“I’m lonely. Nobody wants to play with me. This virus took everything from me,” It has been one year since the outbreak of Covid-19, and nothing seems to get any better for Franscheska Eliza’s 9-year-old son Rafael. “He started becoming very aggressive,” Ms. Eliza said. “He didn’t see me as a teacher - he would start hitting me” (Klass, 2020). Rafael wasn’t the only child suffering from the psychological impacts of the pandemic.
When the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, the World Economic Forum declared Covid-19 the biggest psychological experiment. Amidst the unprecedented lockdown and social distancing, children were the most vulnerable population to suffer psychologically. A child’s brain develops at a rapid rate by interacting with its surroundings. Psychologist Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development stated that children are like “little scientists” who actively experiment to understand the world. Such receptive behavior puts children at higher risk to suffer from stress as they are sensitive to the emotions and atmosphere around them. Such psychological impacts of Covid-19 affects children in two different ways: educationally and behaviorally.
“One plus one?” asks Gloria Vasquez. Her 8-years-old daughter Ximena helplessly replies back, “four?” Ms. Vasquez is a single mother working as a motel housekeeper in Soacha, Colombia. Two of her children have already dropped out of school, and her third son refuses to go to school, saying, “I’m not learning anything.” Ms. Vasquez’s family is not the only ones struggling from the educational crisis. In fact, her struggles are seen worldwide. According to the World Bank and Unicef, 1.8 million students in Mexico were not able to return to school due to their family’s economic hardship; more than 5 million children in Brazil received no education at all during the pandemic; 100 million students in Latin America faced school closures.
According to Strauss from Washington Post (2020), approximately 1.5 billion children - 87% of the global student population - were shut out of their schools. Despite the rapid development of online education platforms, online teaching was still insufficient to deliver the same quality education as face-to-face teaching. Based on a survey answered by 325 K-12 educators, 61% of the respondents felt overwhelmed by the sudden switch of teaching methods, 44% struggled to find class materials online and optimize digital tools, and 43% found it challenging to communicate with students (Trust & Whalen, 2020). Thus, teachers were not able to immediately adapt to the new teaching conditions, which limited students’ learning opportunities.
Considering the rigors of distance learning, many parents chose to keep their children at home instead of sending them to preschool or kindergarten. As a result, early childhood education enrollment sharply declined. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (2021), preschool participation in the fall 2020 semester dropped from 71% to 54%; almost half of the children did not return to school. Such decline in preschool enrollment is significant as early childhood education sets the stage for children’s future education and life-long development. For example, one primary skill students learn during early education is understanding spoken language, also referred to as phonemic awareness. Language development is strongly associated with not just cognitive development but also emotional and social development. As children struggle to convey their thoughts, it would limit their communication skills and socialization with peers. Considering the increased number of children not attending school and the consequences of delayed education, experts fear that some children might struggle to enter elementary school this fall.
Students’ limited academic development continued throughout high school. Among 75,000 high school students’ responses collected from 2018 to 2020, 42% of the students reported a decreased engagement in learning, and nearly 56% said that their school-related stress increased since the pandemic (“Kids Under Pressure,” 2021). “I have never felt so much stress in one school year,” answered one Illinois high school student in a recent NBC Interview. The interview showed students talking about how school was “definitely less interesting” or some going through mental breakdowns. “I don’t understand, and I can’t ask teachers for help,” cried one student, as she sat in front of her screen, listening to the internet glitching over her teacher’s voice. High levels of demotivation and poor online learning conditions naturally led to students’ reduced academic performance, such as a drastic increase in failing grades. From the states, Florida Miami-Dade public schools reported that the number of high school students getting an “F” has more than doubled, and 42% of the students in Houston, Texas failed more than one class during the 2020 school year (“Failing Grades,” 2020). Many experts are particularly concerned about high school students as they are at the end of their academic careers with not much time left to make up for their learning losses.
The long-term effects of the pandemic on children are likely to continue beyond the pandemic era. The World Bank warns how lower education levels are likely to reduce one’s future economic status. As they were restricted from discovering their potential and developing their knowledge, they would face frequent barriers to secure employment and earnings later in life. One’s economic status could further lead to poor health and living conditions, low-quality life, and even higher crime rates.
“I feel alone,” she said. “So many things are happening — I can’t process it.” Jo’Vianni Smith is a 15-year-old student living in Los Angeles. Before the pandemic, she was a talented athlete thriving at her school’s varsity softball team and competing in the junior Olympic track and field championships. But after her school and softball season shut down, she stayed isolated at home, slowly falling into depression and anxiety. Jo is not alone in her mental struggles.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network noted that the behavioral, psychological impact of COVID-19 varies by childrens’ developmental stage. Children in preschool, between the ages of three and five years, mainly show signs of fear, reduced desire to eat, frequent complaints, and anxiety to be away from their families. In elementary school, between the ages of six and twelve years, students show higher levels of impatience, nightmares, and sleep deprivation. In adolescents from age thirteen to eighteen, students suffer additional inactivity and isolation. As children grow up, they tend to feel more insecure as their understanding and experience of the pandemic are more direct than children guided by their parents. Thus, numerous studies show how our future generations are expected to experience greater psychological risks as they get older and away from parental protection.
Anxiety is one of the major psychological responses that arose from children of all ages. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (2021) estimates 4.4 million kids in the U.S. are coping with anxiety amid the pandemic. Anxiety is considered as the body’s reaction to emotional stress. Everyone experiences anxiety in their daily lives. For instance, we feel anxious before taking a test, when we have to make an important decision, or when we face an alarming situation. Anxiety helps us to cope with these situations by giving us a burst of energy. However, if long-term stress continues, it eventually takes a toll on the body and leads to anxiety disorder. Boston Children’s Hospital reported, “the highest volume we see during the pandemic are children with suicidal attempts — many with anxiety and underlying anxiety disorders.” Anxiety disorder can directly lead to other mental health issues, such as sleeping disorders, eating disorders, disruptive behavior, and even depression.
Significant psychological problems among children and adolescents vary by demographic group. A study conducted by Susanna Esposito and Nino Giannitto,
pediatricians from Pietro Barilla Children’s Hospital and the Department of Human Pathology in Adult and Developmental Age in Italy (2021), reported how the lethality of Covid-19 was more evident among females compared to males. Females experienced greater loneliness, sadness, a sense of fatigue and agitation, and the fear of losing their families. Such severe psychological symptoms were also linked to decreased sleep time (while males reported an increased sleep time) and a lack of social interaction. The higher vulnerability of females to mental disorders was expected before the pandemic as anxiety and depressive symptoms were more common among women than men. This is because most females tend to internalize their symptoms while males externalize their emotions through aggressive and abrupt behaviors (Esposito et al., 2021).
Not only did the pandemic affect the global population, but it also exacerbated social and economic inequalities in its wake. Educational experts say that the pandemic impacted minorities, low-income, and rural children profoundly. Many students found themselves socially and educationally excluded from others because of their identity. “Children are learning how our society works, how racism divides us, and how the government has failed to respond to the pandemic,” said Jesse Hagopian, a high school teacher, and writer in Seattle (Goldstein, 2021).
Hope is just around the corner
UNICEF guidance on how teachers can support their children informs them to “communicate good health behaviors,” “encourage students to confront and prevent stigma,” and “empower students to be critical thinkers.” Yet, such guidelines are too vague and impractical. It does not address the fundamental issue of students’ academic stress and mental disorders. It also does not acknowledge the limited interactions between teachers and students via online platforms. Thus, the development of practical and feasible guidelines for online learning environments is in high demand.
One psychological treatment that is rapidly developing in the educational field is ‘Positive Psychology.’ Instead of focusing on students’ problems, positive psychology focuses on students’ well-being, emotions, creativity, and strengths. The practice of positive psychology starts from minor topics and slowly branches out into broader areas. For example, focusing on a student’s strengths and virtues allows them to build confidence and courage to confront their struggles directly. The key to positive psychology is not trying to diminish the negative emotions but augmenting positive ones. The implication of positive psychology to education is called positive education. One popular activity in positive education is the
“responsibility pie chart” made by Bounce Back, the first positive education program. The responsibility pie chart guides students to realize the three factors of negative situations: their behavior, other’s behavior, and luck. The visualization of negative events helps children to learn the controllable and uncontrollable factors. Providing an optimistic and objective view of their lives develops their confidence and responsibility. The Geelong Grammar School in Australia implemented the positive psychology education program into practice in 2008, and the effects were significant: decreased anxiety boosted self-esteem, and higher academic achievements (Moore, 2021). This is exactly what we need for students during the pandemic.
Active engagement in positive education all builds up to one skill - resilience. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from setbacks. Resilience is also the key for students to cope with the educational crisis during the pandemic. Being optimistic, having skills to boost positive emotions, and developing positive relationships to build strong friendships contribute to building resilience during difficult times. Although students are talking via video calls, the act of sharing positivity and triggering optimistic emotions would allow students to overcome academic pressure with a light-hearted attitude. Of course, mental disorders would be reduced as children are focused on their strengths instead of struggles.
“The pandemic changed a lot in me, like the belief that we can get stronger together. Because when we all get back together, we’re going to be way stronger than ever,” said 10-year-old Jordan during an interview with Scholastic. Maybe Jordan is right. Perhaps we still have a chance to make things right.
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