MacPhee: How Teachers and Parents Can Support Students’ Mental Health as they Return to In-Person Class, and Beyond

Allison Shelley for EDUimages

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For many young people, going back to school has not been easy — and it is happening at a time when rates of depression, anxiety and substance abuse have risen dramatically. The consequences may be felt by young people and their communities for years to come. Profound, long-lasting mental health effects will disproportionately impact youths with preexisting mental health conditions, those from marginalized or communities of color and those who lack supportive social networks. Teens and young adults who found online learning exceptionally challenging, or who relied on educational support that was disrupted by the pandemic, may return to the classroom with significant educational gaps. In particular, young people in families where abuse was occurring were left without critical wraparound services and will likely need deep support and connection as they resume in-person studies.

In light of these challenges, educators should consider the following when preparing to support the mental health of adolescents and young adults as they ease back into classes:

  • Prepare for a different educational landscape. Learning was compromised last year for many students. Educators should be prepared for young people to face difficulty in basic areas, such as their social skills, ability to focus, comfort, capacity to retain information or basic performance in class. It will take time and coaching to rebuild the skills that teens and young adults need and use regularly. Educators should have patience and set realistic expectations for students this school year. As is often true at the beginning of a long time away from friends and routines, excitement and enthusiasm may mask vulnerabilities and challenges that have yet to surface. Be sure to maintain personal connections with young people and watch for signs of struggle over the course of weeks and months. Last year’s mental health impact was not solely linked to the COVID-19 pandemic; the racial trauma experienced as a result of George Floyd’s murder surfaced painful and longstanding anger, despair and frustration. A return to pre-pandemic systemic racism is not only undesired, but unethical. Schools, organizations that serve young people, workplaces and businesses are all responsible for absorbing the lessons of the past year and creating culturally responsive environments focused on equity and inclusion. As this conversation is, in many ways, just starting at a broader social level, creating space for ongoing exploration, expression and healing is imperative.
  • Expect emotional, social and mental health needs. Some students — even those who were not struggling prior to COVID-19 — may find the return to class overwhelming. Educators should recognize the impact the last year has had and plan a slow return to in-person learning, building in extra time to assess and address student readiness and support needs. Educators should find ways of checking in with all young people through informal channels or by administering brief assessments of their mental health and connecting to treatment when needed; broader family pandemic impacts; and/or learning status and readiness. All faculty and staff should learn to recognize when students are having difficulty and know how to reach out to offer support, as well as be knowledgeable about where to refer students for professional help, when needed. The expectations for learning, focus and sustained attention should be kept at a minimum until it is clear that the pace can quicken. Staff will need to know how to create and sustain trauma-informed support, or recognize the presence of trauma and acknowledge the role it may play in a student’s life. There may be a greater need for school meal programs, as some families may face ongoing financial hardships, and for extracurricular programs to increase child care hours for parents working new or extra jobs.
  • Create opportunities for youth to process and understand their experience. Educators should create dedicated time and space to help students sort through their experiences. By using techniques like journaling, talking circles, culturally grounded rituals and healing, artistic expression, body movement and interactive group and/or self-reflective activities, students can review and understand what they’ve lived through, identify silver linings and set hopes for the future — some of which may have changed from before the pandemic.

Parents and caregivers can help to support the mental health of their children as they ease back into in-person classes by considering the following:

  • Check in with your child regularly. It’s important to be calm and initiate conversations with your child. Children’s emotions will change regularly, and you need to show them that’s okay. Set up a regular time to only talk about how they’re feeling and ask questions to assess their social, emotional and mental health status and needs.
  • Focus on building connectedness. Connectedness is essential for mental health, and young people’s desire for social connection is likely to be high. At the same time, they may feel awkward or uncomfortable in a school environment surrounded by people and lots of activity. Make space and time for your child to become reacquainted with other young people outside of school.
  • Keep the things that worked. Teletherapy, remote learning and work, and new strategies for establishing and maintaining work-home balance are important to continue, even as the pandemic fades. Parents should take time to assess what worked in their families and what systems are worth keeping.

If you feel as though the last 17 months have been incredibly challenging, think how young adults, possessing less experience in dealing with hardship and adversity, are faring. Adults must acknowledge the depth of the pandemic’s impact on teens and young adults and recognize that their needs have changed. The return to the classroom can be an opportunity to reimagine and better support children, to set them up for good mental health and well-being that will serve them as they move into brighter futures.

John MacPhee is executive director and CEO of The Jed Foundation, a nonprofit that protects emotional health and prevents suicide for teens and young adults.

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