Local counselor worries prolonged distance learning may stunt social development

It is important for students, especially elementary students, to be taught in classrooms, a local licensed professional counselor said.

There are components of the learning environment schools provide that don’t translate into online lessons, Edward Acosta of Piña & Acosta Psychological Associates said Monday. The transition to virtual learning due to the coronavirus pandemic puts a hold on the critical social lessons students pick up from being at school.

“Many of us learned our social skills from our teachers,” Acosta said. “We had learned social regulation from our school, not just from our parents but from our teachers. If you recall, we probably spent more time with our teachers than we did with our parents, and they were our models of prosocial behavior, of how to interact with people.”

According to research by Albert Mehrabian, a psychology professor at the University of California in Los Angeles, 7% of a message’s meaning is conveyed through the words. Non-verbal communication signals, such as a teacher’s tone of voice and hand movements, account for 93% of how the students learn.

Acosta worries that a prolonged period of online learning and a lack of physical connections among children risks a stunt in a whole batch of student’s social development.

“These are formative years, years when you start forming all of your basic academic skills and build the foundation of social learning,” he said. “At the age of 3, a child can retain enormous amounts of information. Children begin language development, they begin social interactions, they begin to understand social regulations — their intellectual curiosity grows. Then as they get older, that advances to understanding how the world works.”

Students across the region have begun this school year online, following the county’s executive order for all schools to operate remotely until Sept. 27.

Acosta explained that being in classrooms, engaging in experiments and hands-on activities, and taking part in class discussions are imperative steps for the development of students’ intellectual maturity.

For example, watching an ice cube turn into water, and then boiled into gas, is important for young students to learn about the three states of matter. For older students, sitting with their English teacher to discuss an essay is integral to building writing skills.

Another problem with online courses, Acosta said, is that students are learning through devices they equate to entertainment.

“Children associate online with fun — humanistic fun, not learning fun,” he said.

The routine of going to school on weekdays and having weekend breaks was important for students to distinguish times of learning and relaxing.

“Many students are programmed, just like we were, to know that when you’re home, you’re off, and when you’re at school, you’re at work,” Acosta said. “That’s their mindset. It’s going to be a challenge to get children engaged the way they would be engaged at school.”

For parents with young children who are struggling to focus during online classes, he advises them to give their kids something to hold and play with. At his clinic, they give kids slime or play dough to keep their hands busy, and help them pay more attention in class.

“And the younger they are, probably the more of those you are going to need because it is going to be a major challenge for those kids to be there for six to seven hours,” Acosta said.

Using laptops and tablets triggers a mode of leisure for students, he said, which not only impedes their ability to focus on school work, but puts them at a higher risk of several mental disorders.

“We were already seeing the impact of electronics on children in every aspect of their life before the pandemic,” Acosta said. “Not just the electronic addiction of video games, but the unfortunate rise  — the meteoric rise — of the unhealthy importance of social media. We already had our kids glued to electronics, I am just afraid this is going to make it worse.

“There are studies that have indicated that children who have a lot of screen time, specifically on tablets or phones, are highly susceptible to depression and anxiety. If you take out the crucial interaction with other children in school, with other adults in school, with the physical motivation of a P.E. coach, we are standing on some dangerous ground.”

Acosta said his clinic has seen a rise in cases of anxiety and depression among students and parents because of the grief that the pandemic has brought onto the community. Then the additional pressure of schoolwork is overwhelming for some.

“It’s a major challenge, and we are probably going to see some major regression academically,” he said. “So, I am really hoping that this is short term. Because if there is one thing that children are, children are academically resilient — they can learn very quickly. I hope this does not last long because I don’t want that regression to be too deep.”

cdeguzman@themonitor.com

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