"Ordinary magic in extraordinary times" text

Ordinary magic in extraordinary times

What does history and research teach us about what we can expect for the COVID-19 generation, after enduring a crisis like no other?

“Don’t touch that!”—words that every parent has said but probably never as frequently as during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March 2020, we all started saying it, and living it, a lot more.

“Don’t touch that doorknob!”

“Don’t grab that package!”

“Don’t hug your friends!”

“Don’t hug your grandma!”

The list of don’ts changed as the CDC learned more about the virus and provided updated guidelines. With a disease that spreads so easily from person to person, these were necessary warnings, but no less heartbreaking for children. No, we probably didn’t have to worry about those cardboard packages from Amazon or wiping groceries from the store with Clorox—but yes, we really did need to stay 6 feet apart from those who didn’t live with us.

Worrying about our children is nothing new. All parents and loved ones do it. Parents spend countless nights awake thinking through all of the ways that the world and its people could hurt their children, but this pandemic, and the physical separation that came with it, added another layer to these fears. It’s left us all asking, “Will the kids be alright?”

During a time with rules that kept children from their friends, classmates, and teachers—a world that has encouraged new barriers—it is not a question of if this period will have long-term effects, but rather how detrimental they will be. Research on long-term implications will take years, but we can look at current children alongside human development during previous once-in-a-generation disasters to get an idea of how they will both survive and thrive in the present and in the future.

The ways that children cope and absorb changes and trauma into their lives is both inspiring and noteworthy. Alice Fothergill, a disaster researcher who focuses on oft-overlooked children during crises, writes, “Disasters last a really long time in the lives of children. Rather than ‘bouncing back,’ as many adults seem to expect, children incorporate trauma into their growth and future lives. Unfortunately, adults don’t usually consider that in their policy creations, especially when it comes to dealing with crises. People are talking about vulnerability, but they are not talking about children at all,” she said.

According to Fothergill’s 2017 study, kids experience the general atmosphere of anxiety and panic as acutely as adults do, only they might be better at hiding it. That fact might lead to the assumption among adults that children are somehow naturally “resilient” and can bounce back easily. And that belief from adults has the ability to dampen proactive attempts to help children process what’s happening and provide necessary therapeutic efforts during and after a disaster.

Terry Webster, Ph.D., dean of the School of Human Development at Pacific Oaks College, agrees that this resilience is an opportunity—full of strength and challenges. “Resilience is a dynamic process, a dynamic system, that allows for humans to adapt successfully to threats and adversity,” she explains. “While early research in resilience focused on the identification of risk factors that could contribute to poor outcomes in children, current perspectives utilize a strengths-based approach and examine the positive or protective factors that are indicative of good outcomes. While once viewed as an extraordinary or rare personality trait, resilience has been shown to be quite common in human development. In fact, several researchers refer to resilience as the ‘ordinary magic’ that emerges when children’s systems of support are available and stable.”

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Teaching ordinary magic

In earlier traumas, the appearance of stable, older family members to help guide future generations has been key. However, during COVID-19, this support system was tragically cut off. Worried about children passing along the virus to our elderly population, many families physically distanced from grandparents and elderly family and friends—a necessary precaution considering more than 60% of those who have died from COVID-19 in the U.S. have been 75 or older, and almost 80% have been age 65 or older.illustration of child with mask

When we look at the ways that previous generations have made it through trauma—from slavery to the Great Depression, the Holocaust, Hurricane Katrina, and 9/11, most researchers and human development experts agree that the insight gleaned from older generations is passed down through both oral tradition and even biology.

Carlene Fider, Ph.D., Human Development core faculty member explains, “When one thinks about slavery and the impact that is still present in Black families, one gets a glimpse of the variety of ways that this type of trauma might be manifested in the lives of children. What research suggests makes the difference are the opportunities to process this trauma in healthy ways following the traumatic experience. If the environment the child is placed in provides support, encourages optimism, healthy conversation, and healthy expression of feelings, children have more of a chance at more positive results. The adults who are responsible for caring for the child help shape how generation-defining trauma is incorporated and expressed as well as its connection to the resilience that the child displays.”

One of the key ways to abate unhealthy trauma responses is connection and community. Even if children don’t have access to their elders directly, encouraging this respect and community with those around them is vital.

“Research has shown that human attachment lies at the core of resilience. Parents and other important caregivers can buffer many of the negative stressors associated with the pandemic. However, the need for social distancing has disrupted family support networks, placing many children and families at greater risk,” Dr. Webster says.

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The disparities

Not to be overlooked is the way that the COVID-19 pandemic has not just revealed but rather magnified socioeconomic disparities in every sector. From health care to child care, the systems throughout our current world have shown themselves to be far from equitable, with children facing much of the brunt of this discrepancy.

Socioeconomic inequalities will only continue to grow as children in low-income communities are already experiencing the ramifications of online-only learning. Online learning requires resources including internet and computer access as well as an adult to supervise and assist. An Urban Institute study revealed that among all working parents, only about four in 10 can do at least part of their jobs from home. However, working parents with incomes at or above the poverty line are more than twice as likely to be able to work from home as working parents with lower incomes. With parents who may not be able to take off time to assist with remote learning, Black and Latinx children are expected to bear a heavier burden from this disaster.

In Los Angeles, 15% to 20% of English learners, students in foster care, students with disabilities, and homeless students didn’t access any of the district’s online educational materials from March through May 2020.

“Families that were marginalized and disenfranchised before the pandemic are at a particularly higher risk of being unable to rebound for obvious reasons, not to mention access to food and clean water,” Dr. Fider says.

Predictions from Feeding America suggest  that 50 million Americans and 17 million children have experienced food insecurity because of the pandemic. Social class, race, gender, neighborhood, resources, and networks often determine the future trajectory of children. In other words, no matter how resilient children may be, the resiliency of their young age intersects with other factors.

“Cracks in the educational system set vulnerable children back even further. Because we could not have predicted the cascading psychological and economic impact of an ongoing pandemic, what recovery’s impact on children will be is unclear. Advocacy, creativity, and meaningful actions in addressing disparities must be advanced as we move forward,” Dr. Webster says.

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A magical hope

For young children, so many experiences are new, and as such, they adjust quickly. Wearing masks and physical distancing, while awkward at first, has become part of their day to day. Judy Krause, Ed.D., current director of academics at Pacific Oaks College & Children’s School, says that at the Children’s School, the students faced this particular challenge without pause.

“When the Children’s School reopened in September, we weren’t quite sure what to expect,” Dr. Krause says. “What I noticed was that the children who were new to preschool looked at this as normal. For them, they haven’t known anything different: Mom signs them in at the gate and answers some COVID-19 questions, the teacher takes their temperature, and then the children sanitize their hands and walk to their classroom. For returning children, it took them a few weeks to get used to the new routines; however, they too made a smooth transition.”

Development is an ongoing process—children can and will recover from various hardships throughout their lives, even this current crisis—which gives us reason to be hopeful. With great care and understanding, as a society, we will see this generation reveal many strengths and capabilities that we may not have understood before.

“It is important to acknowledge and not overlook children’s intrinsic curiosity. Youth and their families can discover unknown talents, which allows children to exert agency in the face of the unknown,” Dr. Webster adds. “This, and family closeness, have been identified as potentially positive outcomes from the pandemic, with my own son and his wife expressing how they’ve gotten to know their toddler in ways that they probably would not have without these stay-at-home orders.”

Another benefit will be likely be long-term technology and digital understanding. We all know that increased globalization calls for tech-savviness in order to be successful, and now more than ever young children are learning very early how to live an online lifestyle.

As Dr. Krause has seen in her own classroom, virtual learning adds to learning, not merely substituting the child’s experience.

“During the quarantine, the teachers provided virtual instruction. In preschool that is meeting times where they sing, dance, and read stories. The teachers also provided material lists and conducted science experiments together or created art projects,” she says. “I think that for those who have had virtual learning during this time, the quality of those virtual experiences will affect their learning. Children could come out of this with a gap in their learning, or they could come out unscathed. Our brains are pattern seeking, so the children who have stuck to a pretty regular schedule will probably do better than those who have unfortunately experienced chaos.”

With or without a pandemic, as adults, we’ve never been able to completely control the outside forces that affect our children. That’s why Pacific Oaks has been devoted for more than 75 years to helping raise children to be good stewards of their communities, with the necessary tools to ensure a hopeful, inclusive future. It is no doubt that this pandemic will have long-lasting effects—both negative and positive—on all of us. But as we move forward, we must believe that by providing support and love to the children around us, we will continue to work together through this and beyond.

“Resilience occurs on a spectrum, in that a child may prove to be resilient in one area of their life and not as resilient in other areas. The upside is that resilience can be learned during and following challenging times,” Dr. Fider says. “Over time, these skills of resilience can become part of a toolkit for coping that children can utilize throughout the windstorms of their lives. This is where adults in the child’s life can become intentional about introducing and supporting behaviors that encourage resilience.”illustration of children in masks


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