One of the largest pandemic adjustments — for children and their parents or guardians — has been remote learning. Teachers and students grappled with technology resources, and families had to figure out how to make home spaces school spaces. The transition wasn't without impact. Changes in the social experience of school brought special attention to children's mental health.
Here are five mental health concerns to understand about the era of remote education.
1. Stress and anxiety
Remote education requires a new balance that isn't easy for all children. Being "present" in a place other than the traditional classroom blurs the lines between school and home. For reluctant learners, this lack of separation can lead to feelings of resentment, and for highly motivated students, it removes cues to pull away from schoolwork and rest. Finding comfort and familiarity in new norms and guidelines takes time, and for any student, this "relearning" period can be stressful. Things like asking for help and participating in activities require new steps, skills, and behaviors.
Remote education also induces stress and anxiety through its unwilling "inside look" to students' personal lives. Adolescents, who are at a developmental stage famous for self-consciousness, are particularly affected by this. A social media post can be crafted, but a family member or living space cannot.
2. Attention problems
Being active in remote learning looks different. Without the physical proximity of a teacher or the ability to notice subtle social cues, students are responsible for things they may not be developmentally prepared for. If they cannot manage their time (between screen focus and individual tasks), emotional responses, or interactions with peers, students may choose to disengage. For students already experiencing challenges with attention, this only makes things harder.
Remote learners may also be more tired. An increase in electronics usage, coupled with more time indoors and less physical movement, can also affect sleeping patterns, leading to more less wakefulness during school hours. This lowers attention span and receptiveness to learning.
3. Psychosomatic illnesses
If children are experiencing any kind of underlying mental health issue, it's common for them to show physical symptoms that are different from their norm — or worsened from a pre-existing condition.
Common physical manifestations are gastrointestinal discomforts (changes in appetite or bowels, stomachaches, or nausea), changes in sleeping patterns, weakness, or body pains. Kids may not understand where these physical changes are coming from, and they may not be linked to an illness that can be clearly diagnosed. A physician's advice, along with a look at the possible mental health concerns related to the issue(s), is the best course of action for making sure a child feels well enough to participate in everyday activities.
The childhood years are an important time in identity development, and the social experience of school is just as important for this as it is for academics. Through school, children learn how to interact with many kinds of people, make decisions about relationships, and regulate emotions. School is also a place for children to experiment with who they are and how they want to present themselves to others, exclusive from the influence of home. Without the accustomed interactions with people they have chosen to trust (especially their friends and peers), kids may become frustrated, bored, or unmotivated. They may also struggle with their feelings of self-worth.
The events of the past year have been difficult for many, and for children, any or all challenges brought about by the pandemic and recent social movements can be traumatic. They may have lost loved ones — without support of traditional grieving — or watched them fight serious illness. They may have lost their safe space of "home away from home," with increased time in unsafe living environments. Their families may have struggled with finances due to job loss or reduced income. And with renewed attention to challenging systemic racism, children may be traumatized by violence and discrimination — whether they've observed it and/or experienced it themselves.
Trauma can present in many ways. Children may withdraw or act out, and they may not be willing to cooperate with adults or engage in conversation the way they used to. They can behave inappropriately, aggressively, or not act much at all. Understanding a child's background can help identify signs of trauma, and to help them, trusting relationships will need to be rebuilt.
Knowing the children in your life and checking in with them will help you identify and address mental health concerns. With all the challenges of remote education, community support is an important piece of improving mental health. If you're interested in fostering healthy adjustment for your school community, Wellspring's school-based programs can teach the life skills needed for navigating challenging times — for now and for whatever comes their way.