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COVID-19 has introduced trauma into the lives of K-12 students in various ways. Whether it was due to anxiety for one’s own or a loved one’s health, loss of connectedness due to isolation, or economic hardship, many factors have impacted student mental health. To mitigate the impact of this trauma, schools must offer services that support the creation of a holistic, trauma-sensitive environment that takes these factors into account as we move forward. Social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula and mental health education will play a crucial role in confronting this new normal. With it, educational leaders can support the overall wellbeing of K-12 students as they navigate the behavioral and psychological effects of the pandemic. Let’s take a closer look at these short- and long-term effects.
Behavioral and Psychological Effects of COVID-19
The emotional stress that students face, at all ages, is tough to process without the required social-emotional skills. In addition to these stressors, K-12 students in Gen Z and Alpha are growing up in a world of immense social and academic pressure—all of which were escalated by the COVID-19 pandemic, ensuing economic crisis, and renewed civil rights movement. The overwhelming impact of these events has jeopardized the physical and emotional safety of students, resulting in shared concerns over the return to in-person learning. In a recent Navigate360/Zogby Strategies poll that surveyed teens’ sense of safety as they returned to school, 54% felt that their institutions weren’t prepared to respond to critical incidents and mental health needs. Until students feel safe at school physically, socially, and emotionally, there will be no opportunity to close existing learning gaps or address other academic concerns.
To address the effects of current events on student health and safety, educators will need to focus on the idea of “Maslow before Bloom,” where meeting the basic needs of students trumps higher-order learning. This includes analyzing the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on student mental health. The common behavioral concerns that resulted from the pandemic, as outlined by expert Dr. Crystal Ladwig, include:
COVID-19 forced staff and students to approach education differently. During this shift, learning was impacted by virtual lesson plans and extended absences as well as lack of technology and internet access. As a result, many students were faced with unforeseen external challenges that contributed to the fear of falling behind and ensuing learning loss.
Loneliness and Isolation
Social-distancing mandates isolated the majority of the population during the pandemic. This isolation contributed to increased feelings of loneliness in K-12 students, impacting mental health and often leading to depression and anxiety. Examples of situations that resulted in feelings of loneliness and isolation include:
- The shift to remote learning
- Canceled extracurriculars
- Illness related to COVID-19
For Gen Z, the economic crisis that developed from the pandemic also influenced these feelings, as many were forced to look for jobs outside their envisioned career path.
Depression and Anxiety
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anxiety and depression rates in youth have increased over time. And these rates have only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Factors like prolonged isolation, grief, feelings of uncertainty, monotony, and learning loss have all impacted K-12 students as they continue to adjust to a new normal.
Aggression and Acting Out
While processing stressful situations or dealing with mental health issues, K-12 students tend to internalize concerns and aggressively act out. As students return to in-person learning, educators need to be aware of this behavioral pattern. For example, returning students dealing with COVID-19 trauma may lack the skills needed to effectively process and express their emotions. Some may lack support at home, and others may not even be aware of their current mental state.
Supporting Students Through SEL and Mental Health Education
As the long-term psychological impacts of the pandemic start to take root, schools will need to support student mental health by addressing the aforementioned behavioral concerns. This can be achieved through social-emotional learning (SEL) curricula. A well-executed SEL program can have many positive outcomes on student mental health and performance, where expected results include:
- Increased academic performance
- Improved social behavior
- Increased student engagement
- Long-term knowledge retention
By implementing these evidence-based strategies, educators can help students develop crucial social-emotional skills around CASEL’s five core competencies. These tools offer the perfect outlet for students coping with internal and external stressors of the pandemic, allowing them to process their complex emotions and receive support in a safe, holistic environment.
In short, SEL can help students process pandemic-related trauma and navigate the new normal as they return to school. These measures will also help staff proactively address mental health in youth, allowing students to take measured steps to effectively manage anxiety, depression, and other behavioral concerns. To learn more about how schools can support the overall health and wellbeing of students, read this Navigate360 guide discussing the long-ranging benefits of social-emotional learning.