Commentary: COVID-19 restrictions keep our kids safe but their friendships take a hit
The best part of school is playing with our friends, eating with them at recess, going to the library and getting up to mischief. With safe distancing and strict separation according to class, some of those magical moments are lost, says mum June Yong.
SINGAPORE: My youngest boy started Primary 1 last year, just as the fight with COVID-19 was beginning.
It has been a year and a half and he finally feels like he has made friends.
While he occasionally talks about a few boys he liked in school, once post-circuit breaker COVID restrictions kicked in, the chance to interact with these friends dropped markedly and with that the chance to cultivate friendships.
Compared to my daughter, who is now in Primary 6, the boy has had a vastly different experience – everyone has to wear masks, safe distancing determines who sits where, how far apart they are and critically, how they cannot “cross-contaminate” – no mingling outside of their immediate class circles.
Once freely accessible spaces such as the library and the school field are now out of bounds, except for certain levels on certain days.
PE classes are subdued as pupils can only exercise at a distance. And there can be absolutely no singing during music lessons.
To be clear, everyone understands the need for safety protocols – especially when it is applied to children because those under 12 cannot be vaccinated and the fear of infection is not one to be dealt with lightly.
Yet, we cannot overlook the fact that this extraordinary time will impact children in ways even the most watchful eye might not pick out immediately.
For one, my youngest child appears less positive about school than his siblings. He has voiced out on numerous occasions, particular after Phase 2 began, that he would rather be home-schooled because school to him is much more restrictive.
For young children, friendship is heavily predicated on play. It’s the shared activities, playing catching on the field, looking for good books at the library, or wandering around the eco-garden and feeding fish that helps water the seeds of friendship.
Recess time is every primary school student’s favourite “subject”. But now that many schools have children sit according to their register numbers, some children may end up sitting further away from their best mates.
While one could argue that this helps to promote their adaptability, it also adds to the overall sense of loss of freedom and school, not the most fun of places to begin with, becomes ever duller.
School restrictions are not the only thing standing in the way of first friendships. There’s also the dearth of play dates and birthday parties in general, making it more difficult for the very young to build friendships outside of formal class settings.
In that sense, my 12-year-old was luckier.
Since Primary 1, she’s had the fortune of good friendships - every recess after gobbling up food with her mates they raced to the library to pick out good books to read and talk about.
And because these friendships were given time to bloom and take root, COVID restrictions are a small inconvenience – they still find ways to meet and hang out while abiding by safe distancing measures.
For her, school has always been fun because friends were a critical part of this equation. While there is academic stress to contend with and even more so now with PSLE just around the corner, the fact that she has good friends to face this major exam with makes a huge difference.
WHY FRIENDSHIPS IN SCHOOL MATTER
Research has shown that friendships are a vital part of growing up and facilitate healthy social and emotional development.
Experts say that in interacting with friends, children learn many social skills, such as how to communicate, cooperate, and solve problems. They practice navigating disagreements, reading others’ emotions while controlling their own, and the age-old art of give and take.
Friendships may even affect one’s self-confidence and ability to learn.
My 10-year-old remarked recently after working on a math assignment in school: “Before COVID, a few of us could work together and help each other out if we didn’t know how to do. Now, everyone just keeps quiet and does their own work.”
Listen to Minister of State Sun Xueling, counsellor Bettina Yeap and parent of four, Adrian Tan discuss school and stress:
Working in silo may be the cause of many a child’s struggle with home-based learning (HBL). In a paper on the effects of online learning for the American Psychological Association, therapist Heather Stringer argued that academic motivation and social development go hand-in-hand.
She writes: “One of the reasons parents may see some children skipping assignments or playing online games during a study hall period is linked to the fact that relationships at school inspire motivation for many kids.”
And maybe it’s not about peer relationships per se that helps motivate a child to do well in school, but the sense of belonging, safety, and trust the child feels.
It is this “social context of classrooms” we now need to pay greater attention to.
As education journalist Sarah Gonser writes in Edutopia: "The relationships with fellow learners, the sense of belonging and camaraderie … drive deeper academic engagement.”
Friends can also act as a ballast against rising academic pressure. Being able to find a few good friends whom you can commiserate with when the homework load gets high or when exams loom near is an intangible but crucial lifeline for many children.
Which is why Education Minister Chan Chun Sing’s recent announcement that school or nationwide HBL will not be the de facto response going forward has a lot going for it. But perhaps it is time to do more for children – so they don’t lose this vital support system of friendships.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR SOCIAL LEARNING REQUIRED
As my children’s experiences show, how well they cope with COVID restrictions and the barriers these place on friendship-building largely depend on how developed their social skills and existing friendships are.
As the country carefully navigates towards endemic living, this aspect of living should also be looked into.
We can start with something small: Give children the freedom to sit where they like at recess, as long as they keep to their designated class tables and conform to safety distancing measures.
Grant library access to students, class-by-class, during certain non-critical teaching periods, targeting especially the lower primary students.
MOE had announced that CCAs will be brought back for secondary schools and junior colleges, perhaps these can be reinstated at a smaller scale for primary schools too.
Group-work in select periods, with children working in groups of two or three can also make a huge difference. This might help to enhance children’s socio-emotional learning, while allowing those who are stronger in certain subjects to help the weaker ones.
SOCIAL SKILLS BUILDING BLOCKS TO FUTURE SUCCESS
COVID-19 has taken quite a toll on everyone and our schools are no exception. Teachers and school leaders have worked very hard to ensure that our children are kept safe.
But as the nation moves into endemic living, as international borders slowly open, it is also time that the barriers we’ve put in schools are dismantled – gently of course.
One can think of no better way a young child can cope in these troubled times than to be with friends. But before they can do that, they need a small sliver of freedom to make them.
June Yong is a mother of three, a freelance writer and owner of Mama Wear Papa Shirt, a blog that discusses parenting and education in Singapore.