As the start of the school year looms, many school districts are offering virtual learning early on to keep students safe from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But some health experts say while remote learning is good for children’s physical health, a prolonged period of time away from classmates could have a negative effect on their mental health.
Jennifer Baggerly, a professor of counseling at UNT Dallas and a licensed professional counselor at Kaleidoscope Behavioral Health in Flower Mound, said she sees a collision between development needs for young students and their physical health. She said young children enter a stage when they learn to do things on their own, and interaction is important for that.
“Children and adolescents need to interact with their peers face-to-face in order to meet developmental milestones,” Baggerly said. “Yet COVID restrictions prevent them from doing so.”
In addition, Baggerly said a prolonged time away from peers can, and has, led to increased anxiety in students of all ages.
“We have been seeing an increase in referrals for children who are experiencing anxiety and depression because of this prolonged adjustment period,” Baggerly said, adding that in some cases the referrals are up 25 to 50 percent since before the pandemic.
Baggerly said some children are coping with uncertainty and even loss.
“They’re wondering things like, ‘when will I go back,’ ‘will my friends still like me’ and ‘will I be able to maintain my friendships?’” Baggerly said.
She said the types of loss students are going through include the same types of activities that previously had helped them find a sense of place.
“There’s a loss in friends and activities,” Baggerly said. “Students in group sports have had a sense of loss. That’s been their opportunities to shine, and now they don’t have that.”
Other experts agree. Lamar Muro, an associate professor at Texas Woman’s University and a licensed professional counselor, said being away from what’s normal can impact learning.
“All kids need a sense of psychological safety,” Lamar Muro said. “If they don’t have that their learning and mental health could be compromised.”
How to help
Baggerly said counselors have been helping children and their families learn how to adjust. She said while it may be the children who are experiencing the anxiety, it’s important that parents, and even teachers, involved in the adjustment.
“We suggest a semi-structural routine so that they’re attentive during the day but it’s flexible based on the circumstances,” Baggerly said.
Lamar Muro said she and her husband understand the importance of children having interaction with their peers, even though it must be done safely. When possible they will arrange small group activities – maintaining a social distance – with their children and their friends.
“We try to maintain social and peer support,” Lamar Muro said.
Baggerly said daily self-care strategies are also important. She said those can include exercise, prayer or meditation, and family activities.
In fact, Baggerly said family activities are especially important right now given the potential increase in tension in a now-full household.
“Parents are stressed from working from home and taking care of their children’s needs,” Baggerly said. “There may be more conflict. Parents may need to repair relationships through positive interaction over family meals or games.”
Baggerly said there is a time to cope with the anxiety at home, but then there’s also a time to seek professional help.
She said it comes down to the intensity, frequency and duration of the anxiety and depression symptoms.
“If your child is having two or three episodes a week and there seems to be no sense of relief, then it’s time to see a professional counselor,” Baggerly said. “Or if there are more extreme reactions, like if the child says, ‘I want to die’ or ‘life isn’t worth living,’ and they continue to feel like that for more than a couple of days.”
Joel Muro is a professor at Texas Woman’s University, a licensed professional counselor, a registered play therapist and a crisis intervention therapist.
Joel Muro said there is also a fear element that needs to be addressed.
“The more communication parents do with their child, the more it will quell their fears,” Joel Muro said. “And their mental health will be in a good state.