When Change for Kids stepped in to help elementary schools across NYC transition to distance learning, it became clear that kids needed connection, creativity, and self-expression more than anything else.

By Jessica Sloan
May 12, 2020
Little girl in front of the computer
Credit: La Bicicleta Vermella/Getty Images

As I sit down to write this piece, I hear the popular song lyrics playing in the back of my head: "What the world needs now is love sweet love." But this time love is not all that we need. It's also to feel normal. How do we make that happen during abnormal times?

For us adults, our worlds have been turned upside down. For some that means working from your home "office" with kids learning (or at times yelling) in the background. For others that may mean juggling parenthood in the midst of job loss and financial insecurity. And for many of us, it is navigating the unknown while balancing fear, instability, and mourning. This is by far the hardest thing many of us will experience in our lifetimes, even with fully developed brains that are ingrained with stress responses and coping mechanisms.

Can you imagine what it is like for our kids who do not have the same social-emotional and neurological capacities to process and cope?

When Change for Kids—a youth development organization that works in partnership with elementary schools across NYC—confronted the likelihood of having to transition its school-based programming to a digital platform we committed quickly. There was no question that we would find a way to continue to offer resources to some of NYC's most vulnerable youth, with or without a roadmap. We launched a brand-new, full-service virtual platform, CFK l Digital, in less than two weeks. Our plan was to provide a combination of recorded lessons and activities kids and families could access on-demand, as well as a variety of live virtual classes, including arts enrichment and academic support.

What we quickly uncovered—on top of the City's shortages of technology and the insurmountable systemic barriers most of the families with whom we partner face—was that we were wrong. Not only do kids not want another academic intervention, that is not what they need. To paraphrase a by-now viral quote from an unknown teacher—this is not homeschooling, it is crisis learning. And there is a huge difference all of us as adults need to recognize and embrace.

Kids have a hard enough time learning to self-regulate, control their bodies, and stay engaged when they are face-to-face with an adult trained to not only guide their academic journey, but support the development of their social-emotional competencies. Our brains, and especially theirs, are not made for processing information and social cues solely through a digital screen for extended periods of time without facing serious fatigue. Additionally, their daily routines, which usually include a lot of social interactions, have now been completely upended.

So, while our initial instinct was to supplement learning loss with both academic and enrichment supports, we quickly realized that what took precedence was the loss of human connection and the opportunity for kids to be kids. Young people need and deserve opportunities that inspire curiosity, exploration, and imagination. While learning is an integral part of development, one might argue that a sense of normalcy and safety through the familiar supersedes that.

With this realization, Change for Kids did just that. We changed for kids. We created a digital space that prioritizes imagination, self-expression, creativity, and connection to others. Screen time will never replace face-to-face connection, but while that remains our only form of engagement, we are committed to creating opportunities for kids to connect with their peers through activities that are entertaining, fun, and full of play and possibility.

As all of us continue to adapt during these uncharted times, we ask that you keep this in mind: This isn't normal life so why should we continue to place the same expectations on ourselves and others? Let's recognize that during this collective trauma we all face, there are other basic needs in addition to food and shelter that are not being met.

Kids and adults alike innately crave human connection, security through stability, and a sense of control—all of which are currently minimized drastically or completely suspended. While we can't replicate the ability to go outside and play with a friend, we can acknowledge the need for and the importance of play. While we can't hug a friend to show them that we care, we can create a virtual space to talk, to share, and to support. While we will never be able to give back these past few months of childhood, we can recognize the fragility of being young and also its awesomeness and make every effort to prioritize opportunities that, again, let kids be kids.

Jessica Sloan, M.A., is a NYC-based social impact leader, with a focus on and passion for mental health and social-emotional learning. She is currently the Senior Director of External Engagement at Change for Kids, a trailblazing nonprofit dedicated to overcoming inequity. Outside of work, you can find her out and about with her super cute dog and sidekick, Zimmie.