2020: The Year of Disruption

Helping students recover emotionally and academically in 2021.

Posted Dec 28, 2020

Before the pandemic, there was a mental-emotional health crisis in elementary schools across the United States, with growing numbers of depression and anxiety, but during and after COVID-19, we may have a generation of students with PTSD-like symptoms. They may be nervous, emotionally reactive and have jarring memories from 2020, whether it’s living with the extreme discomfort of their parents as front-line workers, or even worse, losing family or friends to this illness. This past year will likely produce some psychological scarring that needs to be mended.

Think of the ACES – Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which identified adverse impacts in childhood with the high likelihood of problems later in life (CDC). It is likely that many children from this generation can point to at least one type of ACE from the pandemic of 2020, which may be losing someone, living with the fear of a family member or parent getting sick, not being able to access online schooling, and even experiencing food insecurity due to the financial losses. Things haven’t been easy.

2021: The Focus on Emotional Health

Schools in the eastern part of the United States have returned to in-person or hybrid schooling sooner, which begins to get children back on a schedule. This is good news, but every school – elementary, middle, or high school — needs to focus on student wellbeing. We all have collectively experienced stress in 2020 and some families to a life-changing and extremely painful degree. It is my opinion that like math and English, emotional health needs to be taught in every classroom, especially post-pandemic.

Students need to learn the how of creating positive emotional health. They need guidance on how to go from struggling to flourishing, especially in today’s world. Of course, I wrote a book for parents and teachers, but students need the “how to” of emotions — what to do with them, and especially how to have a wider perspective about 2020, while focusing on building their resilience (the upside of this challenge potentially). In the meantime, three things you can do today include:

1. Connect – Talk to your children or students about the experience of living through 2020 and passing through difficulties. I didn’t say put up a tent in the difficulty and stay there, but focus on moving through this experience and learning as much as possible. When I speak to students, I am constantly in awe of their perspective, whether it’s the challenge of online learning, failing a class, not seeing their friends, recovering from COVID, or being concerned about the health of others.

2. Outlets – Provide children with outlets to express their emotions, whether it’s drawing with good old-fashioned pencils and paper or building LEGO masterpieces. The goal is to have every child have a healthy outlet, which can be physical, like jumping on a trampoline; creative, like sewing their own clothes; or mental, like reading. Of course, the aim is to balance screen-time with screenless time so their nervous systems can relax. (As an aside, when they’re on screens, have them use anti-blue light glasses, which limit the negative effects of screen-time according to research).

3. Reframe – Teach your children how to reframe 2020 as a learning experience and something they successfully endured (thus building resilience). This can be the gold through this otherwise painful year. While this isn’t necessarily easy, the ability to reframe challenges will help them today and in the long-term. Of course, some things are simply lemons, but oftentimes lemons can make lemonade.

Coming Back Stronger

Students can come back stronger than before, but they’ll need our guidance and assistance. Many will need tutoring and extra assistance in “catching up” to a grade level or processing the emotional turmoil of this past year without impacting them adversely (like the ACES score predicts can happen). We all know that intervention is key. So, my recommendation is that we intervene in the classroom academically, but also through providing emotional health instruction. This isn’t a simple or easy situation, but my hope is that it’s one students can learn from, and hopefully, through which they can become better.

References

ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study). Information online at CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/

Healy, M (2018). The Emotionally Healthy Child. Novato, CA: New World Library.