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Magazine

How to Help Students Socialize Again

Now more than ever, prioritize strong relationships over strong test scores.

May 5, 2021

Leah Fabel

Jess Fregni

Jessica Fregni

Writer-Editor, One Day

LA Johnson

Illustrator

This story is the sixth in a series of pieces answering questions about how to return to in-person learning and how to do schooling differently—and better—post-pandemic. To source the questions, we spoke with dozens of educators, caregivers, and students. We are grateful for their curiosity and, despite all, their optimism.

In non-pandemic years, adolescent social development happened over tween conversations around ketchup-smeared tables at the mall food court or amid flying elbows and friendly insults at the neighborhood basketball court. But when social outlets shut down, social development stagnated for many kids, too. Now that most students have resumed in-person learning, how can schools support their social recovery?

Take a look at social options for kids at school—both in class and before or after school—and create novel spaces for friendships to form, says Dr. Jauffmick Michel (New York ’94), a child clinical psychologist based in the D.C. metro area. Sports are the right outlet for some, but ask students to share other ideas, too—spaces to discuss books, anime, social justice, new pandemic hobbies (baking, anyone?). Start small and keep it casual and noncompetitive. Just get students back to a place where they can benefit from togetherness.

“Humans are mammals, and mammals live in groups. That’s how we are meant to function and survive,” Dr. Michel says. Absent connections, young people struggle to navigate conflict, adapt to change, assert themselves, or care for others. “It’s not frivolous. People who are socially connected and engaged tend to be healthier people.”

Estefania Alves (Massachusetts ’10) is a school social worker and teacher at Dearborn Stem Academy Middle-High School in Roxbury, Massachusetts. There’s no post-COVID-19 return to “normal,” so let students’ pandemic experiences be a part of their present, she says. Tap into students’ interests and talents—think poems, stories, songs, and art—and support them in using those skills to open up about how the pandemic changed them. “While students are enjoying doing that because it’s coming from the heart, everyone is learning from the student.” 

As students share, teachers need to support classmates in asking thoughtful questions and sharing connections. An essay in the digital magazine Psyche breaks down why: Effective listeners—those who inquire and reflect—help sharers refine and understand their perspective and feel brave enough to explore some new emotional territory. In those exchanges between the sharer and the listener, connections are formed, creating meaning and purpose.

There will be a post-pandemic social adjustment period, Dr. Michel says. Expect that. Be watchful for signs of depression or anxiety that arose over the past year beyond the typical flow of adolescence. But most kids will be OK with a few extra supports, she says. “Right now, getting social time in needs to be seen as just as important as getting homework done.”