COVID-19, Return to School, and Children’s Mental Health

COVID-19, Return to School, and Children’s Mental Health

Written by: Sarah Kaufman

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted many aspects of student’s daily lives. Support may be necessary to improve children’s mental health during this time. Read more to learn about how the COVID-19 Pandemic affects student mental health and discover what can be done in school and at home to support young learners.

Children’s Mental Health During the Early Days of the COVID-19 Pandemic

In March of 2020 school environments quickly and radically changed. When the COVID-19 pandemic began almost all schools across the country shifted to some version of remote learning. Students’ extracurriculars were halted and almost all forms of socialization were paused. Additionally, mental health services shifted to remote platforms, and we began to see increases in depression and anxiety in children and teens. By September of 2021, 18 months into the pandemic, most schools returned to in-person learning. However, many students fell behind academically, were anxious about returning to school, and presented with behavior challenges.

Current State of COVID-19 and Children’s Mental Health

When students return to in-person school, any pre-existing anxiety regarding school may surface, along with new fears of getting sick. Additionally, students may feel anxious about re-engaging with difficult academic content. Given that remote schooling disrupted students’ social networks, there may be disappointment, confusion, or sadness with new or changed norms and friendships in the return-to-school environment. Some students may experience ongoing COVID-related trauma due to losing a loved one or isolating from a sick family member, which could lead to grief and ongoing worry. Some students might also experience economic hardships from the pandemic, including unstable housing or food and work insecurities.

What Can Be Done in School and at Home?

  1. Increase School Connectedness
    1. It is important that schools continue to encourage family involvement during student’s return to school. The more supported and connected students feel, the faster they will readjust to a school-based learning environment. It is also important that schools consider any barriers to engagement that families may face. Personal connections are needed now more than ever. Positive messages at school and at home can increase these feelings of connection. When looking at strategies to promote mental health during the return to school, it has been shown that the most successful schools focus first on rebuilding the school community. The CDC also recommends that educators schedule virtual calls or tours with parents to share about their students’ experiences.

  1.  De-stigmatize Mental Health
    1. Parents and educators can remind their children that increased anxiety or stress is normal. Having additional stress is common during hard times, and parents and educators may feel this as well. It is important to inform all students of available resources. Supporting children’s social-emotional well-being through positive, inclusive, and safe classrooms and home climates, as well as building strong relationships, promotes mental health. The CDC also has resources to help individuals take care of themselves during stressful times.

  1. Universal Support and Screening
    1. Increasing numbers of children have needed services upon returning to school during the COVID-19 Pandemic. It is important to implement rapidly available strategies and support within schools. Schools can aim to establish or enhance universal, school-wide screening for social-emotional and behavioral needs, as well as incorporate the perspectives of families and students into this screening. Some recommendations and strategies for incorporating Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) can be found here.

Additional resources for supporting children coming back to school:

Going back to school after the coronavirus lockdown – Animated video for children