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Closing COVID’s other learning gap

March 23, 2022

UM-Dearborn alum and school superintendent Youssef Mosallam talks about how his district is helping kids adjust socially and emotionally as they return to in-person learning.

A collage graphic showing students with pensive looks on their faces, and a student and teacher having a serious conversation.
A collage graphic showing students with pensive looks on their faces, and a student and teacher having a serious conversation.
Graphic by Violet Dashi

Youseff Mosallam, the superintendent of Crestwood School District in Dearborn Heights, enjoys coaching Little League in his spare time. When kids started coming back to the sport after COVID triggered low participation and outright season cancellations, he noticed some things seemed a little off. There were 9-year-olds who hadn’t learned to play catch yet. A lot of them were struggling with even basic stuff ⁠— like when the coach is talking, you shouldn’t be. Some didn’t seem to understand what it meant to “line up” or “pair up.” To Mosallam, it was pretty clear what was going on: Agewise, they may have looked like Little Leaguers. But two years of a pandemic pause meant that they were younger when it came to what they knew about baseball — and, in some cases, life.

A portrait of Youssef Mosallam
A portrait of Youssef Mosallam
UM-Dearborn alum Youssef Mosallam

There’s been a lot written about kids falling behind academically during the pandemic, and some of the recent studies and surveys show some pretty alarming gaps. An analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company found that, on average, K-12 students were about five months behind in math and four months in reading at the end of the ‘21 school year, with low-income and majority Black schools often facing even wider gaps. But Mosallam thinks the losses in social and emotional development are likely even larger. “The thing I often reference to make this point, and it kind of blows people’s minds, is a sixth grader coming back to school this year, the last time they were in a normal school environment was fourth grade,” he says. “For sophomores in high school, they were eighth graders before COVID. Think about that. These are critical years where kids do a lot of growing up, and they basically faced two years where they weren’t around friends, two years where they weren’t learning how to get along with people, two years they missed learning how to be social beings.” Compounding the problem, Mosallam says, they became much more digital beings during that time. Kids’ communication became much more mediated by technology, especially social media, and as they’ve returned to school, he’s seeing parallels to what he saw on the baseball field. Many students seem to have trouble expressing their emotions outside of texting or chat. Roughly half of the problems between students at school now grow directly out of something someone said on social media. 

Mosallam says what he’s seeing amounts to a “second learning gap” that educators now have to find ways to address. And he thinks some ideas he brought to Crestwood pre-pandemic are now proving vital to helping kids make the social transition back to in-person learning. He actually came into the job preaching that social and emotional health had to be seen as a component of learning — and bearing a plan to make it one of his top three priorities, along with “numeracy” and “literacy.”  “At our schools, 82 percent of our students are considered ‘at risk.’ Many are English language learners. They’re dealing with poverty. In many ways, their priority is survival. And it’s my view, and we have research that demonstrates this, that literacy and numeracy are important, but if we don’t get past the firewall of social and emotional needs of children, it doesn’t matter how good your instruction is.” 

The strategy at Crestwood centers around something called restorative practices, an alternative approach to conflict resolution that deemphasizes punishment and traditional discipline and emphasizes giving kids tools to learn from their mistakes. Take a student being disruptive in class, for example. In the old days, they might have been told to go sit in the hall, given detention, or sent to the office. At Crestwood today, the teacher will first give the student two in-class “redirects.” Then, if they continue to be disruptive, the teacher asks to meet them in the hallway under a sign that reads “Conversation Area.” There, they’ll ask the student some questions intended to get some self-reflection going, e.g. Do you understand why I asked you to talk? Do you see how this affects me and everyone else in the class? Why do you feel like you’re being disruptive? A lot of the time, Mosallam says this is enough to get the student back on track for the day, though if the disruptions continue, the teacher can ask a student to leave the classroom. But even then they’re not sent to the principal’s office. Instead, they go talk with a counselor, social worker (if they have one they’re already working with), or a trained restorative practices practitioner. As in the hallway, the moment is viewed as an opportunity to talk about what’s going on and teach the student some life skills that could help them do better next time. Mosallam says the goal is to resolve almost all conflicts in this way, saving trips to the assistant principal’s office only for “Tier 3” situations, like physical fights that are immediately dangerous.

The core idea behind these kinds of restorative practices is that traditional discipline isn’t always the best answer to a situation in either the long- or the short-term. Instead, by directly exploring what’s going on in their students’ lives — and giving them tools to cope with conflict — they can help them grow as social beings and set them up to avoid conflict in the future. Faced with the heavy social-emotional burdens of the pandemic, Mosallam says Crestwood is leaning heavily on its restorative practices strategy as kids have rolled back to the classroom. Using some of their COVID relief funding, they doubled the number of school social workers and psychologists, hired additional restorative practice professionals, and provided every teacher in the secondary schools with restorative practices training. Early in the school year, they also held “circle up” sessions at the beginning of class that specifically addressed the transition back to in-person school. Facilitated by a teacher, social worker or restorative practices professional, the sessions gave kids practice in talking about their emotions without any technological meditation. Mosallam says it also gave them a chance to find commonality in their experiences, which has helped students from diverse backgrounds see that “they were all in this together.”

For sure, it hasn’t always been easy. He knows asking teachers to take this approach to their students’ social and emotional needs is asking more of them at a time when many feel maxed out. And Mosallam says some parents and teachers still have an appetite for the old way of doing things, as consequences and discipline sometimes feel like more immediate solutions. But he believes that, particularly at this moment, we’ll benefit from using a more nuanced set of tools. “I think much of the effort we’re investing, you might not see the effects of right away,” he says. “We’re talking about building up our students as human beings, and that’s complicated. In education, we’ve been conditioned to want immediate results — and I think we will see measurable results, and we are tracking those quantitatively and qualitatively. But it’s going to take time and patience. Every child’s path to a successful life, which I believe is possible, is different. We have to meet them where they’re at. And especially right now, with everything they’re facing, that means being creative, and forgiving, and treating them like the individuals they are.”

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Story by Lou Blouin

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