Student Well-Being

What Student Age Groups Are Most Vulnerable to Pandemic-Related Trauma?

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 14, 2021 4 min read
Lonely middle school boy sits on windowsill at looking out the window.

Closing in on a year of the pandemic, many students have experienced illness and the deaths of loved ones, ongoing family financial and housing instability, and disconnection from school and friends. While these toxic stressors can take their toll on all children, a new study published in JAMA Network Open suggests young adolescents may be the most vulnerable to long-term problems as a result.

Signe Hald Andersen, a researcher with the Rockwool Foundation in Denmark, used Danish administrative data to look at the life experiences of more than 605,000 people who were born between 1987 and 1995. They tracked the number of times each person was exposed to extreme household dysfunction previously associated with trouble in adulthood, including if the person entered foster care or if one or both parents died, divorced, were imprisoned, or committed for mental illness, or if parents had periods of extended unemployment.

Nearly 46 percent of people in the study had experienced at least one of these events, also known as “adverse childhood experiences,” through age 17. Every trauma increased their average risk of problems by age 19, including disconnecting from school and work, having low educational attainment, having criminal charges, or being diagnosed with a mental illness.

But the age when children were exposed to traumas made a big difference in how much they were affected. If someone was exposed to severe household dysfunction before age 2, for example, he or she was 7.4 percent more likely to experience problems as a young adult than someone who did not face trauma. But a person who experienced that family dysfunction in early adolescence was more than 43 percent more likely to have problems in adulthood than someone who had not. Being placed into foster care was the most closely associated with poor outcomes later on.

“This [age-related] finding may reflect the sensitivity of the adolescent brain or suggests that activities disrupted by [household dysfunction] during adolescence (e.g., education) are more vital for later outcomes than the activities disrupted during early childhood,” Andersen concluded.

Data showing the age-specific outcomes associated with traumatic stress.

That’s no surprise to Chad Sylvester, an assistant psychiatry professor at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Mo., and a specialist on brain development and anxiety disorders.
“The developmental task of this period in a child’s life is to become even more independent from parents. … Social relationships become one of the focuses if not the focus in a young adolescent’s life,” said Sylvester, who was not part of the Danish study. “Fear of negative social interactions, fear of performance, this is the time when those types of anxieties start to emerge.” Half of all people who develop social anxiety disorders do so around age 12, he noted.

That means, developmentally, that middle and early high school students during the pandemic could be experiencing family disruption just as they need to be secure enough to become more independent, and social isolation at the most important time to develop a social identity. Remote learning and counseling environments also can make it more difficult for adults to recognize students’ emotions and tell the difference between boredom and disconnection because of trauma.

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Encouraging remote social interaction can ease some of students’ feelings of isolation, Sylvester said; video streamed or online class discussions and opportunities for students to talk with friends in both formal and informal settings remotely is better than no social interaction. But he warned that virtual social engagement does not provide the same social development or emotional support as in-person connections. Over extended periods, it can even worsen students’ anxieties.

“For some kids, especially kids prone to social anxiety, to have a period where they are doing virtual learning may … help them hide a little bit—you know, to turn off their cameras, not engage as much; whereas, in a real-life classroom environment, you’re in it, and there’s more engagement in the social environment,” he said. “The more that you don’t engage and don’t endure those social anxiety issues, the more those anxiety problems get prolonged.”

The Association for Middle Level Education recommends educators help young adolescents reframe stresses during the pandemic as a “hero’s journey,” reflecting on how they and their families overcome challenges they face and providing examples of adolescents throughout history in similar circumstances. The group advised teachers to focus their classes on common goals and connections, and help students recognize growing competency, such as becoming more adept at navigating remote learning platforms or organizing their work spaces.

As districts plan for post-pandemic schooling, Sylvester suggested easing middle school students back into full-day, in-person classes with summer camps or short introductory weeks that focus on reengaging students through fun social activities and evaluating students’ needs with regard to the stress, anxiety, and trauma stemming from this pandemic period.

A version of this article appeared in the January 20, 2021 edition of Education Week as How can we reduce the burden of pandemic-related trauma on middle school students?

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