School is back in session. The resultant changes from the pandemic are noticeable on campuses. There are signs reminding students of the health maintaining protocols to stay safe.
All the while, school administrators are working to meet state and local educational metrics. Such as seat time for students, assessment, academic achievement, meet graduation requirements, and figuring ways to bridge the gap in the suspected learning loss for students who did not adapt to the online learning environment.
Understandably, mental health may not be at the top of the priority list. I am not suggesting the mental well-being of children is not a focus of schools. There is evidence of schools implementing social and emotional learning programs to support students, such as teaching students to build their social-emotional vocabulary, teach adaptive coping skills to manage stress, and use reflective writing assignments.
Some of the psychological and social challenges students are experiencing may have existed before the pandemic. The pandemic may have exacerbated some of these challenges, so they have been brought sharply into focus. Dealing with and adjusting to the various changes related to the pandemic can be confusing and overwhelming for both adults and children.
In the case of children, the centers for disease control and prevention indicate that the pandemic has directly and indirectly affected young people. The effects include changes in routine and the transition from traditional face-to-face learning to virtual learning. Other effects are access to healthcare, inability to celebrate significant milestones because of distancing protocols, and changes to their security and safety (food insecurity, having to move because their parents cannot afford to house the family, loss of employment).
Children are in school 5 of 7 days per week, and so the probability of the stressors identified by the CDC may follow the student to school. Some of the stressors may result in avoidance behaviors or fear of contracting the virus. Some of these behaviors may also manifest as school avoidant behaviors. Students may struggle with paying attention or concentrating on lessons, avoid participating in class or appear withdrawn. The child may be present in class but mentally unavailable to learn.
As students re-acclimate themselves to campus, there is an issue percolating that schools are not necessarily prepared to handle. Outside of the problems related to academic achievement, there are concerns about students' mental and social health. There is likely a growing number of children returning to school grieving the loss of a caregiver.
The World Health Organization (COVID-19) Dashboard tells the story of the infection rates. In a news release published by the National Institutes of Health, over 1.5 million children worldwide have lost a primary or secondary caregiver to the pandemic. The loss of the caregivers is likely to affect the mental and emotional well-being of the students. By extension, the student's academic performance and engagement in schools. Educators face the task of how to support these students while they are on campus.
Some students may want to express their mental and emotional stress but may not have the words to express these feelings appropriately. The struggle to describe the intensity of these feelings may manifest as behavioral issues. So, it is prudent to understand the student's struggles before addressing the presenting behavioral problems.
Parent/guardian, school, and community partnerships can play a significant role in assisting students in adapting to these changes and support their self-awareness, development, and identity.
How can school stakeholders help?
As a best practice, fine-tune the school's mental health referral process to include the parents/guardians, school counselors, and community partners.
Community mental health partnerships can help defray the cost to parents/guardians with a referral from the school for psychological services.
Teachers develop their lesson plans and include activities that address social and emotional skills that help deal with everyday challenges.
Begin classes with activities that deal with de-stressing. Since some students will not self-report, it helps to have suggestions built into lessons.
Identify those students who lost a caregiver to the pandemic and make available support on campus to utilize should they request the support.
Although some families may decline the referral, let them know the referral is available if they have a change of heart.
Encourage students dealing with psychological or emotional stress to check in with the school counselor weekly until they begin to feel better.
School is hardly the place to manage childhood mental health. Yet, school stakeholders are intertwined in finding solutions. Making mental health, a puzzle school administrators must consider when planning school curricula.
Let me take the opportunity to shout out to the school counselors and other school officials that serve the needs of students dealing with the stressors of life. The work is tireless, but you do the job and, as such, deserve to be acknowledged. We know these students are coming to campus daily. Let us pool our collective resources to support students dealing with the emotional grief of losing a primary or secondary caregiver.
Stay Naturally Curious
Wood, B. J., Cooper-Secrest, K. R., Kirk, M., & Walter, S. (2021). Universal mental health screening in schools: A primer for principals. Journal of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, 5, (1).