Kids pick up on a lot more than many adults realize. And the messages that they receive—even those that grownups don’t intend to send—can leave a lasting mark on their lives.
So when parents upset about pandemic policies or curriculum decisions threaten violence on social media or shout so much they interrupt school board meetings, what are children learning from that behavior?
And what about when parents take things even further, by showing up to campus during the school day to protest in person?
These incidents disrupt peace of mind for students and educators, says Ronn Nozoe, CEO of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. The organization recently issued a petition demanding more federal protection against hostility from parents and community members.
“These things have a profound negative effect on the culture and climate of the school and people’s perception of school as a safe haven,” Nozoe says. “These things can go from quiet to safe to really, really scary in a heartbeat. A panic situation can ensue.”
Longer-term, strife over school policies may shape the political attitudes of today’s students as they grow up, says J. Celeste Lay, an associate professor of political science at Tulane University. It’s too soon to say exactly how, she says, and it may differ for each student.
“Our research indicates even young children are internalizing the environment they see around them—for good or bad,” Lay says.
‘Everybody’s On Eggshells’
Conflict about school policies, such as whether masks should be mandated in school buildings, has been heating up during the pandemic, to the point that school leaders are seeking federal help. In addition to the principals’ petition, the National School Boards Association recently sent a letter to the White House requesting support dealing “with the growing number of threats of violence and acts of intimidation occurring across the nation.”
Principals are well-practiced at managing difficult situations and parent concerns, Nozoe says, but lately, conflict has escalated, leading to extraordinary scenes. He shared several examples but declined to provide names out of concern for educators’ safety.
At a high school in Arizona, according to Nozoe, multiple people occupied the front office for several hours, demanding that a student who had been quarantined be allowed back in class. Some of the protestors were arrested, and the school’s principal is being harassed online.
At another school, Nozoe says, a parent entered the building and demanded the school nurse exempt her son from having to wear a mask. The parent would not leave until escorted away by the school resource officer.
“It’s really scary and completely unacceptable,” Nozoe says. “Kids have witnessed it or heard about it. Staff are worried it’s going to happen again. Everybody’s on eggshells.”
These interventions also may be counterproductive to achieving what some protesting parents say that they want: a return to “normal” learning conditions for their students.
“The last thing they should be doing is causing disruption at a school that causes lockdowns and interrupts the learning,” Nozoe says. “They’re actually preventing that from happening by causing these disruptions.”
‘They Are Picking Up On That Conflict’
What children learn from school about being a citizen and participating in society extends far beyond the material presented to them in lessons. Going to school is often the first and longest-lasting experience kids have with a government institution. Experts say that means schools strongly influence the attitudes and behaviors that kids develop about other government institutions.
“Not everyone goes to public school, but the vast majority go to publicly funded institutions for school. They spend all day there, from the age of five or so all the way through 18,” Lay says. “The frequency of exposure, the length of the exposure each day, and the number of years of exposure has really profound effects.”
Just as the treatment that kids receive at schools can color their later ideas and actions, what they see parents do can strongly shape their perceptions, too.
“The models that we see in terms of how parents and other adults in our world interact with those institutions tells us a lot about what we can expect,” says Kelly Siegel-Stechler, a senior researcher at the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. “If they’re engaged in schools or there’s a powerful PTA, that can be really positive. If there’s an antagonistic relationship or sense of disconnect, that can be really disaffecting, and lead to lower self-efficacy for youth.”
Although it’s too early for researchers to measure, Lay says it’s likely that kids are learning from how some adults are expressing their concerns about education and the pandemic “in a way that is not healthy for society.” Children may be picking up behaviors about how to respond to stress, how to react to people with whom they disagree, or attitudes about teachers that have shifted from positive to negative during the health crisis.
“Right now in one of these communities that are very anti-mask and have big protests at school board meetings, they’re picking up on that divisiveness,” Lay says. “In some cases this has spilled into violence and verbal conflict, yelling and name-calling. Especially teenagers and adolescents, they are picking up on that conflict.”
Yet not every child will learn the same lesson from the discord. What kids take away depends on their identities, as well as on the beliefs and behaviors of the adults in their homes and neighborhoods. Prior research suggests that if children identify as political minorities in a community, they will grow up to be less interested in politics and quieter in political discussions, Lay says. And a kid whose relative died of COVID-19, for example, may draw a different meaning from a school board battle about masks than a kid whose parent is leading the protest.
While political scientists ponder the future, school leaders are busy trying to keep learning happening day-to-day. Nozoe says that parents are welcome at school to the extent that they act as good role models—“not to cause a ruckus, a huge commotion, and scare everyone in the building.”
“If people were willing to come to the table and have safe, orderly conversations that model for kids, ‘This is how adults behave—this is how we can agree to disagree and be civil and still address our points,’ that’s what every school is seeking to do,” Nozoe says.
For now, principals say they’re more worried about rowdy behavior from adults than from students.
“I talk to school leaders all the time. They all say the same thing: The kids are fine. They are resilient,” Nozoe says. “They don’t always comply, but they get it.”
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