Students’ mental health issues don’t disappear during the summer. Sometimes they get worse.
Without the structure and routine of a school day or access to counselors, some students may be at risk of regression.
“Sometimes, issues that are more problematic during the school year can go under the radar during the summer,” said Clark Goldstein, a clinical psychologist based in Garden City, N.Y., who focuses on anxiety disorders in children.
“The school’s mandate is, generally, for most services, a nine- to 10-month period,” Goldstein said. “There’s a risk for regression [because] most schools are not really offering services in the summer. I don’t fault the school system … and I hope [there can be] a good collaboration between schools and families.”
That risk of worsening health problems is especially concerning as research points to the toll the pandemic took on children’s mental health: growing numbers of children ages 3 to 17 are suffering from anxiety and depression, which may manifest as behavior problems.
Goldstein and Juan Trevino, the national clinical coordinator at Daybreak Health, a teletherapy service that partners with schools to provide personalized care, said families, schools, and educators can work together to smooth the social and emotional transition to school for vulnerable children.
A call for collaboration
Trevino said schools and educators are on the “front lines” for noticing changes in the mental health of their students. He also said schools are where parents lean on most—especially in regard to their child’s behavior and mental wellbeing—and seek advice from teachers, counselors, and administrators on what’s best for their child.
“Stressors [are seen] more often in school because [students are] given tasks to accomplish, and educators are typically those that see changes in functioning,” Trevino said.
Both Trevino and Goldstein said constant communication between educators and families is the key to success in preventing regression. Goldstein emphasized connecting families to summer services early, such as an external counselor or enrichment camps, especially if they are unsure of where to start or need assistance in finding the right fit.
Goldstein also said communicating the child’s needs to parents often and early is vital. Receiving the right services for children may prove difficult if parents are not notified of their child’s mental wellbeing at school soon enough by educators.
Parents and school administrators can also “make sure the information is communicated in a timely manner to the [grade-level teacher], so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel and the child or family isn’t put through unnecessary challenges because of a lack of communication,” Goldstein said.
The back-to-school transition is difficult for anyone, but especially for students who have not had structure since leaving school in May or June.
Meredith Draughn, an elementary school counselor in North Carolina, said she encourages all educators to acknowledge the changes each student has likely undergone since the end of the previous year.
“Ten weeks is a really long time in a kid’s life,” Draughn said. “Developmentally, you don’t know what circumstances have happened, so everything could be different.”
Draughn also encouraged educators to examine their culture and how they build expectations at the start of each year. She said taking some time in the first two weeks to teach behavioral expectations and build a classroom culture is essential to a successful year.
“You can’t just say, ‘OK, we’re going to walk in a straight line,’ and expect 25 kids to know how that works after not having walked in a straight line for 10 weeks. That must be practiced,” Draughn said.
She also said teachers need to discuss their expectations of students in the appropriate setting. For example, she said, instruction on bathroom behavior should not happen in the classroom or hallway, and kids must practice it over and over.
“The most important strategy is not looking at behavior errors as willful choices at first—look at things as a skill issue instead of a will issue,” Draughn said. “For a kid who doesn’t raise their hand, you’re not going to automatically assess that they don’t care, you’re going to look at it as a skill issue of, ‘We need to relearn this and practice this skill.’”
Especially for new students, Trevino said, orientation sessions—or previewing—will help lessen anxiety they have when entering a new school and connect them to the right resources. He also said providing a calendar with important dates, events, and deadlines will assist in the transition.
Trevino said the first step schools can take is to recognize there may be resource gaps in summer resources and provide enrichment or day programs. These resources help students continue a regular school routine and stay active.
“Any type of camp—reading, math, arts and crafts, sports, drama, coding—will be very helpful in creating routines that provide not only stimulation, but prevent boredom,” Trevino said.
The emphasis on routines and schedules is important across the board for children. Children often feel more confident and secure when daily activities are predictable and familiar, according to the federal Office of Head Start’s early-childhood learning and knowledge center. This is especially important for children suffering from anxiety disorders.
A practice Draughn has found beneficial is one-minute, one-on-one meetings with her students immediately after summer break. She sits for one-minute intervals with each of her 355 students to assess their needs. After these meetings, she then follows up with any child who expressed interest in doing so.
She said teachers can easily do this with their students each month or work with their student support teams to find the best way to evaluate each student.
“It really needs to be a team effort,” Draughn said. “How can we support the student, but also how can we support the teacher and give them more insight?”