After a year and a half of disruption, how can we help kids and teens as they return to the classroom? In the next few weeks, millions of families will resume a once-familiar routine as a new school year begins. But for many kids, the first day of school this fall will feel very different than the last time they set foot in a classroom.After more than a year of social distancing, isolation, remote school and work, disrupted routines, and COVID-19 at the center of every decision — how can we support students’ mental health and development as they transition back to something resembling normal life?
Understanding What Students Need Early evidence suggests that the pandemic may have exacerbated mental health issues, especially for kids and teens with preexisting mental health vulnerabilities — and experts say some of these issues will extend into the new school year. “This includes confusion and uncertainty about what will happen next … worry and fears about the safety of themselves and others, anxiety related to unknown ways of doing things, new ways of operating this school year,” said Sharon Hoover, co-director of the National Center for School Mental Health at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, during a recent National Academies workshop. Identifying who might need the most support is a good first step for schools to take this fall, according to a rapid expert consultation from the National Academies. Schoolwide mental health screenings can help identify students who might need immediate crisis intervention, such as those who may have lost a loved one to COVID-19. Research shows that schools can be a great place for youth to get support for their mental health. “Not only do more youth initiate services when they’re offered in schools, they are much more likely to complete treatment when they’re offered in schools than when offered in other community settings,” Hoover said. Following hurricanes Katrina and Rita, for example, one study found over 90 percent of youth who got mental health services in school completed treatment, compared to only 15 percent of youth who got treatment in a community setting. While some schools already have robust mental health services and systems set up to help students, Hoover notes that others would need to build up that capacity quickly. “The current COVID relief recovery funding … provides a tremendous opportunity to build and sustain comprehensive school mental health,” she said.
Meeting Different Needs It’s critical to acknowledge that different students will have different needs this fall. Lukas Tucker, a recent high school graduate, described in the workshop how he’s heard “a lot of fears from marginalized groups coming back to school, especially from groups that are often bullied or belittled in the classroom.” He says better training for school staff, as well as schoolwide protection policies for students can help: “Pronoun options being available in virtual settings is important for trans students. Anti-bullying protections for LGBT students are important.” School connectedness and more opportunities to rebuild relationships with teachers and other students, in the form of open houses and student groups, can also help students feel safe and supported. High school student Brianna Attey, for example, is working with her school to create a diversity cafe where students can gather, to “give another platform for students to feel safe to talk about issues of race and other social justice issues that we don't really get to talk about in the classroom.”
“Understanding that, you know, I’m not ok right now — in terms of dealing with the emotional aspects of our country’s political climate, but also climate in terms of equity and inequities.” — Brianna Attey
Joanna Williams, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at Rutgers University and an author of the recent National Academies expert consultation, points out, “Schools that were under-resourced are serving those adolescents who are living in under-resourced communities. So I think this is maybe the time where we finally think about educational equity.” Finding Balance and Being Flexible The expert consultation says pressure to “catch up” on academics following school closures or virtual learning could add to students’ stress and anxiety — and balance between academics and students’ emotional and social needs is key. Schools can offer “responsive learning opportunities,” that are adapted to individuals’ academic levels and emotional needs. Fall learning camps, for example, could be a less stressful way for kids to dive back into academics. This need for balance was echoed by students in the workshop, who talked about their personal experiences with school during the pandemic. One high school student, Brianna Attey, said it’s important to her that her school recognize the reality of how she’s feeling in the classroom: “Understanding that, you know, I’m not ok right now — in terms of dealing with the emotional aspects of our country’s political climate, but also climate in terms of equity and inequities.” Another student participant, Abby Frank, highlighted how better balance during virtual learning improved her school experience overall: “I’ve never felt like my school was going out of their way to do much more than give us an education before,” Frank said. But new programs to support her mental health during the pandemic “made me feel really good to know that people weren’t just talking about supporting students, but were actually acting on it.” Students also said the flexibility of virtual learning is something they want to hold on to when in-person school resumes.
“Just because coronavirus is going to be less of a concern by the next school year doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to become stress-free people. The trials of being a teenager and differing hardships in all of our lives will still be here.” — Abby Frank
Frank said, “Breaks and longer passing time gave me time to do things for myself that I wasn’t able to do during in-person school. I could go for a walk, do some yoga, even get a drink of water or just a snack … Just stretching and moving a little during down time was super helpful for my mental health and overall well-being.” Flexible policies about turning in late assignments and making up work were also helpful for her mental health. “This has made so many people feel less stressed about getting every single assignment in on time. I haven't had to stay up late to do homework a single day this year, whereas normally there would be at least a couple nights a month where I was up much later than I wanted to.” Getting a good night’s sleep has been a challenge for many kids during the pandemic, says Hoover. “More than a quarter [of kids] reported an increase in sleep loss due to worry, feeling unhappy or depressed, feeling constantly under strain, and loss of confidence in themselves.”
After COVID-19 The students who participated in the webinar all agreed that the emotional and mental health support they need from their schools will not go away as the rates of COVID-19 fall. “Just because coronavirus is going to be less of a concern by the next school year doesn’t mean we’re suddenly going to become stress-free people. The trials of being a teenager and differing hardships in all of our lives will still be here,” said Frank. “As much as I want so much about school to go back to how it was before, I don’t want the initiatives to improve students’ well-being that I saw this year to regress.” Research shows that mental health issues in children and adolescents have been on the rise for decades, and the National Academies have called for immediate action to improve students’ mental, emotional, and developmental health.
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