There is also a cyclical model presented by Zimmerman (1989). Zimmerman’s model is a triadic (personal, behavioral, environmental) model of self-regulation. It includes the self-regulation strategies of self-evaluation, organizing, goal setting, monitoring, and seeking assistance, among others. It is these factors that are critical to learning, and particularly to online learning.
Self-Regulation Skills for ERT
Bol and Garner (2011) argue that a challenge in online or distance learning is in figuring out how to support self-regulation of learning without synchronous interactions between students and teachers. Students need to set goals, monitor their progress, and reflect on the outcomes (Bol & Garner, 2011). Students must remain motivated and engaged without the reinforcement provided by an in-person teacher (Delen & Liew, 2016). In a traditional in-person classroom, teachers can provide this scaffolding and modeling of self-regulation skills with their students. Teachers could help students, organize activities, and provide feedback and encouragement (Carter, Jr. et al, 2020). With virtual classrooms, teachers may not be able to pick up nonverbal cues and interactions to identify students needing specific support the way they once could (MacMahon et al., 2020).
In many instances, parents or others in the home have had to assume the role of co-regulators (Carter, Jr. et al., 2020) in online education. However, not all students may have an adult in the home able to provide this support. This increased responsibility has the potential to put a strain on parent-child relationships (MacMahon et al., 2020). Instead, Carter, Jr., and colleagues (2020) suggest including support for parents into the online curriculum. Social workers can provide caregivers with infographics that explain self-regulated learning, strategies for helping their children with pacing and focus, and links to videos on mindfulness and other social-emotional strategies.
Strategies to Support Self-Regulation Skills During ERT
So, what is a social worker to do in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic to help students and schools with self-regulation skills? We can help schools target the domains of self-regulated learning in the virtual learning space, drawing from the research on traditional online learning pedagogy. Due to the added psychosocial and mental health stressors inherent in the pandemic, we can also integrate social-emotional support into our work with students and families. By helping young students manage their emotions, we better allow them to self-regulate.
The information below outlines concrete strategies that address areas related to the development of self-regulated learning that can be applied to ERT. Social workers in schools who provide clinical services to young students can encourage the integration of these self-regulation strategies to promote learning and resilience.
Together with advocacy to close the technology gap and address other social determinants of mental health, social workers may help prevent increased educational inequity over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Self-Regulation Strategies for ERT
- Headphones with or without music to reduce distraction and improve focus and motivation (MacMahon et al., 2020)
- Reduce frustration in online learning (e.g., locating links, unclear instructions) that can reduce student motivation
- Have students post or share short bios/introductions of themselves
- Communicate with families and students on a preset schedule-check in by phone, e-mail, text, or WhatsApp messages
- Use interactive functions of online learning to promote positive interactions with teachers and peers
(Delen & Liew, 2016; Hamre & Pianta, 2001; Rice & Carter, Jr., 2016; Pentaraki & Burkholder, 2017)
- Set specific goals with the teacher and get feedback
- Prompt students to engage in planning and discuss goals
(Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004)
- Peer feedback on assignments for older students (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004)
- Use discussion groups to keep track of progress (Dabbagh & Kitsantas, 2004)
- Promote social connections/support communities/shared online spaces to reduce feelings of isolation through e-mails or WhatsApp groups
- Help caregivers in their new roles
- “Warm Fuzzies” game to promote social connections: do one nice thing for someone each day
- Mindfulness exercises (positive effects have been found through both in-person and virtual practice)
- Integrate an interactive self-regulated learning intervention into the curriculum, perhaps using a “character” to deliver the lessons
- “Learning Well […] Together” strategies, see https://education.uq.edu.au.slrc
- Build routines into the day
- Promote resilience
(Adam, 2020; Bozkurt & Sharma; Leidinger & Perels, 2012; MacMahon et al., 2020; Schonert-Reichl et al., 2015; Torres-Pagan & Terepka, 2020; Tunney et al., 2017)
- Reduce feelings of being overwhelmed that affect self-efficacy: poor internet access or difference in devices can cause fatigue that affects pacing (Carter, Jr. et al., 2020)
Parental Support in Co-Regulation
- Incorporate parental support into the curriculum
- Consistent communication with adults on how to support self-regulated learning (Carter, Jr. et al., 2020)
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