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Pandemic Stress, Remote Learning Affecting Child Behavior

Psychologists and teachers have found the disruptions of the pandemic and being out of school have led to more behavioral problems, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in children and teens.

stressed child at desk holding help sign
(TNS) — Has your child or teenager started struggling mentally or acting out during the pandemic? You're not alone.

At 21 months and counting, the pandemic has taken a toll on most people. But, local experts say children and teenagers are being particularly impacted mentally and emotionally, leading to an increase in problems like anxiety and depression and negative changes in behavior for many.

"Children thrive on predictability and stability," said Dr. Elizabeth Englander, a professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University. "And right now, we're in a situation where it's the opposite of that."

Englander's research centers on children's mental health, especially issues like bullying, cyberbullying and aggression in children. She said that, at the beginning of the pandemic, she and others were particularly worried about a spike in cyberbullying.

"But that really hasn't materialized," she said.

Instead, she and other researchers have seen an increase in children experiencing anxiety and depression based on metrics like hospital admissions for children experiencing mental health emergencies. Much of this, she said, stems from feelings of isolation and a lack of social interactions.

Younger students, especially, are dealing with increased separation anxiety during in-person school, after becoming acclimated to being at home with their parents during remote learning.

They've also heard from teachers about students displaying a noticeable increase in behavioral problems, Englander said. Younger students will sometimes get up from their desks and sit on the floor during class, or struggle to not talk with their classmates.

"One teacher said to us, 'It's like they've forgotten how to be in school. They're treating it like it's their living room," she said. "They just don't know how to behave."

Sara Rodrigues, a social worker who co-founded Fall River's Balanced Learning Center and an incoming member of the Fall River School Committee, said her non-profit has seen a huge increase in families looking for services. Many of them are worried about children who are experiencing anxiety, panic-related issues, depression and prolonged grief. Some students are seeing declines in academic achievement or now struggle to sit through a school day, sometimes running out of classrooms.

Part of the problem, she said, is that the pandemic has stretched on for so long, leaving children — and everyone else — in a state of limbo and uncertainty.

"You can't access skills to help with stress because you're stuck in survival mode. In kids, this can look like behavioral problems and what we would call oppositional behavior. Kids might have shorter tempers," she said.

It's not just young children who are struggling mentally through the pandemic, she said. Teenagers might seem like young adults, but really, their brains are still developing and they may struggle with expressing their emotions healthily, she explained.

"They have a disconnect between what they know and how much they can process," she said.

Some high schools and middle schools are seeing more students engaging in verbal altercations or physical fights or behavioral like damaging school property, as they adjust to being back in in-person schooling.

"Our kids are trying to get used to more structure," Rodrigues said.

Recently, Fall River's B.M.C. Durfee High School and several other local schools were impacted by a national social media trend that involved fake school shooting threats. Rodrigues said the social isolation caused by the pandemic means inappropriate social media use comes as no surprise.

"(At the beginning of the pandemic), our kids were relying on social media to connect with the outside world," she said. "Kids really need connection and our job right now is to reinstate those connections."

Keith Michon, the president of the Fall River Educators Association who until this year was a teacher at Kuss Middle School, said he's heard from teachers that students are showing signs of increased trauma. Many local students already struggled with financial hardships or a difficult home life, and these problems have compounded during the pandemic, he said. And, remote learning made intervention for struggling students even more difficult than before.

"Consistency is really important in a child's education," he said.

In New Bedford, ways to address the pandemic's impact on mental health in schools is high on the list of suggestions for ways to use the district's $74 million ESSER Covid relief funds. Adding a Parents as Mentors program, hiring additional counselors and training on coping skills and stress management were some of the ideas in the survey presented to New Bedford School Superintendent Thomas Anderson at the community forum this fall hosted by United Interfaith Action of Southeastern Massachusetts.

Michon said that even before the pandemic, the district has placed an increased emphasis on trauma-informed teaching and social-emotional learning. Interim Superintendent of Schools Maria Pontes has indicated during discussions about the next school budget that she wants to prioritize reducing class sizes, adding more support staff and increasing funding for social-emotional learning, all of which would go a long way toward helping students with behavioral problems and mental health issues, Michon said.

"It needs to be everybody, all hands on deck," he said.

Rodrigues said educators should focus on ensuring students feel safe and comfortable in school over worrying about things like declining MCAS scores. Building positive relationships with students should be the top priority and will make other tasks easier, she said.

"It's connection over correction," she said. "The academics will come, but kids who aren't regulated won't be able to learn."

Both she and Englander said helping children learn how to identify and express their feelings goes a long way toward helping them express difficult emotions in a healthy way.

Englander said teachers can take advantage of a curriculum she developed that addresses students' mental health needs which is available for free for schools that request it, along with two books she wrote during the pandemic meant to be read by children who are struggling during the pandemic. She also suggested districts give educators more training for how to work with students who are seeing increased mental health and behavioral challenges.

She said the burnout and added stress many educators are feeling amid the pandemic means that more time spent in training is a big ask.

"But this is a serious problem and I don't think it's going to go away on its own," she said. "There will be some kids who just bounce back. But there will be many who won't."

©2022 The Herald News, Fall River, Mass. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.