Superintendent Bo Griffin realized the effects the pandemic had on students in his district this fall, when teachers led anxious 2nd graders to eat in a lunchroom with hundreds of their peers. Many children appeared overwhelmed at the task of lining up, making conversation, and eating among hundreds of their peers after months of relative isolation at home.
Between initial school closures and the choice by some families in the Millington, Tenn., school system to continue remote learning in the 2020-21 school year, some of the young students had very little experience with the routines of in-person education.
“Some of our 2nd second graders this year had never been in a school building,” Griffin said. “That’s scary.”
The challenges of returning from remote learning combined with responding to the stress of adults during a national crisis have led some children to struggle with their emotions and with social routines, school and district administrators told Education Week. In some cases, that leads students to withdraw, they said. In others, it may lead them to act out or seek attention.
In a national survey of educators administered by the EdWeek Research Center in January, 39 percent of respondents said that “compared to prior to the pandemic in 2019, the social skills and emotional maturity levels” of their current students are “much less advanced.” Forty-one percent said their students’ were “somewhat less advanced” in those areas, and 16 percent said they were “about the same” as their pre-pandemic peers.
The data come as states and school districts continue to design and adapt recovery plans, many of which place a heavy emphasis on helping students with mental health, emotional stability, and regaining a sense of normalcy. But they face hurdles: schools have struggled to attract and retain staff in all areas, including counselors and social workers; the evolving nature of the pandemic has stressed employees, too; and children respond to the stress of adults around them.
Administrators who spoke to Education Week said they expect their heightened concerns about students’ social-emotional well-being will continue into future school years.
“I want to be hopeful, but having been in education for 30 years, I realize that there are key points in time in life when if you miss that opportunity, you are going to be behind,” said Anne Hickey, an elementary school principal in Highland, Ill. “It’s going to take a while to catch up.”
Noticing changes in student behavior
Educators say it has taken some time to recognize all of students’ emerging struggles, especially those related to skills and routines that teachers and staff typically take for granted.
Catharina Genove, principal of the Montessori Public School of Arlington, Va., noticed her elementary students had difficulty with focus and attention after they returned to the in-person classroom.
The Montessori method emphasizes student learning through different self-directed activities. Given that freedom, some young students have had a hard time staying on task or navigating their emotions when a peer is using materials or toys they may be interested in.
Children “learn so much those first years about how to take turns, and about how to talk to your friend, how to say ‘I don’t like that,’” in the earliest years of schooling, Genove said. So teachers have had to make a more deliberate effort to stop and recognize things they need to reinforce.
Genove said she’s encouraged teachers to pace themselves, allowing children to internalize concepts they may have missed and allowing students’ emotional resolve to grow alongside their academic learning.
“Let’s just take a deep breath,” Genove recalled telling her staff. “You’re not going to catch up with a year and a half of academics in the next three months, and we are not going to get far if we don’t observe those other needs.”
To help teachers, the school’s guidance counselor leads students through social-emotional learning lessons about subjects like how to ask for help and how to set boundaries during play time. The school has brought in guest speakers to talk to families about issues like child development, Genove said.
“We are reestablishing those classroom communities that we have taken for granted for so long,” she said.
Helping students identify their emotions
Students’ lagging skills aren’t driven solely by extended periods of remote learning, said Janene Salt, an elementary school principal in the Ogden, Utah, district, which prioritized a quick return to in-person learning after initial closures at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
Some children have seen their parents sick or dealing with job loss. Some have absorbed heated arguments about masks or politics. Some have witnessed family conflicts related to all of the above.
Salt spoke with a 3rd-grade boy last week to ask him why he had repeatedly said hurtful things to a classmate.
“He said, ‘I have just been getting so angry,’ but he could not identify why,” she said. “He said to me ‘Do we have a class I can go to here to find out why I’m angry?’”
The district, which typically focuses more of its mental health resources in higher-poverty schools, has increased them in all buildings, Salt said. A counselor works with individual students on a program called Zones of Regulation, which teaches them how to identify and respond to their emotions using color-coded materials. That counselor sees about seven students for an hour a day, and she has a waiting list, Salt said.
The school also trains older students to mentor their younger peers, greeting them in the morning and seeing them off in the afternoons. And a trained cohort of students known as the Hope Squad can help their classmates find a trusting adult if they have more significant problems.
“I think the biggest question in front of me is, ‘Are we going to continue to see this [need] grow?’” she said. “Is one counselor in an elementary school going to be enough?”
Identifying underlying issues
Griffin, the Tennessee superintendent, said his district has also worked to identify underlying practical issues that may be causing emotional instability for students.
The district used federal COVID relief funds to bring a counselor and social worker to every building to “help take care of issues that have long been a challenge for schools.” That may mean connecting a family with a local food pantry, outfitting a student with glasses donated by the Lions Club, allowing a student to wash their clothes in the school resource room, or spending time talking to a teen about his fears created by his parents’ job loss, Griffin said.
Teachers have also worked to develop more-informal relationship strategies with students, like making extra efforts to learn small facts about every child—something as simple as a love of Pokemon—that can help them build a connection in vulnerable moments.
“The biggest thing is just to listen and to find out what the real problem is,” Griffin said. “If you have a positive, trusting relationship, that is where we have an opportunity to really educate our children.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 16, 2022 edition of Education Week as Educators See Gaps in Kids’ Emotional Growth Due to Pandemic