#schoolsafety | Texas School Safety Center Q&A: How COVID-19 has affected students’ mental health

Stephanie Peterson is a training and education specialist with the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University. She has conducted research and reported on the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on students in and out of the classroom.In a July 12 interview with Community Impact Newspaper, she explained how isolation and remote learning during the pandemic have changed how students respond to situations in the classroom. Peterson also noted mental health was already a concern among students before the pandemic, leading to the compounding of issues for children as they returned to school.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did COVID-19 affect students’ behavior and mental health?

Well, the pandemic has impacted children, adolescents and adults in a variety of ways and to varying degrees. Specifically, young people have been impacted in ways that adults may not have been impacted, and that’s due to their brain development, their life and coping skills, their social skills, and then their dependency on adults in their lives for security and survival.

They’re also experiencing potentially some skill deficits when they come back to school. So students have been faced with unprecedented challenges due to the changes in their routines, their daily structure, and access to resources and support. They also look to us as adults on how to navigate all of these changes, but this is all new to all of us as well, so we’re not exactly sure how to navigate everything as it comes.

That starts with some things that were an epidemic among students even prior to COVID-19. Surveys from the American Psychological Association from 2013 and 2018 found that teenagers were experiencing really high levels of stress regarding social and safety issues, including school safety. So students are returning to school with compounded issues.

They may have been exposed to deaths of loved ones, including their parents. They may have familial financial insecurity due to job loss. They may have loss of housing. They may be struggling with food insecurity. They may themselves have been hospitalized. All of this impacts their perception of feeling safe in the world, and this means that for some of these young people, they’re experiencing real trauma.

So then you add in the potential learning loss and skill deficit—they may be behind where everybody else is and feeling overwhelmed and not even know how to ask for help or believe that they can catch up academically. And we know that untreated chronic stress can lead to depression, anxiety, substance use, thoughts of suicide or homicide, and even impact our physical health.

Many of us didn’t really [interact with] anyone other than our immediate family for months. And this can put some people at an increased risk for abuse and domestic violence because others are no longer seeing them or talking to them about what’s going on at home.

Another thing that we’re seeing is, with the increased use of technology and time spent online, students who are prone to bullying are now likely to cyberbully because there may be less oversight when parents are working at home and juggling additional responsibilities. Bullying and cyberbullying are still very prevalent concerns and issues that are facing our students. So they’re managing a lot of change [in] responsibility expectations and other things that are weighing on them. Recent research suggests that an increase in depressive and anxiety symptoms among young people have happened as a result of the pandemic, and mental health has actually become a national emergency.

What are some ways that school districts can work on behavioral issues and behavioral health? How might they be able to approach discipline through the mental and behavioral health lens?

When we understand that many students have experienced trauma even prior to the pandemic and we understand the impact of trauma, then, when we are trauma informed, that means that when we encounter difficulty with a student, our first thought is, “How might this relate to trauma, rather than a child being willfully disobedient?” Understanding how traumatic stress impacts a student does not excuse the behavior, but it explains it.

So another way that schools can address this is through multitiered systems of support. MTSS is an umbrella framework that focuses on the whole child, and it has three tiers.

The bottom tier is schoolwide interventions that are for all students. It can include support, like social-emotional skill instruction or behavior expectations, and that will work and be beneficial and helpful for about 80% of students.

Then tier two interventions may be for about 15% of students who need more specialized support. So they may include things like social skills groups, restorative circles [and] conflict resolution skills.

Tier three is at the top of the triangle, and that’s for approximately about 5% of students who need more intensive interventions and support. That could include individual therapy, functional behavior, assessments or wraparound supports.

How might coverage of school shootings in the media affect students?

So students can react differently because we are all individuals. Even in the same family, one student or one child may react differently than another child.

Depression doesn’t always look like sadness. Anxiety doesn’t always look like that anxious energy. So it can affect students in a variety of ways. One student may withdraw and kind of internalize and process on their own. Another one may be really impacted and affected, but anyone looking at them wouldn’t be able to tell. They’re acting like everything’s OK, and it’s only in the context of pulling them aside and having those conversations with them that you realize that they really are struggling with something.

What areas do you believe legislators should focus on to prevent school shootings?

When we zoom into the threads of a fabric, … you can see that there are many strains that come together to provide that structure. And school safety is like that fabric. There are a lot of strains that come together to provide that safety and security.

So I believe that there are a lot of things that need to happen in order to keep our schools safe. So it’s one of those things that’s not a one-answer solution. … I think it’s all of those pieces of strands that come together.

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