Supporting Children’s Mental Health on the Return to School During COVID-19

Dr Mohammed Yousef, Specialist – Psychiatrist, Aster Clinic, Al Muteena

With schools slowly opening around the world, approximately 1.5 billion students have begun attending schools in the new normal, worldwide. For the vulnerable young school-going children, this new situation poses difficulties in meeting with friends, restrictions in playing and building social connections and disruption in daily activities. This increases stress levels of children and can impact their mental health.

Some of the focus areas of concern are:

  • Mental health of children could get impacted by a unique combination of the public health crisis, social isolation and economic recession.
  • Students may experience diminished motivation toward studies, increased demand for learning independently and a new set of daily routines.
  • A student survey by YoungMinds reported 83% of respondents agree to worsening pre-existing mental health conditions due to loss of routine and restricted social connections.
  • Warning signs may include being withdrawn more than usual, disrupted eating and sleeping patterns, irritable mood, and having no interest in activities they typically enjoy.
  • Children who struggle with social anxiety are likely to experience elevation of that anxiety when heading back to classroom. This can lead to avoidance or temper tantrums.

Parents, teachers and other significant people of students can support the child’s mental health stability in many ways.

  • Adults need to help children by creating a conducive environment to express their feelings.
  • Brainstorm with your child/children to find ways to ease the transition to the new routines.
  • Teachers can act as buffer against the fear and anxiety (about the pandemic) felt by children, thus establishing a safe and supportive environment for learning.
  • Relationship-building strategies like morning meetings and regular check-ins with students go a long way in rejuvenating academic interest.
  • Informal assessments like quizzes can help gauge how much extra support a student needs and in what direction.
  • Teachers need to practice “differentiate instruction” – by giving students choices, connecting the curriculum to their interests and providing multiple opportunities to demonstrate their learning.
  • Trauma-informed practices to be established as an integral part of school activities as students experience economic hardships and grieve the loss of family and friends.
  • Opportunities to connect can be built into school assignments through activities like online discussions with peers or online gaming.

Our children are challenged with unprecedented complexities, uncertainties and anxieties during this pandemic phase. While we try to balance and deal with the impact, it provides a real opportunity for schools and parents to re-evaluate communication strategies. There is also an impending need to facilitate additional mental health support to further fine-tune, change and adapt individual learning experiences.