Kids' mental health can struggle during online school. Here's how teachers are planning ahead.
When her South Carolina high school went online this spring, Maya Green struggled through the same emotions as many of her fellow seniors: She missed her friends. Her online assignments were too easy. She struggled to stay focused.
But Green, 18, also found herself working harder for the teachers who knew her well and cared about her.
"My school doesn't do a ton of lessons on social and emotional learning," said Green, who just graduated from Charleston County School of the Arts, a magnet school, and is headed to Stanford University. "But I grew up in this creative writing program, and I'm really close to my teachers there, and we had at least one purposeful conversation about my emotions after we moved online."
From the other teachers, Green didn't hear much to support her mental health.
That was a common complaint among parents when classes went online in March to stem the spread of coronavirus. With the sudden halt to in-person learning, many students missed their friends, yearned to be out of the house, developed erratic sleep habits and drove their (often working) parents crazy. On top of that, many were dealing with the trauma of sick or dying family members, economic hardship and disruption to the life they once had.
As the pandemic drags on, it's clear that not all kids are all right. Nearly 3 in 10 parents said their child is experiencing emotional or mental harm because of social distancing and school closures, according to a nationwide Gallup poll in June.
"'Unmoored' is the best way I can describe it," said Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He's seen a rise in young patients with anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
"They don't feel like getting up and going to another Zoom class," Rich said. "They don't feel like finishing their college applications."
As more districts are electing to start the school year virtually, teachers will have to get better at delivering new academic content online while also meeting students' social and emotional needs.
Schools, Rich said, should think about using the virtual environment to create new relationships between teachers and students.
"Not just one where kids can get help with algebra, but where kids are talking to teachers about what's going on."
Fitting it all in: Academic and emotional learning
In normal times, many schools didn't deliberately set aside time for teaching non-academic "soft skills" such as empathy, determination and self-care. That makes ramping up the focus in a virtual setting, amid a set of challenging circumstances, even more daunting.
But the world is a stressful place right now, given the global health crisis, economic downturn and protests over racial injustice. It's important for school staff to nurture emotional connections, child psychologists and mental health experts say, even if addressing students' academic slide seems more urgent.
There's a lot of fear and consternation and confusion, but not everyone is living the same pandemic, said Frank Ghinassi, behavioral health leader at RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers University.
The children most hurt, he said, are those who were already disadvantaged by food or housing instability, domestic violence, unsafe neighborhoods, fragmented families or absent role models.
"The dilemma teachers face in a virtual environment is that they likely know who struggles the most with poverty and other difficulties, and yet virtually they have to treat everyone more or less equal," Ghinassi said.
That's why some districts are stressing the emotional side of learning for all kidsbefore asking them to hit the books.
In Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia, the district of about 2,800 students will start online Aug. 24 and spend the entire first week establishing class expectations, procedures, behaviors and simply getting all students accustomed to going to class and learning again, said Superintendent Peter Noonan in a memo July 24.
Philadelphia Public Schools is sponsoring a free mental health hotline to connect kids and families to grief support services to cope with the trauma of the pandemic, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The service is a partnership with Uplift Center for Grieving Children, a local agency that staffs the line with master's level clinicians.
In El Paso, Texas, schools are planning a 30- to 45-minute weekly block for students to connect with their teachers around social and emotional skills. And each day will include a short, live session on connection and community building, said Ray Lozano, executive director of student and family empowerment for the El Paso Independent School District.
Lozano said time spent on those skills will be more structured than in spring.
Teaching and learning, especially this year, needs to be "more relational and less transactional," he said.
Why stress emotional health so much?
In recent years, "social and emotional learning" has become a buzzword in schools, but it doesn't get as much attention as academic learning because it's harder to measure progress and results.
But a growing body of research, as well as anecdotal evidence from schools, suggests students perform better academically when they're taught how to control their emotions and how to develop traits like empathy, determination, a collaborative spirit and the ability to navigate conflict.
"We're talking about fostering an inclusive environment and caring relationships that elevate student voice and agency," said Justina Schlund, director of field learning for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit in Chicago. "They can contribute to their own learning, but also contribute to their school and their community."