Back To School Isn’t What It Used To Be

For most, this is back to school week. If you are a teacher reading this article, I encourage you to share it with parents of your students. This discussion is meant for all stake holders in children and their education. Children are returning to school campuses for the resumption of in-person instruction, or for a hybrid of in-person and distance learning. Which ever format your district is using, Covid-19 is still with us, and with it the added strain of separation from teachers and friends. Even where in-person instruction is entirely restored, masks, and social distancing which can include restricting class sizes, and large assembly meetings and events, hallmarks of inspirational and school spirit boosting activities, are likely and probably prudent. While these restrictions help protect the health of students, teachers, and parents, they are also constant reminders that things are anything but back to normal, and sources of anxiety that can threaten the mental health of many. So as we begin this new school year, parents, teachers, administrators and other school staff must be vigilant in watching for signs of mental abnormality, and be ready to intervene quickly at the first signs.

Adults frequently assume that children do not suffer from the same degree of mental stress as adults. Children are often referred to as “resilient” when commenting on their response to disruptions to the normalcies that provide safety and security. But research has shown that this is not so, and the anxieties brought about by Covid-19 bear this out. Consider that an estimated 40,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to Covid-19, and many children have had vital supports including school, health care services, and other community supports interrupted by the pandemic. Sadly, many have also experienced or witnessed increased racism and xenophobia during the pandemic, particularly toward families of Asian descent. Researchers in China found that instances of clinical depression increased 9% during the Covid-19 compared to before the outbreak began (Wagner, 2020). The emotional impact of the COVID-19 quarantine was assessed for children and adolescents from Italy and Spain.4 Participants included 1143 parents of children aged 3 to 18 years who completed a survey about the effects of the quarantine on their children, compared to before the home confinement period. The study found 85.7% of parents reported changes in their children’s emotions and behaviors during the quarantine. The most frequently observed changes were difficulty concentrating (76.6%), boredom (52%), irritability (39%), restlessness (38.8%), nervousness (38%), loneliness (31.3%), uneasiness (30.4%), and worries (30.1%) (Duan, 2020).

We know that students cannot show up to school ready to learn if they feel unsafe, uncared for, or are just unable to find a meal, things that many of those responsible for them can easily take for granted. But all we have to do is recall our undergraduate psych class, specifically Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, to realize that students readiness and ability to learn will be significantly impaired if their basic needs are not being met. And we saw last school year that the precautions and actions taken in response to the pandemic removed from children, and honestly parents and teachers too, the things that were meeting many of those needs before Covid.

Teachers and parents need to be watchful for signs that the unwelcome changes brought about in children’s lives by the pandemic are taking a toll on their mental health. The CDC recommends watching for:

  • Excessive crying or irritation in younger children.
  • Returning to behaviors they have outgrown (for example, toileting accidents or bedwetting).
  • Excessive worry or sadness.
  • Unhealthy eating or sleeping habits.
  • Irritability and “acting out” behaviors in teens.
  • Poor school performance or avoiding school.
  • Difficulties with attention and concentration.
  • Avoidance of activities enjoyed in the past.
  • Unexplained headaches or body pain.
  • Use of alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs.

If your child was receiving special education services in school, accommodations should be continued at home. For all children, think in terms of the family, not just the individual student, and find what works for your family and set your own goals: eating meals together, exercising, and staying connected with others while working on academic goals. If the child is learning entirely at home, it’s important that they stay connected to other family members to avoid trauma from unnecessary separation. Academic skills, like learning to break assignments in smaller parts, using an academic planner, and working on making smooth transitions from one activity to the next can be just as important as specific assignments.

Include opportunities for movement throughout the school day. Research has shown that learning is enhanced with physical movement. Children who remain seated, particularly in remote learning environments, do not learn as effectively as those who have the freedom to move. This doesn’t mean students should be running around or tossing a football while studying Mathematics, but walking within a learning space while thinking through a problem or composing an essay can be helpful. Another tool is to play relatively calm music in the background while students learn. This has a comforting effect on many children. Also, our brains perceive music as motion, even if we aren’t physically moving, so some of the benefits of movement can be realized by just having music playing in the background.

Parents can be extremely helpful to their children by just providing a comforting, predictable, secure home environment. Perhaps the most important thing is to help children be open about what and how they are feeling. Children sometimes have trouble communicating to others what they are feeling, and may not understand how they are feeling. Talking about it with a parent, teacher, or school counselor is usually helpful. If the child is feeling upset or overly worried, reassure them that they are safe, and share with them how you cope with your own anxieties. These may include taking breaks throughout the day (remember, in school they had transitions between classes, lunch in the cafeteria, recess, gym/music/art classes to help). Keep normal routines intact as much as possible, be sure you all get enough sleep, and spend some time playing together, be it video, board, card, or outdoor games. The recreation will provide needed intervals between study sessions, and the fun element of playing will clear the mind for healthier mental health.

Wagner, K.D. (2020). New Findings About Children’s Mental Health During COVID-19. Psychiatric Times, https://www.psychiatrictimes.com/view/new-findings-children-mental-health-covid-19.

Duan, L., Shao, X., Wang, Y., Huang, Y., Miao, J., Yang, X., & Zhu, G. (2020). An investigation of mental health status of children and adolescents in china during the outbreak of COVID-19. Journal of affective disorders275, 112–118. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2020.06.029

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