Kyle C. Averill, M.Ed. is the Director of the Inova Kellar School, a therapeutic education program serving students grades 3 through 12.
The fallout of COVID-19 is real — and for school-aged children in particular, the pandemic has taken a huge toll on learning, as well as their social and emotional well-being.
“There has been a tremendous loss of community and connection for children since the pandemic began,” says Ravinderpal Singh, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Inova Kellar Center. “Unfortunately, we won’t understand the full impact of COVID-19 on children and families for a decade or longer.”
The Impact of COVID-19 on School Kids
COVID-19 posed unprecedented challenges for parents, teachers and children alike. Over the past 14 months, children have been forced into lockdown, returned to in-person school part time and now they’re facing a return to full-time, in-person school in the fall.
While many adults believe kids are resilient, that’s a dangerous position to maintain when resilience reserves are waning. In fact, according to Kellar School Director Kyle Averill, M.Ed., children are absorbing some of the same stresses as their parents. At the same time, the channels kids use to diffuse their stresses and frustrations — sports, friends, time away from their parents — have evaporated.
“We frequently hear the term ‘unprecedented challenges’ as it relates to the pandemic and heading back to the classroom is yet another unprecedented challenge for school-aged children and their parents,” Averill says. “Returning to a large building with 3,100 students is going to be a challenge; and at this juncture, we really don’t know what that’s going to look like.”
Toxic stress happens when the body’s “fight, flight or freeze” hormones stay on high alert for days, weeks, months or even years without relief. “This chronic exposure to stress hormones can rewire a developing brain in ways that are difficult to change,” Singh says. Children may lash out unprovoked or withdraw from friends and loved ones. Left unchecked, chronic stress can also increase kids’ risk of developing future health problems.
Cultivating Resilience in Children
When we overcome tremendous challenges, it’s called resilience. Some people seem to easily push past trauma while others may suffer for years or even decades after the threat is over. Whether your child bounces back after COVID-19 or crumbles under the pressure of so much disruption and change depends in large part on what protections are in place.
“Fortunately, there’s a lot we can do to buffer children from harm and help them succeed, not only academically, but also socially and emotionally,” Singh says. Here’s how:
- Show up: Studies consistently show that children who have at least one stable, supportive and caring adult in their lives are more resilient than those who don’t. That caring adult provides the child with a sense of safety that can boost their self-efficacy during challenging times.
- Meet basic needs: Meeting your child’s basic needs, including sleep, nutrition, clothing and medical care, is critical to protecting their health and well-being. Sleep is especially important since the brain needs down time to process stress, grief and trauma.
- Practice self-care: Parents set the tone for children. If you’re fearful and anxious about your children returning to school, it’s a safe bet they will be, too. That’s why it’s important to take a step back when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Write in a journal, read a book, take a bath. Not only will you be better equipped to address your kids’ needs when you take a time-out, but you’ll also model self-care strategies.
- Focus on safety: During stressful times, parents and educators can focus on the three Rs to help children feel safe:
- Reassurance: Reassure children that they are safe and that you are there to support them in every capacity. Be open and honest about how parents, school administrators and community leaders are working to ensure their safe return to the classroom.
- Routines: Children do best with routines, so it’s important to establish and maintain a predictable schedule with set times for sleeping, waking, eating, learning and playing. If there’s going to be a shift in the schedule, make sure you talk to your children early and often so they can mentally prepare for the change.
- Regulation: Help children manage difficult emotions by teaching them a variety of coping skills. Some kids like deep breathing. Others prefer running. It doesn’t matter which activities your children choose, as long as it helps them learn to manage big feelings.
- Get connected: One of the best antidotes for stress, grief and uncertainty is strong social connections. “Spending time with loved ones in an unstructured way is something we’ve rediscovered during quarantine, and it can be remarkably healing,” Averill says. “There are lessons from the pandemic that we can and should take with us into the ‘next normal.'”
A Safe Place for Children to Land
Even before the pandemic, researchers noted a spike in mental health issues among children and teenagers. With the stress and unpredictability of 2020 and 2021, experts expect those numbers to continue to climb.
“For every kid who is managing okay, there are a bunch of kids who are not — and those kids are in the shadows,” Singh says. “As children begin to get back into buildings, we’re expecting a voluminous increase in referrals for mental health services.”
Part of what makes this pandemic so challenging is that there is no clear end point. As such, it’s important for parents and educators alike not to expect kids to perform at their pre-pandemic levels in school or at home.
“There has been so much attention and effort to normalize what we’re going through and plow through chemistry or AP algebra, when what we should be doing instead is allowing kids to reset and just be together again,” Averill says.
Watch for these warning signs that your child may be struggling:
- A loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy
- Avoiding friends and social situations
- Changes in appetite, weight or eating patterns
- Excessive irritability
- Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or sleeping all the time
- Less interest in school
- Problems with memory, thinking and concentration
Keep in mind that every child is unique, and some may need more time and space to process their feelings. Teens and young adults may try to hide their struggles, while younger children may not know how to communicate feelings of stress, overwhelm and sadness. “In every case, it’s important to talk to your child’s teacher and pediatrician so you can access the right supports,” Singh says.
For child and adolescent behavioral health outpatient services, call 703-218-8500. For inpatient adolescent behavioral health inpatient services, or adult mental health and substance use services (both inpatient and outpatient), call 703-289-7560.
Inova Kellar Center provides a full continuum of outpatient services and programs, including individual, family and group therapy, medication management, psychiatric evaluations, psychological testing, intensive outpatient programs, and partial hospitalization programs.