The Scientific Framework I’m Using to Make It Through This Pandemic School Year

A young Asian girl is doing her homework at her desk.
A young Asian girl is doing her homework at her desk.
Photo: Jason Sung/Unsplash

Whenever I tell people that my oldest child begins remote kindergarten this month, they simply say, “I am so sorry.”

To be honest, my default response is to feel sorry for myself, too. This is not how I pictured my five-year-old entering his first year of elementary school and his almost-three-year-old brother starting preschool. Since March, I haven’t been able to shake the sense that I’m stuck in the wrong timeline. How am I going to manage the school days of two young kids, each with a special education plan and low daily tolerance for video chats? I feel as if I’ve been dropped into the woods and told to build a log cabin.

But while this kind of self-pity is common right now, it’s not helpful. It traps me in hopelessness, which isn’t a great place to live or to parent.

Recently, a friend who works in higher education said something that has been shifting my mindset. She was telling me about a talk that she gave to her university peers. “It is easy to find the negatives about this school year,” she told them. “It is difficult — and it will require leadership — to find the positives.”

As she said those words, I felt a warm thrum in my chest. While I’m not a school leader, I am a leader for my children. And I want to be brave and do what needs to be done. I knew I needed a new framework for thinking about our current situation. So I started reflecting back on the different approaches I’ve used to solve difficult problems during my time as a mental health researcher.

The scientific method is an approach for systematic inquiry used by many scientists. It’s an iterative process — a way to identify problems and keep making improvements. I decided to adapt it to help me approach this big, strange experiment — our pandemic school year — in a way that feels grounded and methodical.

The main steps of the scientific method are: make an observation, ask a question, conduct research, form a hypothesis, test the hypothesis, draw conclusions, and share the results. Here’s what the process looks like for me:

Infographic by the author, Emily P.G. Erickson, using a free template from Presentationgo

Observe

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 nature-based homeschool curriculum. He will also be doing distance learning via his public school special education plan.

Question

The guiding question, for me, is: How can my young kids have a good experience in school? For my family, a good experience means having good feelings about school and a sense of growing competence in what they’re learning.

Research

Research indicates that young kids have the best adjustment to kindergarten when they exhibit self-regulation and other social-emotional skills.

Hypothesis

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.

Test

Each week, I will notice my children’s attitudes about school and how regulated they stay during the day. I can just notice things like “I feel good about this week” or “This week went badly.” I like the time span of a week because it’s long enough to limit the noise of daily ups and downs, but short enough that it feels doable, even if things start to go sideways.

Share

I’ll share these observations with their teachers and with my husband. Together, we’ll iterate.

After I made this chart, I felt hopeful and energized. I love framing the pandemic school year as an experiment because it really is that. No one has ever started an academic year in exactly this context at exactly this time.

As my young children begin their own Great Pandemic School Year Experiments, I can’t know what their school years will bring. But I can approach whatever happens with a sense of curiosity and discovery — and, hopefully, lead my children to do the same.

Writer with a master’s degree in psychology. Helpful, science-backed writing about mental health, mindfulness, and motherhood. www.emilypgerickson.com

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