Are there 2020 silver linings?
It depends on your perspective. It is easy to focus on the challenges – the illness and death, the social inequities, the digital divide highlighted by a nation forced into remote education. But if you look more closely at 2020, there are some silver linings, many of them in education.
After more than two decades in public education, one of my greatest challenges is convincing students and families that wellness and overall well-being is not an extra, but that it is core to any sort of academic progress. Unfortunately, it is these ideas that students and families are most likely to listen to with a sense of “that’s for everyone else, not me.” And while a segment of our society is hyper-focused on bringing kids on campus in medically questionable situations to “address their mental health issues,” I think all of us would be better off to focus on the 2020 silver linings first.
Embracing Carol Dweck’s concept of growth mindset has proven to improve student outcomes, yet parents and kids alike complain about not being smart enough, not about how hard they are working. Frank Bruni, in Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, tells you that successful adults basically never have linear life pathways, yet parents insist on helicoptering – or now snow-plowing – their kids from preschool to the workplace.
And Laurie Santos, the Yale professor who actually teaches happiness, is not the only voice reminding you that sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and mindfulness will improve your overall well-being much more than any material items – including college bumper stickers.
2020 Silver Linings for students and families:
Yet student after student, parent after parent assume that these experts are mistaken. Or that their advice is great for others, but not for their kid or their family. But as in so many other arenas, 2020 had other plans for you. And if you open your eyes, you’ll see these 2020 silver linings for yourself.
You have your time back:
By necessity, 2020 was less scheduled for most families than any of the previous ones. The pandemic brought to a screeching halt what has been called the “extracurricular Olympics.” The race to be president or captain of everything is impossible when nearly everything is on hold. This summer, there were basically no pricey, flimsy “internships” or “summer programs.” Instead, there was a shift to more grassroots – and arguably more meaningful – activities.
Hand-sewing masks, food distribution to those in need (beyond the typical “holiday” drives), and neighborhood PE pods and garage camps. Creatively supporting the most at-risk members of our society with Zoom concerts, porch gifts, and FaceTiming. And as we move towards an eventual future of living with this virus, it is my hope that children and teens will return only to those clubs, teams, and activities that bring them joy and fulfillment, and not those that serve only to lengthen their resumes or please their parents.
You are testing less:
By design, all standardized tests capture a moment in time. Whether a state-mandated test, an AP exam or the SAT, a test measures not just what you know, but where you are, what you ate – or didn’t eat, how you slept- or didn’t sleep, and how much or little negative stress you are managing at the time. These circumstances have worsened for most of the country, with a disproportionate effect on those who were already being disenfranchised by the tests: students of color, those with learning disabilities or mental health challenges, and those from schools who did offer extensive test prep.
You can redraw your social map:
Researcher Brene Brown draws a distinction between – fitting in, as in contorting yourself to fit in a specific social space, and belonging, as in come as you are, you are welcomed here. Without the “noise” of typical school social scenes, kids are connecting and doubling down on relationships with those who are “their people.” I have also heard from a surprising number of tweens and teens that the stress of not having to micromanage every inch of their physical appearance is a major win in Zoomland.
You can focus on what’s really important:
Author Madeline Levine’s new book, Ready or Not, outlines key areas for individuals who are preparing to launch themselves, and with all due respect to my colleagues, it is not the ACTUAL verb tenses, sine and cosines, and scientific reactions that will serve our students. Rather it is the ability to access information, connect with others, and adapt to a changing world. Levine specifically highlights digital literacy, data analysis, critical thinking and perseverance as key traits. Can you learn these in math or English or science class? Absolutely. And you can reinforce them in many other aspects of your life as well.
You have lots of right answers:
Post-secondary planning is another area where teens experience a lot of conflicting points of view. Contrary to the popular narrative, there is not a single “right answer” in the college search. In fact, if created thoughtfully, a student’s entire application list will be filled with potential “right answers.” I typically frame this as a situation in which I want all students to make a conscious choice about their plans in the spring of their senior year.
In some cases, that means broadening the selectivity of your list because you want to have choices in April not let all the choices be made by admission committees in December and March. In other cases, it means researching options so students can choose a community college that is a fit for them (fit is not only the domain of four-year colleges and universities – community colleges also offer a wide variety of programs, services, supports and even school calendars.)
And as Jeff Selingo so clearly puts it in his new book Who Gets in and Why?, why does it matter whether you get into the club if you hate the music playing inside? Apply that ethos to your college search and you will arrive at a much better fit for your life. And your bumper will learn to live with whatever that sticker says.
Autism Silver Linings: Lessons Learned in 2020 via The Piece of Mind Retreat