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Supporting students in the time of COVID-19.

Meeting Students’ Needs Amidst COVID-19

May 08, 2020 2020-05-08

By Diana M. McGhee

I began my education career in 1985—and if you’ve done the math, you realize that this year marks my 35th in the education profession. During that time, I’ve seen technology move from having one mimeograph machine in the teacher workroom to copiers or printers in multiple locations throughout a building. I remember having access to one electric typewriter stationed in a communal space to type tests or quizzes and now everyone has access to his/her own device that can be taken home for administering quizzes online. Throughout my years in education, I was exposed to many curriculum changes and strategies from education theorists, such as Piaget, Bloom, Gardner, and Hunter, that showed teachers various ways to better educate youth and address ever-changing needs. Most teachers today will agree that to succeed as an educator, you need a toolbox that can pull from all of the above.

But I am not at all sure anything could have prepared me, or anyone, for educating under our current mandatory stay-at-home conditions. All of the theories, strategies, and tactics we learned through the years suddenly seem not as helpful as perhaps they once were. In peeking into my toolbox, only one theory stands out in our current environment: Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which transcends both time and shifts in educational strategies.

The one constant I’ve seen in my education career is that children are still children. Many times, they are children first and students second. Our students—the ones who rely on us to teach and guide them—will always have the same basic human needs we learned about when studying Maslow’s hierarchy, and those needs (especially the first three), if not met, will interfere with productive learning.

Physiological needs
Sadly, we all know that many students rely on schools to provide at least one, sometimes two, balanced meals each day. How are we assuring that our children are being fed while they are learning from home? My district has been fortunate to be able to continue to provide meals to those most in need. Other districts have been able to provide meals to all students, not just those who qualify for the federal lunch program. This effort, while perhaps not visible to those of us working from home, helps nurture that physiological need and ensures students will be able to participate in learning from home on stomachs that are not empty.

Along those lines, reminding parents that children function best when on a set schedule is important. Even though no school bell rings every morning, waking children up at the same time and imposing the same bedtime that was present during “regular” school will help students keep a steady schedule and guarantee that they meet another important physiological need: sleep.

Lastly, remember that humans are a lot like plants. We need sunlight and water to thrive. Not all of education needs to be focused on learning inside. When possible, we need to allow and encourage children to spend time outside, whether to run around in the backyard, to simply take a break, play sports with their siblings, or just sit outside to read or do school work. This, of course, comes with the caveat that they learn outside at a safe social distance from others. Vitamin D helps balance blood sugar and allows hormones to flow naturally. This is important for students in normal life, but especially in a time filled with crisis and uncertainty.

Safety and Security
After physiological needs are met, students desire safety and security. They need order, predictability, and control in their lives. Given today’s national climate, I imagine this area is of great concern for parents and teachers alike. What do our students really know and understand about COVID-19? How has that information affected their abilities to learn from home? Reminding students of safety measures imposed by local government is one way to help students feel safe from the virus. Most children older than four understand today that they can’t go to restaurants or movies, have to keep their hands to themselves, have to wash their hands regularly, and when they go outside they have to stay away from others. Not keeping information from students prepares them to understand and feel confident in knowing what’s happening. Teachers can wear masks during video lessons or ask students if they’ve washed their hands in the last hour. Modeling expected behavior for students has always been an important method of good teaching and that doesn’t stop because we are educating from home.

Love and Belonging
The third level of human needs is the need to belong, the need for interpersonal relationships, and being part of a group. For three-fourths of this school year, students hopefully felt part of something—whether a player on a basketball team, a member of the student council, or simply part of class. With stay-at-home routines, those same students may not feel like they belong to anything. While teaching and learning from home, this need is really hard to meet but it should still be a priority. Using tools that provide a way to stay connected is one way. We can use programs such as Google Meets or Microsoft Teams for online chats or video conferencing, or we can record a morning audio message that students will hear before beginning their work. When students see your smiling face on camera or hear your voice through a podcast, their feelings of belonging are sparked once more, and those feelings will lead to better engagement, even from a distance.

Let’s not forget that we, as adults, have these needs too. While you are teaching from home, remember to take breaks (eat, exercise, pet your dog) and connect with your colleagues. I believe that all of us can learn a lot about ourselves and our profession through this pandemic. Maybe this situation that has forced us to change how we teach might help us rethink what we do when we go back to the classroom. My colleague, Heidi Neltner (@heidinelt), tweeted it best:

“I kind of hope that NTI [nontraditional instruction] leads people to see that the kids are going to be ok if seat hours are reduced and kids can get to spend some time just being kids—more recess, more breaks, more time to connect in person.”

Diana M. McGhee began her teaching career in 1985 and has grown up alongside technology’s use in classrooms. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Education from the University of Kentucky with a minor in journalism, communications, and speech and a Master of Arts in English Education and Rank I in secondary guidance and counseling from Eastern Kentucky University and a director of pupil personnel certification from Xavier University. You can find Diana on Twitter.

Social-Emotional Learning Health/Fitness

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Oscar S.
May 20, 2020 at 9:48:47 am

I appreciate that this post frames the conditions for productive learning around the hierarchy of human needs. This is a needed reminder to many of us who are pulled into conversations on how to make distance learning "work" and which "tech service" provides the best solution. Thank you.

Glenda Myers
May 12, 2020 at 7:10:46 pm

Wonderfully written and easily understood- feeling proud and knowing all areas need to be addressed! Thanks!

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