The middle and high school years are marked by a lot of big milestones: Getting a locker, having to change classes, joining the cross-country team, singing in choir, prom.
But most of all, adolescence is about beginning the lifelong process of figuring out who you are, what you believe, what your values are, and what you want out of life, experts say. In fact, if the teenage years can be summed up in one word, that word may very well be “identity,” said Richard Chung, a professor of pediatrics at Duke University who specializes in teen health.
He said teenagers are wrestling with big questions: “Who am I in my current context? In my house? In my school setting? And not only ‘who am I?’ but ‘am I normal? Am I likable?’ ”
“Peer-related or other social affirmation is so important,” Chung added.
So what happens if you throw a pandemic, isolation, educational disruption, and economic upheaval into the mix?
It’s too early to really be able to answer that question definitively, Chung said, but added, “as far as the pandemic and its impact on identity, I think it’s fair to assume it has been and will continue to be really substantial.”
Virtual learning, which was widespread in the 2020-21 school year, is likely a big part of the reason. Losing in-person or more-informal access to educators and other school staff may mean fewer adults in students’ lives to help them puzzle through this rocky developmental period.
Seventy percent of students in grades 6-12 said that teachers and other adults in their school are at least partly an influence on their overall identity, including determining who they are, what they want to be, where they belong, and what they believe, according to an EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,022 students conducted in late August and early September. Only 10 percent of the 1,022 who responded completely disagreed that adults in their school were a factor in forming their identity.
What’s more, most teens and tweens have also been missing out on interaction with their broader communities—a key factor in helping them find their niche in the world, said Sean Flanagan, the senior director of research with the Center for Promise at America’s Promise Alliance, a nonprofit focused on youth.
“One of the things we know about identity is that your identity as a student is related to your identity as a peer, as a friend, and how you see yourself as a family member, a member of your community. All these ways of understanding ourselves are really integrally linked,” he said. “Young people need really developmentally rich experiences and opportunities across multiple contexts in order to really develop a sense of self that can [help them] feel successful … or proud of the way that they show up within the world.”
But, with the pandemic, “those consistent contexts have really been pretty hugely disrupted over the past two years,” Flanagan said. In fact, more than half of students reported feeling not at all connected or only a little connected to classmates, teachers, and others in their school and communities, according to a separate survey of 2,439 high schoolers conducted by America’s Promise Alliance and Research for Action in March and April.
Impact is uncertain but likely significant
It may well be that the impact of the pandemic’s interruption to students’ identity-building process varies greatly and is heavily influenced by a students’ home life, Chung said.
Traumatic experiences like losing a loved one to COVID-19, getting very sick from the virus, or seeing a parent lose their job could all have a lasting imprint on students’ sense of themselves, he said.
What’s more, for some students, in-person school provided, a “respite for what could be a difficult home or neighborhood environment,” Chung said. Losing that safe place—even temporarily—may have short- and long-term consequences for students’ sense of themselves. Already, Chung said, he and other pediatricians are seeing an uptick in psychiatric disorders, anxiety and depression, eating disorders, and substance abuse among children.
Teenagers are wrestling with big questions: 'Who am I in my current context? In my house? In my school setting? And not only ‘who am I?’ but ‘am I normal? Am I likable?'
To get a sense of how the pandemic was shaping her students’ sense of themselves, Kelley Madden, a school counselor at Rocky Mountain High School in Fort Collins, Colo., earlier this year polled about 20 of the student peer counselors she works with.
The majority—80 percent—told her they were less motivated than usual. A few said they weren’t feeling motivated at all. And about three-quarters said they were not very social during the pandemic.
That’s not to say that the pandemic has been all negative when it comes to adolescents forming their identities, Madden said. The pandemic gave some kids the space to do some personal growth, away from the noise and chaos of school, she explained. Some of her students reported journaling more or becoming closer with their families.
Students, “realized it was OK to spend some time alone, to hang out with my family and focus on what [they’re] most grateful for, and things like that, versus like, [having] to be out of all these social events,” she said. “It made them think about who they really care about in their life.”
In fact, when she asked students how the pandemic affected them, nearly all told her: “It gave me time to think about who I am.”
Remind teens of their resilience
Being away from extracurricular activities was particularly hard for students who see being a student leader, or lacrosse player, or theater nerd as central to their identity, said John Kelly, a school psychologist at Commack High School on New York’s Long Island.
“We did see that with some students, where they weren’t in that same role, struggled a bit with defining, well, where do they fit in?” he said. “Like, what is their role in this kind of new environment?”
His school has tried to, “work within that new normal, and provide opportunities for kids to engage in these activities that really helped to define who they are,” he said. Some student groups were able to meet virtually. Once the school returned to some in-person learning in the spring, teachers worked to allow some sports to continue. Audiences were able to watch the school play on a livestream.
Students may also be able to find meaning and a sense of direction in helping neighbors and others in their community who have been especially negatively impacted by the pandemic, Chung said.
For instance, one of his teenage patients worked early in the pandemic to distribute food to families in need. That was his way to, “not sit at home just thinking about the pandemic, but actually [do] something that felt effective and powerful,” Chung said.
More recently, other patients have become vaccine advocates, making videos or using social media to encourage their peers to sign up for their shot.
Students have weathered a lot of turmoil during the pandemic, said Byron McClure, who until this school year worked as a school psychologist in Washington, D.C. But he thinks that can be turned into a positive when it comes to identity: Kids can begin to see themselves as adaptable and emotionally strong.
Kids from low-income families—like the ones in the schools he’s worked with—“haven’t always been told that they’re resilient,” he said. “A lot of my work has been on helping them to see the resilience that’s already within them.”
Data analysis for this article was provided by the EdWeek Research Center. Learn more about the center’s work.
Coverage of social and emotional learning is supported in part by a grant from The Allstate Foundation, at AllstateFoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as The Pandemic Has Shaken Students’ Sense of Themselves