The coronavirus pandemic presented unprecedented challenges for schools. Teaching became a juggling act. Educators were forced to navigate the never-ending stress of new local, regional, and national rules and the ongoing adaptation of their classrooms. A dizzying amount of flexibility was required. Materials, strategies, and techniques needed to reach students in-person, online, and in hybrid settings had to be adjusted on the turn of a dime.
As always, educators had to take into account different learning styles and preferences. Some students took to online learning well, but many didn’t. Teachers had to find creative ways of making school material interesting, engaging, and relevant (a task that is difficult enough during normal circumstances).
On top of the pedagogical demands, the emotional connections that are so central to meaningful teaching and learning shifted and changed as well. Teachers had to find new ways of developing and maintaining personal relationships with their students.
Finally, what was often lost in the mix was the fact that educators themselves struggled with the same stressors that all society had to cope with–namely, illness, fear, job demands, social isolation, financial stressors, and rapid social changes.
Most teachers have been able to adapt to these new stressors and realities, and have, in turn, been able to help their students adapt. The job, however, is far from finished. Two major tasks await educators in the fall of 2021: weaning children off their increased use of screens and social media, and addressing the anxiety and depression that have increased precipitously among children and teens.
ParentsTogether conducted a survey in 2020 finding that screen and social media use had doubled among American kids. A study from the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center found that by April 2021, almost all youth reported more social media use.
Concurrently, all available data found large increases in anxiety and depression. The MARC study also found that 71 percent of youth were feeling significantly more anxiety and depression, relative to before the pandemic. Another ParentsTogether survey found similarly that 70 percent of kids 6 months into the pandemic felt worried and sad. Save The Children conducted surveys in April 2020 in the US and in Europe, and found that during the lockdown, 17 percent of children in the surveys felt depressed often or always; 25 percent reported dealing with anxiety; 32 percent struggled to sleep; and 30 percent feared the COVID-19 virus. Emergency room visits for mental health needs in teens increased 31 percent during that time, and Tufts Children’s Hospital saw a 50 percent increase in the number of days children spent in the hospital for mental health concerns during the pandemic year.
To everyone’s relief, the pandemic appears to be receding, at long last. However, the noted rise in anxiety and depression among children and teens may linger. When students return to school in the fall, teachers will need to play a prominent role in understanding and promoting their students’ mental health. Most children will not show signs of severe emotional distress, but classroom teachers, who have frequent contact with students, are the adults most likely to notice more common symptoms that need attention (apart from parents).
Supporting teachers, therefore, must be an effort that both recognizes the extraordinary lengths to which they’ve had to go and the future challenges that await them in the classroom in fall 2021.
Here are six practical take-aways that educators at all levels can apply to their work in their classroom this fall to support their students.
1. Social media use is associated with anxiety, and the increased time kids have spent with screens may account for some of the increased anxiety noted recently. While it’s not possible to shield kids from all the sources of online anxiety, raising kids’ awareness of issues such as fear of being left out, or the tendency to compare oneself to peers, can help reduce the accompanying anxiety.
2. Non-screen activities, such as outdoor play, board games, or exercise, can help kids and teens improve rusty social skills while they diminish anxiety. Discussing why these kinds of activities promote good mental health tends to reduce any reluctance to participate.
3. The classroom can be a positive place where teachers can help promote social relationships by assigning students to small groups or teams for projects. Keep an eye on how they interact socially while they work, and offer tips (e.g., “Henry, let Isaiah finish his thought before you talk about your idea.”).
4. Research has found that children cope with post-disaster anxiety differently. Some kids may want to discuss the pandemic frequently and in detail, while others may appear traumatized by such conversations. Give children who want to think about the pandemic a variety of ways to express their thoughts and feelings, such as journaling or art. Never force a hesitant child to discuss the pandemic.
5. There are resources that can help. The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center has compiled a downloadable collection of tip sheets, videos, slide decks, books and other resources for kids and teachers.
6. The school psychological and counseling staff are there to help! If a child seems very anxious or depressed, refer him or her onward. A counselor can determine what’s needed and make appropriate professional referrals.
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