Tying shoes, opening bottles: Pandemic kids lack basic life skills

In a normal year, up to half of Christine Jarboe’s first-graders start school knowing how to tie their shoelaces.

But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the school hasn’t been normal for more than two years. So when Jarboe welcomed a fresh crop of Fairfax County Public Schools first-graders to her classroom this fall for their first full year of in-person learning, she made a disturbing discovery.

“You’d say, ‘Okay, can you show me how to tie your shoes?’ and most of them would just kind of look at me, like, really confused,” Jarboe said. “They really weren’t sure even where to start.”

It was one of many “missing skills” that Jarboe discovered among her students over the course of the semester. She expected them to show up behind where they should be in academic categories such as reading. But what she hadn’t counted on was that her children would prove unable to do things such as cutting along a dotted line with scissors. Or squeeze a glue bottle to release an appropriately sized dot. Or simply twist a plastic cap off and on.

In interviews with The Washington Post, teachers around the country shared that they were confronting similar problems, dealing with pre-kindergartners, kindergartners, and elementary-school students — as well as some middle-schoolers — who arrived unprepared for the school environment. Online learning left children, on average, four months behind in mathematics and reading before this school year, according to a McKinsey and Company study released in early April.

But children of the pandemic also are missing a more basic tool kit of behaviors, life skills, and strategies, including tying their shoelaces, taking turns on the playground slide, and sitting still in their chairs for hours at a time.

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“There’s a huge gap that goes beyond the academics, it has to do with social and emotional components and just how to behave in school,” said Dan Domenech, the executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. “That is something young kids have not learned.”

As these issues persist well into the 2021-2022 school year, frazzled teachers — who know they must address basic behavioral challenges before they can begin to make up academic losses — are becoming creative.

A New York City elementary school imported “non-traditional” seats, including squishy red beanbags, that allow children to wriggle and squirm during lessons. Staffers at an elementary school in Oakland, Calif., weary of conflicts during recess, are training fourth- and fifth-graders as “safety leaders” to mediate between peers. And in Philadelphia, two teachers created a “literacy buddy room” in which fifth-graders and kindergartners pair off to read together, building literacy and relational skills at the same time.

In Fairfax County, Jarboe has kicked off a weekly shoelace tying contest. She provides laces to students who wear Velcro or slip-on footwear, and hands out small hourglass sand timers so children can time themselves. Since Jarboe began the competition two months ago, improvement has been rapid: As of early April, 17 of her 20 students have learned to fashion and dismember double knots with aplomb.

On a recent Thursday morning, 6-year-old Lucy Massey, wearing a pink headband, pulled a foot up to the seat of her plastic chair. She bent over a pink Converse and gripped the two ends of a hot pink lace.

Christine Jarboe prepares her students for a shoelace-tying contest. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
The first-graders work on their shoe-tying skills. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

“Count me off,” she told two friends, and the girls began reciting, “One … two … three … ”

Lucy’s fingers flew: First the left shoe, then the right. She blew a strand of hair from her forehead. Her friends chanted, “20 … 21 … 22 …”

“Twenty-four!” cried Lucy, triumphant, pointing to two perfect double knots and raising both hands for a star athlete’s fist pump. “Pretty good, huh?”

‘Little bickerings and fights’

Jenna Spear first noticed problems during storytime.

Spear works as a teacher-naturalist for the Harris Center for Conservation Education in New Hampshire, visiting K-5 public schools in the state’s Monadnock region to educate students about nature. After a pandemic-imposed hiatus, she began visiting classrooms again this school year, offering lessons on topics as varied as birding and cartography.

Early on, she was watching a second-grade read-aloud when children began crushing forward, competing to be closest to the book. Spear sat back, feeling sad.

“Normally, when you read a story in second grade, kids know to sit down so everyone can see the pictures,” Spear said. “But you’d have kids standing in front, like right in front, of everybody.”

As the year continued, she observed other patterns. Children easily grew frustrated with one another in group settings. They struggled with the concept of taking turns, pushing each other out of the way to see a caterpillar she was holding in her palm. And, when Spears walked the children into the woods for her traditional “quiet minute challenge,” they were unable to stay still and silent for even 30 seconds.

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Frank Keil, a Yale professor of psychology who studies how children interpret the world, said these kinds of issues are to be expected after the nation’s youngest students were deprived of more than a year of in-person instruction. “A huge part of early schooling in the U.S. is being socialized, learning to sit still and listen quietly,” he said.

Being away from other children affected students from all socioeconomic backgrounds, Keil added: “Even affluent children coming from families in which dynamic back-and-forth conversations with peers and adults are the norm may need time to learn how to sit still and be more passive learners.”

In California’s Oakland Unified School District, principal Roma Groves-Waters said her first weeks and months overseeing Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School this school year were dotted with small troubles.

She said “little bickerings and fights” broke out on the playground far more often than happened before the pandemic. Spats happened in the classroom, too, as children were forced to sit alongside peers for six hours in a row. Hybrid learning, Groves-Waters noted, required 2 ½ hours of continuous attention at most.

Things were especially difficult for incoming first-graders, she said. For these students, who had never before set foot in a school, the concept of walking in a line between classes — while refraining from touching other children nearby — was wholly foreign.

“Also, the idea of not talking out of turn, it’s like, ‘Wait for your turn! You’ll get a turn!’” Groves-Waters said. “Those poor teachers, they really felt the effects of the pandemic.”

Things are improving, she said, in part because the school started holding meditation and yoga sessions before and after lunch and recess to help children unwind. And Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary teachers trained fourth- and fifth-graders as safety leaders, instructing them in the principles of mediation.

“They help resolve the student conflicts,” Groves-Waters said, “because kids talk to each other better.”

Behavioral issues, albeit of a different kind, also are arising among older students.

Virginia first-grade teacher Christine Jarboe works one-on-one with Clayton Rechenbach, 7, to improve his shoe-tying skills. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Sean O’Mara, who teaches eighth-grade social studies at Keene Middle School in New Hampshire, said his students this year have no idea how to carry on a class discussion. Many — more than before the pandemic — prefer to work independently and are reluctant to share their ideas with others, much less venture into a discussion.

O’Mara thinks this is a legacy of online learning.

“During Zoom meetings, a lot of kids would not want to turn their cameras on, so they sort of retreated into anonymity,” he said. “There is still a segment of our students who would prefer to be quiet and [be] observers.”

In response, he devoted class time to explaining how conversations work: What body language signals, what to be thinking about while someone else is talking, how to offer civil disagreement. At the start of the year, he spent up to 20 minutes per class per day on these instructions. Now, as his students get “into a groove,” he can get by with a brief reminder.

“But we’re heading toward the end of the year,” he said. “My eighth-graders have to transition into high school … before they ever really got to know what it means to be a middle-schooler.”

Reading buddies and letter-writing

Teachers across the country are adapting — as they have done throughout the pandemic.

Amy Barker, a kindergarten teacher at Robert Morris School in Philadelphia, had an idea this fall for tackling reading and behavioral problems in one swoop. Under the “Reading Buddy Program,” began in September, Barker’s 13 kindergartners spend a half-hour every Friday afternoon reading books with teacher Jessica Scherff’s 13 fifth-graders. The students pair off and, taking turns, pick their way through whatever text they choose.

“It’s sharing the love of reading, getting kids to really enjoy sitting down with a book instead of their phone,” Scherff said.

Students at the Robert Morris School participate in the “Reading Buddy Program” that pairs fifth-graders and kindergartners. (Jessica Scherff)
The fifth-graders and their kindergarten reading buddies at Robert Morris have become best friends. (Jessica Scherff)

“And it’s building the fifth-graders skills,” Barker added. “Without knowing it, they’re working on their literacy, and their comprehension, because the kindergartners are constantly asking them to explain.”

Both teachers said their students’ reading fluency has improved, the fifth-graders especially. And Tameron Dancy, the school principal, said the program has helped the older students gain social skills as well as self-esteem.

“When our older students are able to meet with, kind of take responsibility for, the younger ones, it just more rapidly develops that sense of leadership and responsibility in them,” she said.

The children also have become good friends, with the fifth-graders rushing to help the kindergartners open their milk cartons at breakfast. The program is going so well, Dancy said, that she wants to expand it to include first- and sixth-graders next fall.

And in Virginia’s Fairfax County, Jill Norris, a reading specialist at Stratford Landing Elementary, came up with her own way of teaching children that school should be enjoyable — adding a sprinkling of life skills along the way.

Norris, who enjoyed trading letters with her grandmother when she was a girl, turned her classroom into a post office. She placed a mailbox outside and promised students that if they left a letter in the box, she’d have a reply for them by the next morning.

A mailbox sits outside the classroom of Stratford Landing Elementary schoolteacher Jill Norris. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Jill Norris, who fondly recalls exchanging letters with her grandmother, looks over recent missives she received from students. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Norris has kept her promise, even though it has sometimes required up to two hours of letter writing in a night. She said the children’s handwriting and the substance of their letters have improved markedly over the course of the year.

“Dear ms. Norris” wrote a fifth-grade girl in a recent letter. “I know you need a Design for the reading room I got an idea you ShouD Paint it [with pictures of] books.”

“Dear Mrs. Norris,” wrote another student, a fourth-grade girl. “My Favorite Kind of books are graphic novels and I sometimes like Chapter books.”

“Dear Mrs. Norris,” wrote a second-grade boy, above a drawing of a cat. “I Love You.”

Some nights, Jill Norris has spent up to two hours answering her student’s letters. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)