Keep School, Cancel Grades: It’s What You Do in a Pandemic: An Anxiety Therapist’s Appeal

I can’t learn like this. How can I worry about the test we have Friday, when the world is imploding—how do I stop thinking about that? Should I? 

How do I meet for my group project when my mom needs to use the computer at night?  

Nothing’s normal now—why are we pretending that school is normal?

My child is on virtual school all day and then homework at night, weren’t we trying to get kids off of screens?

As reports of COVID-19 started to surface in the media in February, I spoke with Business Insider about what parents should be saying to kids about the virus. My answer back when life still made sense: Parents should tell kids to wash their hands as always, and everything else would be “business as usual until further notice.” Well, further notice is here and business as usual—as we are sheltering at home, stores closed, trying to figure out groceries, distance work, and how to make face masks out of old t-shirt sleeves that we aren’t already using in place of paper towels —is not only not usual, but in many cases non-existent.

COVID-19 has shaken us and our sense of safety and security to the core, shrunk our lives down to the size of our rooms, and at the same time proven the interconnectedness of our collective existence with each fraught vector of our being.

Then there are the kids.

While the pandemic rages, kids—whom we were already worried about pre-pandemic as nearly half suffer from a psychiatric disorder, the majority with anxiety—are trying their best to do online classes all day, thanks to the resourceful, heroic efforts of their teachers who built online instruction essentially overnight. On some level this is reassuring. Even in times of extreme uncertainty and disruption, there is structure: School goes on.

But the reality of distance learning—adjusting to those suddenly small screens (for kids lucky enough to have a screen to call their own) and zooming into class while the world spins out of control around them hits hard. Our children are beyond stressed just trying to learn how to work Zoom or Google classroom. On top of that, they are worrying about their assignments, tests, and grades, just as they always did, but now from an emotionally shaky starting point where everything is turned upside down. They are scared, having nightmares, trying to process what this means for them—when will they see their friends again, what will their summer look like? What happens for college acceptance visits? And for college students—when will they ever go back?—their belongings and the life they knew quarantined back at school. Meanwhile, more and more students are feeling the direct impact of COVID-19, learning of friends, coaches, and family members who have the virus. How can they focus on math facts or chemistry when their mind is racing ahead with fear about that?

Parents, struggling to keep up with their own adjustments, worrying about groceries, jobs, health, the future, understandably struggle to be reassuring about the state of the world in general, plus: They don’t know how online school works. And what if a child gets a B- in a pandemic? Who would console them? As we move into this time of COVID-19’s impact being felt through unprecedented filing for bankruptcy and unemployment, stressful quarantines, and grieving those who succumb to the virus: No one has time for that.

As a therapist long witnessing the sharp rise in anxiety in children and teens over the years, I am deeply concerned about the lasting impact this crisis will have on our students’ mental health and well-being. It’s time to step out of the normal, look at the big picture and what’s at stake, and take the pressure off our kids by cancelling grades in this pandemic semester. Make the semester Mandatory Credit/No Credit. Harvard Law School did this days ago. The Chronicle of Higher Education recommended it, too. The sooner the better.  Do it now and let children’s nervous systems do a much needed re-set. What benefit will be gained in the weeks to come by rigidly sticking to curricula and grade expectations crafted in less-apocalyptic times? Or really what is the cost? We mustn’t tend to one crisis by inadvertently stoking another.

My ask to administrators, teachers and all those who have the power to do so is to maintain the helpful part of the structure that only school can provide— the daily familiarity of faces, the space for valuing discovery, learning and discussing ideas, the witnessing of and participating in community of which they are a vital part. Let flexibility and nurturing the whole being of your students be the partner of that structure. Make grades optional, flex on deadlines, and the number of tests, reduce homework load, go for quality engagement on a few projects, rather than quantity, tend to the mental health needs that we are all grappling with, let your own kids or cats come into view in the hangouts, have impromptu talent shows instead of English class some days. Be human. Be real.

It’s free, it’s simple, it’s the right thing to do, and many teachers, accustomed to wearing many hats and uniquely attuned to the broad range of their students’ needs, are already doing this. If administrators endorse this plan of moving to Universal Credit/No Credit, teachers can be even more effective in following their instincts. It must come from the top. Parents can say, “Don’t worry about your GPA now,” but they don’t have authority. Colleges aren’t going to care that Mom said, “Don’t stress about your bio quiz.” The only voices that count in this regard are the administrators and the teachers—the graders— themselves.

Things are going to get worse, more lives directly impacted, with more far-reaching disruption and loss. Flexibility is what we as adults can do to make it better—for kids, for teachers, and for parents, too. And we must do what we can.

As we flatten the curve of COVID-19 by practicing social distancing, we have the opportunity to flatten the curve of our students’ anxiety by acknowledging that no one does their best work in panic mode. By letting go of rigid expectations, kids may be able to get something done rather than worrying about what it means that they can’t. We can normalize that adults are having trouble focusing and accomplishing things too. It’s to be expected. In a state of fear and stress, our nervous systems are charged up and ready to run, not sit and make a diorama or learn Algebra 2, maybe not right now, maybe later. By telling kids, “It’s not you, it’s OK if you can’t do your best right now, or actually, this is what your best looks like with the disruptions and fear in the extraordinary conditions we face,” kids will feel reassured—and this may even free up more focus and attention to apply themselves to the work they are doing that had been bound up with worry and fear.

Yes, some kids are more flexible and resilient and may handle the stress of grades OK, but these kids are the exception. And yes, some kids will adjust more over time. The priority now must be to help all of our kids to be stronger for the long term. More of the same stress, business as usual stress, didn’t serve them well before COVID-19 and it certainly won’t now.

Will “less” learning happen by removing grades? In times of high stress, worry about grades becomes an obstacle to learning more than an incentive. Teachers can still engage with their students, talk about their work, and offer thoughtful feedback, perhaps more easily without the pressure of grading.  At the end of the semester, all students get credit, unless they’ve really not been participating.

In the best scenario and most aspirational, this ungraded semester gives students an opportunity to separate learning from evaluation, an antidote to our future-oriented, perfection-riddled, GPA-driven culture. Like a stimulus package for kid’s curiosity, students may experience a new freedom to explore the intrinsic value of learning, of working hard and “aha” moments, rather than worrying about what “counts” and what “doesn’t.”  On a more fundamental level, this swift intervention is a “first do no harm” action. The news of no grading will instantly override the stress program in their body, replacing it with a rest and restore program for millions and millions of students. Without the daily and nightly worries of grades and the sequelae, children and teens will sleep better, they’ll be healthier, they won’t stress out their parents about their grades.

Will some kids take advantage of that? Is that really what we need to be splitting hairs over now? Remember we aren’t talking about gaming the system. We’re talking about learning. Ultimately, if you don’t learn, you lose.

What exactly would this look like? The educators will decide. We all stand to benefit. Nobody wants the (over) focus on grades to be the shred of normalcy that we hold on to in these most difficult times. We are not saying this is forever or grades are somehow harmful, they are not; this is a specific crisis, requiring a specific response.

Students today are our future workforce, our innovators, our problem solvers and they will have no shortage of problems to solve. The lifetime prevalence of anxiety disorders in youngsters is over 30%.  We need to protect those students and all the rest whom we don’t want to add to this statistic. This isn’t a snow day. This is a global crisis. The ripples will be felt for months, years, and beyond. We must prevent a further crisis of anxiety and mental health problems in our youth wherever possible. We will all be better served if students come out the other side of this with more than just feelings of frustration about their grades or new content that they tried and failed to absorb. We can help students’ mental health hold steady and be bolstered by experiencing flexibility, possibility, connection, understanding, and compassion that will benefit them for a lifetime. Thank you, teachers, counselors, administrators, and parents. Together, we will be there for our kids. Stay safe, all.

©2020 Tamar Chansky, Ph.D. Please share and help make this happen. Previously posted on Psychology Today.

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