How the scientific method can help parents of young kids feel hopeful about Covid schooling
When I tell people that my oldest child will be starting kindergarten this September, while Covid-19 still rages in the United States, they say, “I am so sorry.”
To be honest, my default response is to feel sorry for myself, too. This is not the school year I had imagined when I pictured my five-year-old starting kindergarten and his almost-three-year-old brother starting preschool. Since March, I can’t seem to shake the sense that I am stuck in the wrong timeline, in a version of life I don’t want and didn’t ask for. But this kind of thinking, while understandable, is not helpful. It leaves me feeling hopeless and stuck, which are not great places from which to live or to parent.
On a soupy August morning, a friend who works in higher education shared a perspective that shifted my mindset. As I walked in my Minneapolis neighborhood and talked on the phone, my friend told me about her preparations for the upcoming school year and about a talk she gave to her peers. “I want to offer a perspective,” she told them. “It is easy to find the negatives about this school year. It is difficult — and it will require leadership — to find the positives.”
When I heard that perspective, I felt a warm thrum in my chest. I want to be a leader for my children. I want to be brave and do what needs to be done. But how?
Frankly, thinking head-on about what could be good about this school year overwhelms me. I can go on and on about what the hard parts might be — two young kids, each with a special education plan and just a 60-minute daily tolerance for video chats (on a good day) — but the good parts? Those are harder to locate. When I try, I feel like I’ve been dropped into the woods and told to make a log cabin. I can kind of picture what the outcome might be, but I have no idea how to make it materialize.
I realized that I needed scaffolding. Something to hold on to and build a different mindset with. I thought of different approaches I’ve used to solve difficult problems in the past. Back when I was a mental health researcher, I worked with a team to figure out how treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder could be improved. To approach that problem, we used a process of systematic inquiry and iterative discovery called the scientific method.
The scientific method has a number of key steps that can be described in different ways, but the main ones are to: make an observation, ask a question, conduct research, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, draw conclusions, and share the results.
I wondered: Could I adapt the scientific method to help me approach this school year in a way that feels grounded and methodical?
I decided to try. Here is what I came up with.
After I made this chart, I felt hopeful and energized. I love framing the pandemic school year as an experiment because it really is exactly that. No one has ever started an academic year in exactly this context at exactly this time. No one is an expert. We are all experimenters.
I also love thinking of each iteration of the experiment lasting a week. A week is long enough to limit the noise of daily ups and downs. It is also short enough that it feels doable, even if things start to go sideways.
Here’s how applying this scientific method framework looks for me as I prepare for back-to-school:
I observe that my older son will begin his kindergarten year in distance learning at his public elementary school. My younger son will begin his first year of preschool with a secular, nature-based homeschool curriculum. He will also be doing distance learning via his public school special education plan.
The guiding question for the experiment, for me, is how can my young kids have a good experience in school? For my particular family, a good experience means having a sense of growing competence at and good feelings about school.
Research indicates that young kids have the best adjustment to kindergarten when they exhibit self-regulation and other social-emotional skills.
My hypothesis is that if I support self-regulation and social-emotional skills, my children will have a good experience in school. I further hypothesize that I can support self-regulation by keeping my children on a schedule, creating dedicated school space, and staying in good communication with my children’s teachers about expectations and accommodations.
When school starts later this week, we get to test my hypothesis. Each week, I will notice how regulated my children stay during the day and their attitudes about school. When I was studying post-traumatic stress disorder treatments, we had to gather data in a rigorous way, in anticipation of uncovering findings that could survive peer review. In this case, I will remind myself I don’t need to be rigorous like that. I can just notice things like “I feel good about this week” or “This week went badly.”
I’ll share these observations with their teachers and their dad. Together, we’ll iterate.
* * *
This Thursday, my young children begin their own Great Pandemic School Year Experiments. I can’t know exactly what their school years will bring. But I can approach whatever happens with a sense of curiosity and discovery — just like a scientist.
A version of this essay was also published in Forge.