Upper School Blog: The Pandemic and Student Well-Being

Now that we’ve been back in school for several weeks, it’s useful for us to reflect on how the pandemic upheaval has affected the mental well-being of young children across the country as well as what we’ve observed at Aidan. Much of what we are seeing at Aidan day to day, other than mask wearing, some recess modifications, and the absence of parents in the building, has returned to pre-pandemic Aidan life. We are certainly looking forward to the imminent day that our students can be vaccinated, which will enable the removal of even more restrictions. 

That said, there is little doubt that the dramatic changes our students experienced beginning in March 2020 left an imprint on the minds of our students. From a mental health standpoint, the most significant aspect of the initial shutdown was that many children faced frightening impacts on family, loved ones, and neighbors. At the same time, because of all of the unknowns, it was initially challenging for parents to craft responses to their children’s fears with reassurance that felt comfortable. Simultaneously, children were suddenly cut off from teachers, friends, and extracurricular activities. Students at Aidan were among the fortunate small minority of children who received rapidly (but carefully) designed virtual learning. However, we are all aware that even an excellent virtual learning program could not replace the interactive social experience of school or the value of learning in the Aidan classrooms, guided by our wonderful teachers.

To date, relatively little data has been collected regarding the impact of the pandemic on the mental health of young children—more research has been conducted regarding the impact on adolescents and teens. Even less research currently exists on the impact on children’s social-emotional development. I expect that we will have access to a great deal more research on both of these aspects of children’s well-being during the next year and beyond, particularly research on the rate of rebound following return to fully in-person school.

However, in a study conducted during fall of 2020, 22% of parents of younger children reported seeing overall worse mental and/or emotional health in their children. Behaviorally, these parents reported increased irritability, clinginess, sleep issues and poor appetite. Additionally, in some of the most current and comprehensive research on the mental health of older children (published August 2021) between 30% and 40% of parents reported negative impacts on the mental and emotional health of their children, with higher rates among marginalized people. Specifically, that research on older children found significant increases in signs of psychological distress, depression and anxiety.  

Not surprisingly, children who returned to in-person school during the previous school year fared better than those who remained in virtual school. It’s also worth noting that virtual learning was not initially entirely negative for all children, as many families enjoyed more unscheduled time together and some students preferred virtual learning as a means of avoiding preexisting social stress. That said, the positive effects of these silver-lining benefits proved to be temporary. The bottom line is clear and not unexpected: the pandemic profoundly affected the mental and emotional health of a significant portion of children.  

Based on what we’ve all observed and what existing research has demonstrated, it’s not surprising that we witnessed some atypical behaviors and physical symptoms of anxiety during the first month of school. Initially, we observed higher than usual levels of separation anxiety and ambivalence about arriving at school. We also heard from some students about headaches and stomach issues, which appeared to be emotionally triggered. However, we are happy to report that these issues have diminished significantly since September and continue in that direction. We are all focused on being attuned and attentive to our students’ unprecedented needs this year and have devoted ourselves to providing them the support they need.

What can parents do to support their children? 

First, give plenty of opportunity for your child to share their feelings of anxiety or fear. They may even seem baseless at this point, but recall that these feelings were triggered by an extended, sometimes frightening upheaval that none of us ever experienced as children. 

Second, try not to cave to school or extra-curricular activity resistance, which will only serve to reinforce the mechanism. Rather, collaborate with your child on functional ways to manage their fears. And, if you are not seeing gradual improvement in these negative emotions and find that they are interfering with daily life, please contact me or your child’s teacher.  

Finally, please join the discussion on this topic at our upcoming EPIC meeting at 8 PM on Wednesday, November 10th. We look forward to hearing what you have observed in your own children and what has aided your family in rebounding from the pandemic.

Sincerely, 

Courtenay Labson

School Counselor

BONUS: Below are a couple of the resources that you might find interesting: 

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