By Linda B. Sheriff, Deputy Director at the Center for Health and Health Care in Schools
We’ve all seen the headlines, if not witnessed it in schools – while student mental health challenges were high prior to COVID-19, there are recent reports that they have increased dramatically. Fear of COVID-19, the sickness and death of loved ones, isolation and lack of peer interactions, and dearth of physical activity and social, emotional, and behavioral learning have taken their toll. The ramifications are beginning to appear as anxiety and other mental and behavioral health challenges have increased among students (Hafstad & Augusti, 2021; Naff et al., 2022; Viner et al., 2022) and could be a signal that a students’ needs are not being met. There are reports from schools of increases in fighting, throwing objects, acting out, and broad misunderstandings of social cues, as well as decreases in the ability to share and interact with peers (Belsha, 2021; Blad, 2022; Naff et al., 2022; Sun et al., 2022). In a recent review of the emerging literature on the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of PK – 12 students, Naff et al. (2022) also found that COVID – 19 was very unsettling for everyday activities and routines, such as diet, exercise, sleep, and technology use, leading to unhealthy coping behaviors. Anxiety and stress will be compounded in neighborhoods hit hardest by the pandemic, where the uncertainties and fears have been even greater. Sadly, recent political tumult, racialized violence, increasingly extreme weather, and world events will only add to the accumulated stress in both students and adults.
Evidence continues to grow on the impact that traumatic experiences, such as loss of a loved one, violence, neglect, or instability, have on children and youth. For example, there is growing evidence that experiencing three of more traumatic events can have a detrimental effect, causing behavior and learning difficulties if left unaddressed (Plumb et al., 2016). In addition, a child who does not feel physically or emotionally safe may have difficulty learning (Allensworth & Hart, 2018; Basch, 2011; Berkowitz et al., 2017; Cantor et al., 2019). Extensive trauma can affect a child’s stress response, leading them to have difficulty understanding social cues, sleeping, self-regulating, decision-making, acquiring language, and developing a healthy self-concept (Plumb et al., 2016). These effects may show up as angry outbursts, problems making and keeping friends, aggression, and struggles with concentrating. If a child experiences extreme trauma, they may be in constant fight, flight, or freeze mode, making it nearly impossible to focus on learning. While many of these behaviors are normal when experiencing overwhelming stress and adversity and often get better over time, as caring adults, we should recognize this as a form of communicating that the student’s needs are not being met and create conditions where students feel physically and emotionally safe.
The good news is that there are things schools can do to mitigate the effects of traumatic events and other emerging behavioral health needs, as well as support all students. We now understand that caring and supportive relationships, a safe and consistent learning environment, and restorative discipline can lessen trauma’s negative impact (Darling-Hammond et al., 2019; Minkos & Gelbar, 2021). Suggestions on creating these conditions include building student and staff social and emotional competencies; providing teachers and staff with training on the impact, prevalence, and signs of trauma; and encouraging healing, caring relationships (Bethell et al., 2014; Plumb et al., 2016). By understanding the affect that difficult situations can have on a child, educators can react in ways that support positive development rather than retraumatization. The aim is to purposefully cultivate conditions that decrease the possibility of triggering a child’s trauma and provide students and staff with the time and space to have restorative relationships (Minkos & Gelbar, 2021).
There are also less time-consuming action that educators can take. For example, creating and consistently following daily routines; providing creative outlets, such as art, music, freeplay, and writing; supporting caregivers; and providing opportunities for exercise all offer protective factors against behavioral and mental health challenges (Naff et al., 2022). Structuring the school day so that there are times for students to interact and talk about events that are important to them is another simple way to support students (Belsha, 2021). For example, one school sets aside 15 minutes every morning to discuss world events, personal stress, or mindfulness (Belsha, 2021). Teaching and reinforcing behavioral routines, greeting students warmly at the door of the school or classroom every time they enter, and using positive discipline can also have a positive effect on student well-being (Minkos & Gelbar, 2021).
So this Mental Health Awareness month, be aware of the impact that the stresses of the last two years have had on students and adults. Creating routines and safe and supportive environments will go a long way to help buffer ongoing trauma wrought by COVID-19 and help diminish emotional or behavioral crises. We should also start planning for school opening in the fall, for the effects of the recent traumatic events will not disappear over the summer. Therefore, work with school leaders to ensure that structures and supports are in place to provide students and staff with emotional, behavioral, and social help and to establish positive school environments. Plan now to offer training in social and behavioral health to students and staff for next year. We all need nurturing and self-care to overcome the stresses of the last two years, and awareness and having a supportive atmosphere in place will benefit everyone.
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