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How Schools Can Support Children’s Mental Health After a Challenging Year

young girl upset in classroom

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Key Takeaways

  • The pandemic has increased mental health issues among kids.
  • Kids from low-income, one-parent, and one-child homes were more impacted by COVID-19.
  • Those children with preexisting mental health conditions showed some improvement in prosocial behavior during the pandemic.

No one would argue that the pandemic has been tough on kids’ mental health. Social isolation, distance learning, and a heap of uncertainty were just some of the challenges kids across the globe faced in 2020. But, the pandemic cannot take all the blame. Kids of all ages were in the throes of a global mental health crisis even before the pandemic began.

A 2018 study found that one in eight kids between the ages of 5 and 19 has at least one diagnosable mental health condition. And from 2004 to 2017, there was a 48% increase in the number of kids between 5 and 15 who have experienced symptoms like anxiety and depression. 

For this reason, parents and educators need to be prepared for an increase in mental health issues this fall. As kids navigate school hallways once again, they may be plagued with issues like uncertainty, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, fear, and even loneliness. Here's what you need to know about kids' mental health and back to school.

Kids Affected Differently by the Pandemic

For the most part, vaccines have allowed many of us to put the worst of the pandemic behind us. Kids are starting to enjoy routines long-shelved by widespread illness and fear, and schools are set to reopen with normal schedules across the country in the fall. But many children will enter school with more mental health issues than previously.

Amy Marschall, PsyD

Kids in low-income families saw parents losing income, or parents having to figure out online learning if there is not a non-working adult in the home to help.

— Amy Marschall, PsyD

With that being the case, how can schools support these fresh-from-the-trenches students as they reenter school buildings in just a few weeks? While every kid in every country experienced negative effects from the pandemic, it’s safe to say that personal and familial circumstances made things far more difficult for certain groups of kids.

Amy Marschall, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who is certified in trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy and telemental health, speculates that the pandemic has affected marginalized groups more profoundly than middle- or upper-class kids.

“I would imagine that Black and Latinx kids would also be more impacted because those communities as a whole were harder hit by the pandemic compared to white communities," she says. "Kids in low-income families saw parents losing income, or parents having to figure out online learning if there is not a non-working adult in the home to help.”

According to research in the Journal of Adolescent Health, young people from one-parent, one-child, and less well-off families experienced a much greater mental health decline during COVID than before. They also experienced more loneliness and had more issues interacting with peers and friends.

Interestingly, researchers also found that while kids with previously stable mental health declined during COVID, those who were struggling a bit before the pandemic actually saw improvements in “prosocial” behaviors like caring for and sharing with others.

Either way, it’s clear schools may be facing a sharp increase in mental health issues among students once the halls are busy and bustling again. And parents and teachers may wonder how these schools can support issues in their students as they arise, in order to ensure the brightest future possible. 

How Schools Can Support Students’ Mental Health

Kids will be entering their schools with a large dose of uncertainty. As a result, they may feel anxious about how to behave in the classroom, wonder if they will know where to go, and be nervous about interacting with peers again.

“COVID really showed that bad things can happen, and often safety is out of our control,” says Dr. Marschall. “In my observation, elementary school-age kids were hit really hard by this because they weren't old enough for that realization just yet.”

Below are some ways schools can support students’ mental health as part of a successful reopening strategy for the 2021-2022 school year. 

Meet Them Where They Are

Teachers will likely see a range of readiness in kids this fall. Instead of being frustrated by all that has been lost or trying to push them to catch up, it's important to meet them where they are.

“Just remember, not only are kids likely still very nervous and uncertain, but they haven't had to practice a lot of social skills over the last year,” Dr. Marschall reminds. “They're going to be re-learning a lot of those ‘how to behave in public’ skills, and that can take a while."

For instance, the child who is having trouble staying in their seat is probably just as frustrated by the difficulty as the teacher reminding them for the third time, she adds. Focus on positive reinforcement and redirection rather than disciplining kids. This approach will help kids far more than reprimands.

Refrain From Pushing Them to “Make Up for Lost Time”

Naturally, parents and teachers are worried about kids falling behind academically especially with the pressures of state testing and other standardized tests. But it's important that they refrain from pushing kids to catch up.

“I think worrying about ‘making up for lost time’ could do more harm than good," explains Dr. Marschall. "Kids can always learn math, reading, and spelling later on. The emotional stuff is harder to fix if we neglect it now—kids will remember feeling safe and cared for more than anything."

Encourage and Normalize Therapy 

There is no shame in getting professional help for your kids or for yourself. If you're a teacher, provide resources when you can or refer kids to the school's counselor for support.

"I think everyone should have a therapist in the same way that everyone has a primary doctor—you go once a year whether you need to or not, and if something comes up, you know who to call," says Dr. Marschall. "It's completely acceptable to seek therapy for your child if they seem like they have higher anxiety, a lot of ‘bad moods,’ sadness, and other emotions around COVID-19.”

Make It Fun

Of course, schools and educators are under unprecedented pressure to pack this school year with all the learning opportunities that COVID took away. But all work and no play can make school start to feel like drudgery.

Remember to add in dashes of fun whenever you can. This can help keep kids engaged and connected to the school community, and ready to learn when it’s time. 

What This Means For You

As a parent, it’s up to you to know your child and whether they are displaying any signs of a mental health issue as the new school year begins. And if you’re an educator, it can be frustrating to feel like there’s nothing you can do to help kids who may be suffering. But creating an environment of support, along with open communication where kids don’t feel pressured to perform non-stop, can go a long way toward helping kids feel encouraged to speak up if they have had trouble processing everything the pandemic has thrown their way.

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  1. Hu Y, Qian Y. COVID-19 and adolescent mental health in the United Kingdom. J Adolesc Health. 2021;69(1):26-32. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2021.04.005