The signs of the times have included such themes as social distancing, quarantine, and self-isolation. Needless to say, these themes have affected all segments of the population in different ways, some more so than others. One segment of particular interest and importance are the children and parents who have had to trade in the normal, secure routine of the physical school concept for a more flexible, virtual model of schooling. If this transition isn’t hard enough, they’ve had to do this in the confines of home, with various other confounding factors at play: family dynamics, socioeconomic realities, full-time work responsibilities—not to mention concerns about health and the future. These conditions are ripe for elements of stress, anxiety, and depression to play out for many of those involved.
That is why, with National Stress Day on April 16, it is important to analyze strategies that help students (and parents/guardians) at home deal with the stress and anxiety that results from the absence from structure and routine of school. There are many resources and tools available to support families and school districts during these times of absenteeism and distancing, but one that has emerged that is particularly helpful during this time is teletherapy.
A Surge in Need for Continued Student Therapy Services
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 20 percent of children in the United States suffer from a developmental delay or disorder. Most of the responsibility to provide therapy services for those high-risk students falls on schools, as dictated by the No Child Left Behind Act. In the current situation, where the majority of schools are closed across the country for an indefinite period of time, widespread discussion has begun among educators on how to continue to support these populations of children.
Just as virtual and remote schooling via webinars, videoconferencing, and phone calls have become the new short-term reality of most of our nation’s youth, so too will child therapy services. The implementation of such services is undoubtedly a new challenge with new factors that may not have been considered by school counselors and psychologists, but have become a necessary go-forward plan due to the urgency that many families are facing.
Anticipated Mental Health Effects of Social Distancing and Isolation on Children’s Psyche
Although there is limited data on how current social measures will specifically affect children, the anticipated toll based on all related historical information is significant. Simply put, children may be used to having a consistent, structured routine that involves daily meals, play, peer-to-peer socializing, and professionally supervised learning. They may be used to meeting with their prescribed counselor or psychologist week-to-week. Now, these same children have had the rug pulled from underneath them.
It is also important to remember the high variability of at-home situations with regards to physical, emotional, and psychological safety for these confined youth. Even in the most ideal situations, in which the household is a safe, productive, and caring environment, social distancing and isolation will still make for heightened stress levels for parents and children at home. Anxiety and depression were already rising in the U.S. According to the CDC, 6.3 million children aged 3-17 years of age were diagnosed with some form of anxiety or depression.
How Educators, Counselors, and Parents Can Help
There are several ways to mitigate the risk of the above conditions through the same tools that have supplemented the social distancing trend as of late. Additionally, there are several resources available now that guide counselors and guardians on how best to tend to a child’s mental health through remote means. Similar resources also exist to advise district leaders on how best to address the issues through people, process, and technology solutions.
As a school or district leader, consider setting up a cross-functional task force to create a plan around child services so that they may continue for those high-need students, remote or otherwise. Engage teachers, counselors, social workers, and others to help communicate and execute the program for the health and safety of your students. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) has a guiding set of resources to support leaders during these emergency shutdown situations. Additionally, the ASCA has written the ASCA Ethical Standards for School Counselors, with a specific section on virtual and distance school counseling.
For parents, there are several at-home approaches to take to lower the strain on family and student psyche. These include instituting a consistent schedule/routine that incorporates daily physical activity, social time, and healthy eating goals. Unicef has also created a guide for teenagers to protect their mental health during times of increased isolation.
How Technology Can Play a Healthy Role
Teletherapy is a burgeoning field that will only continue to grow as the broader telemedicine industry flourishes. The technological limitations that exist in many households across the country will still exist, however. For families who are fortunate to have broadband connection and internet-ready devices, remote and distance therapy will be a significant resource to access the services of school counselors and therapists.
There are several teletherapy tools out there (see some examples for both adults and teens here, here, and here), but it is also important to remember the broader goals of mental health therapy during isolating times as well: to socialize and interact with others. Social media tools can also help with face-to-face contact in this regard. Using FaceTime, Zoom, and TikTok to interact with peers may be preferred over simple audio or textual interactions.
Regardless of a school’s or household’s approach with virtual learning, what’s important to pay attention to in the coming months are the virtual resources that will replace other aspects typically provided by the structure and resources of physical schooling. One of those resources is access to therapy and mental health resources for students. In the absence of physical schooling, households and all education stakeholders must find ways to supplement households with the necessary tools and guidance that play a role beyond just learning and curriculum. From physical activity to mental health counseling, it will take a communal effort to provide the nation’s students with the resources they need to thrive in remote and virtual environments.
Visit GoGuardian's Distance Learning hub for resources to support your schools during closures.