Most school-age children returned to class this fall, to the delight of parents and teachers.
Students with slung backpacks were greeted with smiles and cheers as they arrived for their first day of class.
Face to face teaching. Children seated in front of a teacher as they teach the day’s lesson. Group work. Lunch with their friends.
A welcome site after a trying school year. A little more normal. A relief.
But it’s far from smooth. Aside from masks, COVID infections, and staffing shortages, there’s something else that educators are concerned about.
The students are in trouble. They struggle to reacclimate to a normal school day, classroom expectations, social interactions, and navigate a highly uncertain world where the threat of a deadly pandemic is all too real.
Back to normal
“All levels of anxiety, depression,” is how Leah Nellis, dean of Indiana University Kokomo’s school of education, describes the mental health status of students.
The pandemic isn’t the culprit—students struggled with anxiety and depression long before COVID—but the past two years haven’t helped either.
Nellis, who has a background in psychology as well as K-12 education, said disruptions to routine can worsen anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in students.
“We need — we want — routine, it gives us a sense of comfort knowing what’s coming next,” Nellis said.
And COVID has disrupted the routine of thousands of children across the country.
School disruptions — online one week, in-person the next, the latest mask rules, contact tracing — all have consequences.
For students, they all add to the litany of things to think about, according to Janet McManus, high school counselor at Maconaquah School Corporation in Miami County.
McManus said some students struggled to transition from the daily isolation with online learning to the constant social interactions of a normal school day.
Tori Shone, a middle school counselor also in Maconaquah, said the stress of a school day — a set schedule, homework, higher expectations — can lead to outbursts. The biggest difficulty she sees among the students is an inability to control their actions, emotions and thoughts.
“When they get frustrated with schoolwork, it shows up in other ways,” she said.
A routine provides stability. McManus said students are aware of the uncertainty in the world, so any sort of stability in their personal lives can ward off those feelings of anxiety and depression.
“Those good old-fashioned high school experiences,” like the Friday night basketball game, add to that sense of stability and normalcy, McManus said.
“I think that’s what everyone wants,” she said.
A fear of loss
The threat of COVID is very real for many students.
Gena Schultz, student services counselor at Tipton Middle School in Tipton County, said that while some kids are worried about catching the virus themselves, others are worried about a family member catching COVID.
“I was shocked at how deep this fear and anxiety ran,” she said.
Many Tipton students are raised by their grandparents or just a grandparent. Schultz said a grandparent could be a student’s only family.
McManus in Maconaquah said she heard the same thing from students.
“I’ve had students in the past who didn’t want to come to school because of that specifically,” she said.
The loss of employment and the change in family dynamics that results from the loss of parental income can also be overwhelming for children.
Then there are children whose only safe space is school.
“There’s all kinds of stress and uncertainty in these things,” Nellis said.
Some children have parents in the hospital and are pushed to be the adult at home. Food, money, bills can certainly add to the stress of a normal teenager.
“They’re worried about that liability,” McManus said.
Maconaquah attempts to bridge this gap by connecting families with outside resources. For example, the school corporation will provide food to students in difficulty. It’s not an end in itself, but satisfying a need can relieve some stress.
“We do a lot of things that people don’t realize behind the scenes,” McManus said.
Teach healthy coping skills
If there is a silver lining to the pandemic, it is that there is greater awareness of the mental health needs of students.
Maconaquah advisers said the pandemic has further underscored the importance of a healthy mental health lifestyle.
Shone said there’s less stigma about mental health among the college kids she works with, attributing the credit to the social media the students consume. However, while students are more open to talking about mental health, coping skills do not seem to have permeated the general discourse.
Maconaquah Middle School works to cultivate these healthy skills.
Students who need extra social and emotional support are divided into small groups where they learn a number of coping strategies.
Students learn to recognize when they have a negative thought, such as calling themselves stupid if they don’t understand a concept. Group work helps these students overcome this instinctive negative thinking about themselves.
Students also learn to identify what triggers strong emotions and how to overcome a potential outburst. For example, instead of shouting, a student learns to walk away.
Breathing, counting, coloring, and meditating are some of the different ways students learn to pull themselves together if they feel stressed or overwhelmed. Shone said they practice a wide variety of skills so students learn what works best for them.
“It makes them concrete for them,” she said. “It gives them something to cling to.”
The groups were well received by the students. Shone said she would pass students in the hall who would enthusiastically tell her about a new skill they used.
“They’re really responsive,” she said. “They appreciate that we offer these skills.”
A daily social-emotional study class allows students to learn empathy, compassion, and social awareness (how they impact the space around them).
Maconaquah also offers mediation where students can work through their issues and find a solution. Shone said students were starting to reach out on their own, asking her to help lead conversations.
“It made a big difference in giving kids another option,” she said.
Tipton Middle School installed a calming room in the fall. A quiet place to relax, the room helps students self-regulate, learn when they need a few minutes to pull themselves together and keep them in school.
Schultz said Tipton is sending fewer students home than in the past since they built the Quiet Room.
Healthy coping skills help students deal with stress and periods of overstimulation, but they also help reduce disciplinary action. If students can resolve their disagreements and manage their emotions better, they are removed from class less often.
“Instead of putting out fires all the time, we prefer to teach skills to prevent them,” Shone said.
Mental health is a topic IUK teachers cover with their education students, both as future teachers and how they can help students in their own classrooms.
Nellis said recognizing the lived experience of students is a simple but important way to provide grounding. Simply telling a student that it is okay to be afraid or worry can be very empowering.
“To let kids know, certainly, that it’s okay to worry, I think that can be a big help,” Nellis said. “That in itself is powerful.”
Although a student may not be able to control what stresses them out, they can control how they react to it.
Nellis said if adults ignore or refuse to acknowledge the stressors children experience, children’s imaginations take over, causing them to think about worst-case scenarios. Acting like everything is normal can be one of the worst things for a child, she said.
Student teachers are encouraged to create a classroom culture where these types of conversations can take place. Nellis said a sense of community can go a long way.
But stress, anxiety and depression are not just for young children. Middle school students face the same problems. For those entering education, self-care is essential.
Nellis said that at the IUK School of Education, students practice healthy strategies such as breathing, tai chi, yoga and even line dancing, which can be passed on to their children.