From March through October 2020, the proportion of emergency department visits related to mental health increased 24% for children ages 5-11 and spiked 31% for adolescents aged 12-17, compared to the same period the previous year. Those writing about the mental health field have consistently noted that children are experiencing feelings of isolation, stress, anxiety, and uncertainty much in the same way adults are. These symptoms amount to what some are calling “The Second Pandemic.”
Many parents often do not recognize the emotional toll that this pandemic is taking on their children because the children are physically healthy and appear to be happy. While we do not yet know the long-term emotional impact the pandemic will have, many mental health experts are concerned that the less obvious emotional struggles could leave an impact even after the pandemic ends.
There is a popular statement amongst educators that says: “Students have to Maslow before they can Bloom.” This means that the physical and emotional needs of students must be addressed and met before they can fully learn. This is based on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs versus learning as expressed in Bloom’s educational taxonomy. Teachers, educators, and parents who understand what it means to put children first have realized this fact amidst this pandemic. It is not realistic or healthy to aim for the same goals right now as we would in a “normal” school year. Without ensuring the physical and emotional wellness of our children, the learning that can happen during this pandemic would not be able to happen.
Some of the students and parents at my school share similar feelings and have been forthcoming about feeling a sense of “stuckness” — a sense of general monotony and boredom; a lack of stimulation; feeling socially stifled; a lack of activity outside of school, and anxiety about getting COVID-19. Therapists in private practice are overwhelmed by the sheer number of children who are experiencing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Without fail, private practitioners are over-booked these days.
Like most struggles, the challenges are not distributed equally. Children who are learning virtually or spend only a couple of days a week at school and those from underprivileged communities all face greater risks. Over 20 million students have not set foot in a school this year, and millions more are going a few days per week, at best. At the school I serve and those at similar schools are fortunate. As one staff member shared with me, “When I compare it to my own children’s experience, what is going on at our school is so much healthier, richer, and mentally supportive. I see a lot of amazing learning and I also see how what we are doing, even when not perfect, will truly help our students get through this.”
As we approach a year since the pandemic hit and our lives were upended, I think we can all agree that nothing is normal and that the longer it drags on the more mentally exhausting it becomes. And since nothing is normal, I literally have a plea for all of the parents who still expect their children to learn and engage as if nothing has changed — STOP! For all of the parents who still think teachers can successfully “cover all of the material” and teach with the same expected results from before the pandemic – STOP!
This is not a time to fixate on educational measurement tools and the conventional wisdom of the past, which was never so wise anyway. For those thinking our children must meet the same benchmarks to get ahead and be “ready,” understand that our children are not “falling behind” — a narrative we hear in the media and a fear freely promoted by some tutoring businesses. The measurements are artificial constructs designed? long ago. And while these constructs will still be with us (I hope not for long) after the pandemic, they will likely be adjusted to reflect the post-pandemic reality. We cannot fall into the trap that kids will now need to “catch up.”
There hasn’t been learning loss — there has been a school loss. Children are still learning. They are learning to be flexible, resilient, compassionate. Many have picked up new, creative skills or found new interests that stimulate their minds. They are learning through play. They are learning to negotiate and compromise especially with family members with who they are spending a lot of time with. They are learning life skills.
The schools that are on campus five days a week are blessed. We are blessed that learning is still taking place and that our children are gaining skills and growing emotionally and socially, in spite of these unique challenges. The skills associated with the school will also be learned. It should not be viewed as a race that children are now losing. Caring teachers will be able to assess where students are in their learning and adjust so that the skills needed are acquired long before they graduate.
For now, as the pandemic drags on, let’s put Maslow first — let’s make sure their emotional physical, and spiritual needs are being met – only then will they truly bloom.