Let's Stop Stressing About Our Kids 'Falling Behind'

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Let's Stop Stressing About Our Kids Falling Behind
Scary Mommy and Vladimir Godnik/Getty

Face it: the end of last school year, and at least the first half of this one, are irredeemably f*cked. Last year, everyone scrambled to develop some sort of desperate curriculum for virtual learning with no training whatsoever. We lost track of kids. We didn’t know if we’d go back, and if we’d go back when that would happen. People worried about their kids falling behind.

This year, teachers have had a bit of training, but they’ve still faced The Great Zoom Outage at the end of August and Microsoft Teams, a program many schools use in lieu of Zoom, broke down the day after Labor Day (I know because my husband’s a public school teacher, and I watched it happen in real time). Children have been reduced to tiny faces on a screen. My husband has to use Bluetooth headphones to teach, and while many of the programs he uses work fine, he faces technical malfunctions daily. This is not normal school. These are not normal times. And still, parents worry about their children falling behind.

Behind what, exactly?

What Does “Falling Behind” Mean?

Let me start out with one important clarification: I’m talking about neurotypical children here who don’t require extra educational accommodations. For kids with special needs or learning difficulties, a learning gap is a whole different ball game, and I recognize how worrisome that could — and should — be for their parents.

For his neurotypical students, my husband still has to administer benchmark testing and see if they are working on “grade level.” What does that mean? Who determines what’s appropriate for every single child to know at every single age? I taught my eight-year-old to read three times before it stuck. My 10-year-old can read a college level book on cryptozoology but has trouble identifying a simile. Is he “falling behind” because some curriculum says he should be able to identify a simile in fourth grade instead of fifth? Is my eight-year-old “falling behind” because he didn’t learn to read until he was ready?

But child-directed learning aside, when people say they worry their child is “falling behind,” they mean they worry their child is falling behind the norm.

What norm? We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. There is no norm.

You are comparing your child, who’s stressed out, anxious, probably isolated from friends, and learning from a virtual teacher instead of a person in a classroom, to a normal set of children who were without enormous stressors, had plenty of time to play with friends, and learned from a person who could kneel down to their level and explain a multiplication problem. Even if your kid has returned to brick-and-mortar school, the precautions and stress take their tool.

So when we say our kids are “falling behind,” we’re holding them up to arbitrary standards developed with normal school conditions in mind.

Does that sound absurd yet?

If Everyone Is Falling Behind…

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I have a friend who’s desperate to send her kids to preschool. She worries that if she doesn’t, they’ll be “falling behind.” Another plops her kindergartener in front of a screen for three hours a day. So many parents are so worried. What will happen when they go back to normal schooling? Will their kids be behind?

Yes. Yes, by traditional standards and measurements used by your state Department of Education, your child may be falling behind.

But guess what? So are their classmates.

Teachers are doing their best, but they can’t make up for the enormous limitations they face. Kids are falling behind. My kid. Your kid. Everyone’s kid. And if everyone is “falling behind,” then why are you stressing, parents? The kids will all have learning gaps when school comes back to normal. Every child, in every grade, will almost certainly have learning gaps. And if everyone’s falling behind, no one’s leaping ahead. So why are you worried?

Stop The Stress

If your kid’s in virtual school, you have to deal with new teachers, and learning packets, and work that must be completed under your supervision. You may feel, then, like their falling behind is some kind of reflection on your inability to teach them properly. Their schoolwork may cause you more anxiety than them: are you helping them to do it right? You’re worried about the present.

And you’re worried about the future. How will falling behind during COVID-19 affect their grades when school starts again? How will it affect them later down their school careers: when your elementary school kid hits middle school, when your middle schooler hits high school, when your high schooler is applying to colleges? Will they have significant knowledge gaps that prevent them from working on grade level?

Maybe. Probably.

But so will everyone else.

Teachers will have to backtrack. They’ll have to work with what they have— and if that means teaching things kids “should have learned” earlier, then they’ll do that. When school starts again, every teacher will expect that students coming to them have been “falling behind,” having endured a tough time in which school wasn’t happening normally. Therefore, those teachers (if they’re good teachers) will not have the same expectations for the children in their classes. They won’t expect the same knowledge base. They won’t expect the same skills. They will adjust their curricula accordingly.

So chill out.

Yes, you’re worried. This is the pandemic: we worry about everything, because everything is new and life can be frightening. But when it comes to your kids falling behind, stop worrying. They’re in the company of just about everyone else. We need to let it go. We need to lose the stress.

That Doesn’t Mean We’re Giving Up

Kids still need to learn, and teachers will still teach them. They will still have expectations that children should meet. But those expectations should be tempered by the situation that shackles them. Teachers are doing the best they can to make sure kids learn as much as possible. Parents are working hard to reinforce those lessons.

But your kid very well may not hit “the norm.”

Your kid might, by regular school standards, be falling behind.

So is everyone else’s kid, so lose the stress. Work hard, but don’t work yourself into a frenzy. Ditch the worry. This will all work out eventually. Most kids will learn what they need to learn to live as functioning adults. Don’t give up. But don’t turn it into a battle. Don’t make this a fight. Worry about you and your child’s mental health before you worry about long division. They’ll learn long division eventually. This isn’t going to affect their chances of getting into college someday. They don’t need one added stressor— this idea of “falling behind.”

Ditch it. It’s not helping you. It’s not helping your kids. It’s only adding to your pandemic stress. And god knows we need less of that.

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