Kids' mental health can struggle during online school. Here's how teachers are planning ahead.
When her South Carolina high school went online this spring, Maya Green struggled through the same emotions as many of her fellow seniors: She missed her friends. Her online assignments were too easy. She struggled to stay focused.
But Green, 18, also found herself working harder for the teachers who knew her well and cared about her.
"My school doesn't do a ton of lessons on social and emotional learning," said Green, who just graduated from Charleston County School of the Arts, a magnet school, and is headed to Stanford University. "But I grew up in this creative writing program, and I'm really close to my teachers there, and we had at least one purposeful conversation about my emotions after we moved online."
From the other teachers, Green didn't hear much to support her mental health.
This was a common complaint among parents when classes went online in March to stem the spread of coronavirus. With the sudden halt to in-person learning, many students missed their friends, yearned to be out of the house, developed erratic sleep habits and drove their (often, working) parents crazy. On top of that, many were dealing with the trauma of sick or dying family members, economic hardship and disruption to the life they once had.
As the pandemic drags on, it's clear that not all kids are all right. Nearly 3 in 10 parents said their child is experiencing emotional or mental harm because of social distancing and school closures, according to a nationwide Gallup poll in June.
"'Unmoored' is the best way I can describe it," said Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He's seen a rise in young patients with anxiety and depression during the pandemic.
"They don't feel like getting up and going to another Zoom class," Rich said. "They don't feel like finishing their college applications."
As more districts are electing to start the school year virtually, teachers will have to get better at delivering new academic content online while also meeting students' social and emotional needs.
Schools, Rich said, should think about using the virtual environment to create new relationships between teachers and students.
"Not just one where kids can get help with algebra, but where kids are talking to teachers about what's going on."
Fitting it all in: Academic and emotional learning
In normal times, many schools didn't deliberately set aside time for teaching non-academic "soft skills" such as empathy, determination and self-care. That makes ramping up the focus in a virtual setting, amid a set of challenging circumstances, even more daunting.
But the world is a stressful place right now, given the global health crisis, economic downturn and continued protests over racial injustice. It's important for school staff to nurture emotional connections, child psychologists and mental-health experts say, even if addressing students' academic slide seems more urgent.
There's a lot of fear and consternation and confusion, but not everyone is living the same pandemic, said Frank Ghinassi, behavioral health leader at RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers University.
The children most negatively affected, he said, are those who were already disadvantaged by food or housing instability, domestic violence, unsafe neighborhoods, fragmented families or absent role models.
"The dilemma teachers face in a virtual environment is that they likely know who struggles the most with poverty and other difficulties, and yet virtually they have to treat everyone more or less equal," Ghinassi said.
That's why some districts are stressing the emotional side of learning for all kids, before asking them to hit the books.
In Falls Church City Public Schools in Virginia, the district of about 2,800 students will start online Aug. 24 and spend the entire first week establishing class expectations, procedures, behaviors and simply getting all students accustomed to going to class and learning again, said Superintendent Peter Noonan in a memo July 24.
Philadelphia Public Schools is sponsoring a free mental health hotline to connect kids and families to grief support services to cope with the trauma of the pandemic, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The service is a partnership with Uplift Center for Grieving Children, a local agency that staffs the line with master's level clinicians.
In El Paso, Texas, schools are planning a 30- to 45-minute weekly block for students to connect with their teachers around social and emotional skills. And each day will include a short, live session on connection and community building, said Ray Lozano, executive director of student and family empowerment for the El Paso Independent School District.
Lozano said time spent on those skills will be more structured than in spring.
Teaching and learning, especially this year, needs to be "more relational and less transactional," he said.
Why stress emotional health so much?
In recent years, "social and emotional learning" has become a buzzword in schools, but it doesn't get as much attention as academic learning because it's harder to measure progress and results.
But a growing body of research, as well as anecdotal evidence from schools, suggests students perform better academically when they're taught how to control their emotions and how to develop traits like empathy, determination, a collaborative spirit and the ability to navigate conflict.
"We're talking about fostering an inclusive environment and caring relationships that elevate student voice and agency," said Justina Schlund, director of field learning for the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit in Chicago. "They can contribute to their own learning, but also contribute to their school and their community."
The challenge: how to do that when classes are starting virtually, before teachers have ever met some or all of their students, and before the students know each other well.
Austin Achieve Public Schools, a charter school network in Texas, plans to start each morning with 45 minutes of social and emotional learning. The network will adapt its tradition of "circle time"—where kids sit in a circle for a moderated talk, and where just one student speaks at a time—to an online setting.
Usually, those in a circle pass around a token known as the "talking piece," but when circling up via videoconference, teachers will have to get better at using the mute button on everyone but the speaker, said Danielle Owens, restorative justice coordinator at Austin Achieve.
In California's Oakland Unified School District, which will open Aug. 10 with all students learning remotely, virtual morning meetings will be held for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the grade level, said Sonny Kim, who coordinates the Office of Social and Emotional Learning.
The plan is to have teachers greet every student individually, set the tone and purpose of the day and teach or practice a social skill through a virtual activity. The district hopes to create a sense of belonging and build inclusion, Kim said.
"The goal is more student talk than teacher talk," he said. "We want to be asking, 'Who else agrees and why?' and 'Who has something to add to what was just said?'"
Allison Grill, a third-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary in Oakland, started adapting social and emotional learning to an online space in spring. She and her fellow third-grade teacher even devised a "virtual recess" for students.
The teachers would mute themselves in the video-conference program and encourage the students to talk live and chat live in the application with each other—about anything they liked.
Also, each morning in a quick online form, they'd have students pick a color that described their feelings, like red for angry, yellow for high energy but positive, green for focused, calm and ready to learn.
"We'd ask them: 'Is there anything you want your teacher to know about you today?'" Grill said. "And we then asked a question to start the day, like, 'What TikTok dance do you want to learn this week?' Or, 'What's your favorite ice cream?'"
In the spring, students had already gotten to know their teachers in person.So for this fall, Emerson's teachers are working more closely with their colleagues in the previous grade to understand the individual personalities of incoming students. That's easier at Emerson, Grill said, because teacher retention is high and there are only two classes of students per grade.
Another idea that's brewing in Oakland: Teachers might make home visits—either in-person outside, or virtually—to all their students' families at the beginning of the school year, to try to foster strong relationships.
Parents are co-teachers. Here's how they can help.
Because so much development is happening at home right now, parents and caregivers can do a lot to encourage good mental health, several behavioral health experts said.
That means enforcing regular times for sleeping, eating, and exercising. And sit-down family meals are still important, said Rich, who also runs a specialty clinic for children with internet use disorders at Boston Children's Hospital.
Parents also must put down their own devices and listen to their kids, he added.
"Ask how they're doing," Rich said. "Observe them. I am as concerned about parental screen time as kid screen time. It erodes our connectedness with each other."
Teachers can model good at-home behaviors, too, said Ghinassi, from Rutgers.
During virtual connections with students, teachers can encourage kids to do jumping jacks before focusing on their work. Teachers and staff can talk about having gone for a walk or run that morning, and they can stress to students how they keep their own consistent bedtimes and wake-up times, he said.
"With older kids, you can convince them at the beginning or end of class to go through a deep breathing exercise or a mindfulness strategy," Ghinassi said.
One problem, however, is that parents are already overwhelmed right now.
In Randolph, Massachusetts, just outside Boston, Yahaira Lopez is the mom of twin boys headed into fifth grade. One has attention deficit disorder and the other has autism, and both rely heavily on social and emotional supports at school.
Through the pandemic, she said, one of her sons has become convinced he has to eat every two hours, while the other has become addicted to online games. If Lopez doesn't sit next to her sons while they're doing schoolwork, they'll open another tab on their computers and goof around instead of doing their work.
"They're bored at home, and they don't want to be here," Lopez said.
But the boys also feel safer at home and don't want to go back to a school building, she said.
Lopez hopes the boys' new teachers figure out ways to help them express their anxiety and uncertainty through art or music or books when school starts virtually.
"I feel like they need something creative that helps them understand their world," Lopez said. "Their music teacher gave them an app that let them download their own beats in the spring. They loved that. Could they sing a song and upload it?"
Taking care of teachers is important, too
One of the most overlooked areas of social and emotional learning, several experts said, is how much schools need to foster it among teachers and staff.
School staff have faced their own trauma since March, including economic uncertainty, the challenges of remote learning, managing their own children while working remotely, caring for sick family members or being sick themselves.
Because much of the teaching that happened in spring was chaotic and disorganized, teachers need to feel a sense of safety and belonging before they can discuss among their peers and superiors what didn't work—and how they can improve, said Grill, from Oakland.
The first virtual back-to-school staff meeting at her school didn't go very well, because teachers just dove into talking about how to reinvent school this fall, Grill said.
"We all forgot to stop and do the kind of community building among ourselves that we do so well with students," she said.
When the staff reconvened virtually two days later, they started with a check-in about everyone's emotions, and they played a little game. That helped build connection and trust, and the talks about how to improve online school this fall went much more smoothly, Grill said.
Adults need this kind of support before they can foster it in students, said Schlund, of the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning.
"It might sound basic to say: 'Let's have adults sit in a circle and talk about our feelings,'" Schlund said.
"But we're seeing that these are really important moments, especially when talking about race and identity and being able to develop the type of community who can have difficult conversations and work with each other to solve problems."
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