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Kids’ mental health can struggle during online school. Here’s how teachers are…

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While schools debate the return to online learning, the lack of Internet access for many Americans is a major point of contention. USA TODAY

When her high school in South Carolina went online this spring, Maya Green struggled with the same emotions that many of her elderly classmates: she missed her friends. Their online tasks were too easy. She struggled to stay focused.

But Green, 18, also found herself working more for teachers who knew her and cared about her.

“My school doesn’t teach much about social and emotional learning,” said Green, who just graduated from Charleston County School of Arts, a magnet school, and heads to Stanford University. “But I grew up on this creative writing program and I’m very close to my teachers there, and we had at least one purposeful conversation about my emotions after we moved to the Internet.”

Of the other teachers, Green did not hear much to support his mental health.

This was a common complaint among parents when classes were online in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus. With the sudden interruption of learning personally, many students missed their friends, wished to be away from home, developed irregular sleeping habits and made their parents crazy (often working). In addition, many were dealing with the trauma of sick or dying family members, economic difficulties and disruptions in their lives.

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As the pandemic continues, it is clear that not all children are doing well. Nearly 3 in 10 parents said their children are suffering emotional or mental damage because of social detachment and school closures, according to a national Gallup poll in June.

“‘Unmoored’ is the best way I can describe it,” said Michael Rich, associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School. He saw an increase in young patients with anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

“They don’t want to get up and go to another zoom class,” said Rich. “They don’t want to finish enrolling for college.”

Ty Jackson, 18, studies with his sister Ellie, 15, at his home during the April 16 coronavirus pandemic in Jacksonville, Florida (Photo: Will Dickey / Florida Times-Union)

As more districts choose to start the school year virtually, teachers will have to improve the delivery of new academic content online, in addition to meeting students’ social and emotional needs.

Schools, Rich said, should consider using the virtual environment to create new relationships between teachers and students.

“It’s not just one where kids can get help with algebra, but kids are talking to teachers about what’s going on.”

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Putting it all together: Academic and emotional learning

In normal times, many schools did not deliberately set aside time for teaching non-academic “social skills”, such as empathy, determination and self-care. This makes the focus on a virtual environment, amid a set of challenging circumstances, even more daunting.

But the world is a stressful place at the moment, given the global health crisis, the economic crisis and the ongoing protests against racial injustice. It is important for school staff to cultivate emotional connections, say child psychologists and mental health experts, even though addressing students’ academic issues seems more urgent.

There is a lot of fear, dismay and confusion, but not everyone is experiencing the same pandemic, said Frank Ghinassi, leader in behavioral health at RWJBarnabas Health and Rutgers University.

NEARKids' mental health can struggle during online school. Here's how teachers are...

The coronavirus is causing great stress in families. Here’s a look at how the country is doing and tips on how to deal with mental health problems. USA TODAY

The most negatively affected children, he said, are those who were already disadvantaged due to food or housing instability, domestic violence, unsafe neighborhoods, fragmented families or missing models.

“The dilemma that teachers face in a virtual environment is that they probably know who else struggles with poverty and other difficulties, and yet they virtually need to treat everyone more or less equally,” said Ghinassi.

Online class in Connecticut on Friday, March 20, 2020. (Photo: Devin Leith-Yessian, AP)

That is why some districts are emphasizing the emotional side of learning for all children, before asking them to tap books.

In public schools in Falls Church City, Virginia, the district of some 2,800 students will start online on August 24 and spend the entire first week setting expectations, procedures, behaviors and simply getting all students used to going to class and learn again, said Superintendent Peter Noonan in a July 24 memo.

Philadelphia Public Schools is sponsoring a free mental health hotline to connect children and families to bereavement support services to deal with the trauma of the pandemic, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. The service is a partnership with the Uplift Center for Grieving Children, a local agency that serves the line of master’s level doctors.

In El Paso, Texas, schools are planning a weekly 30- to 45-minute block for students to connect with their teachers around social and emotional skills. And each day will include a short, live session on connecting and building the community, said Ray Lozano, executive director of student and family training at El Paso’s Independent School District.

Lozano said the time spent on these skills will be more structured than in the spring.

Teaching and learning, especially this year, needs to be “more relational and less transactional,” he said.

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Why stress emotional health so much?

In recent years, “social and emotional learning” has become a buzzword in schools, but it does not receive as much attention as academic learning, because it is more difficult to measure progress and results.

But a growing body of research, in addition to anecdotal evidence from schools, suggests that students perform better academically when they are taught to control their emotions and develop traits such as empathy, determination, collaborative spirit and the ability to navigate conflict.

“We are talking about promoting an inclusive environment and caring relationships that elevate students’ voice and agency,” said Justina Schlund, director of field learning at Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, a nonprofit organization in Chicago. “They can contribute to their own learning, but also to the school and the community.”

The challenge: how to do this when classes begin virtually, before teachers have met some or all of their students and before they get to know each other well.

Austin Achieve Public Schools, a network of charter schools in Texas, plans to start each morning with 45 minutes of social and emotional learning. The network will adapt its “circle time” tradition – where children sit in a circle for moderate conversation and where only one student speaks at a time – to an online environment.

Generally, those in a circle pass around a symbol known as a “talking piece,” but when circulating via videoconference, teachers need to improve the use of the mute button on everyone except the speaker, said Danielle Owens, restorative justice coordinator at Austin Achieve.

In the Oakland, California Unified School District, which will open on August 10 with all students learning remotely, virtual morning meetings will be held for 10 to 30 minutes, depending on the grade level, said Sonny Kim, who coordinates the Office of Social and Emotional Learning.

The plan is for teachers to greet each student individually, set the tone and purpose of the day, and teach or practice a social skill through a virtual activity. The district hopes to create a sense of belonging and increase inclusion, said Kim.

“The goal is more to talk to students than to talk to teachers,” he said. “We want to ask, ‘Who else agrees and why?’ and ‘Who has anything to add to what has been said?’ “

Allison Grill, a third-grade teacher at Emerson Elementary in Oakland, began adapting social and emotional learning to an online space in the spring. She and her fellow third-grade teacher created a “virtual recess” for students.

Emerson Elementary employees in Oakland attend a meeting via Zoom. Photo sent by Allison Grill. (Photo: sent by Allison Grill)

Teachers are silent on the videoconference program and encourage students to chat live and chat live on the app – whatever they want.

In addition, each morning, in a quick online form, students choose a color that describes their feelings, such as red for anger, yellow for high energy, but positive, green for focus, calm and ready to learn.

“We asked them, ‘Is there anything you want your teacher to know about you today?'” Asked Grill. “And then we asked a question to start the day, like ‘What dance TikTok do you want to learn this week?’ Or ‘What is your favorite ice cream?’ “

In the spring, the students had already met their teachers in person. So this fall, Emerson’s teachers are working more closely with their peers in the previous grade to understand the individual personalities of incoming students. This is easier at Emerson, Grill said, because teacher retention is high and there are only two classes of students per grade.

Another idea that is forming in Oakland: teachers can make home visits – personally or externally – to all their students’ families at the beginning of the school year, to try to promote strong relationships.

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