George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Isolated Students May Struggle to Stay Mentally Healthy

Teachers can build strong relationships with and between students to help them get through this very challenging time.

October 13, 2020
Teenage girl stretching while working on her laptop at home
byswat / Alamy Stock Photo

The Covid-19 pandemic has had a detrimental impact on many students’ mental health. In a May 2020 survey, seven out of 10 teens reported mental health struggles, 61 percent said they had experienced an increase in feelings of loneliness, 43 percent said they had experienced depression, and 55 percent said they had experienced anxiety.

All that indicates that educators need to be attuned to indicators that a student is struggling. They also need to embrace new strategies to support the social and emotional well-being of students during distance learning.

Here are a few ways that your students’ mental health struggles might reveal themselves, as well as ideas for communication and activities that can help them get through this challenging time.

Loneliness

According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, social isolation and loneliness among children are associated with increased mental health struggles; another study that examined the effects of social isolation across the human life span indicates that it can impair executive functioning skills.

When students are facing loneliness, they might reach out to teachers at all hours, make frequent attempts to engage in nonacademic topics, and speak negatively about themselves.

Here are some strategies to help:

  • Host virtual lunch groups, which can allow students to chat, watch funny videos, or prepare simple food together.
  • Host online games—for example, through Houseparty—after school or in the evening to create opportunities for students to have fun together.
  • Connect with a school in a different state or country and match email pen pals. Now is a perfect time to connect with other students—even those on the other side of the world—through a platform such as ePals.
  • Host clubs, sports, and extracurricular offerings virtually. Even though you cannot meet in person with students, you can still hold clubs or practices online.

Create online journals via tools like Google Docs so that students can express their thoughts and you can respond. Journaling can be a great way to communicate and encourage students to express themselves, share their ideas, and remain connected on a more personal level.

Hopelessness

Given the many aspects of uncertainty in the world, and not knowing when things will return to normal, many students may experience feelings of hopelessness and depression. Depression can actually change humans’ ability to think, affect focus and memory, and impact information-processing and decision-making skills.

If your students disengage from class discussions, stop completing assignments, make comments about the work being pointless, have a pessimistic outlook, or report a lack of energy and motivation, they may be experiencing depression and feelings of hopelessness. It is critical to share these observations with a school counselor or social worker.

These strategies can support students who may feel hopeless:

  • Create self-care plans as part of a class assignment, and ask students to identify strategies to support their academic, physical, and emotional well-being. This activity can easily be tied into an English and language arts, wellness, art, or social studies class. In a math class, students can calculate percentages of time spent in activities.
  • Have students earn extra credit by completing self-care tasks such as an entry in a gratitude journal or a record of happy thoughts.
  • Incorporate mindful moments and brain breaks. During Zoom classes, listen to a short mindfulness video, play calming music, use a few minutes for deep breathing, hold a short dance party, or do some jumping jacks or stretching.
  • Focus on quality, not quantity. You might need to reduce the length of assignments or homework problems and focus instead on having your students produce quality work.
  • Post a laugh of the day/week and a thought of the day/week. On your virtual classroom page, post a funny video, meme, or song and some information on self-care strategies and mental health supports.

Panic

Many students may be experiencing feelings of panic. They are overwhelmed and coping with anxiety. This can impact students’ ability to learn; it makes it difficult for students to take in and process information as well as remember knowledge. It can actually obstruct learning.

Students who need constant reassurance, show a regression in academic skills or in their ability to work independently, need an increase in support to complete work, become easily overwhelmed, shut down or stop engaging in class, or focus on the what-ifs may be experiencing feelings of panic and anxiety.

To help support students who may be experiencing feelings of panic and overwhelm, educators can do the following:

  • Give specific and frequent individual praise. Send emails, direct messages, or even e-cards to privately acknowledge students. During Zoom classes, use emojis (e.g., a thumbs-up or one conveying celebration) to quickly acknowledge student work and comments without interrupting the flow of class.
  • Provide just a few options when making assignments and break assignments down into smaller steps. Students with anxiety can become overwhelmed by too many choices. Providing feedback on each step of larger assignments helps reassure students that they are on the right track.
  • Allow students the opportunity to redo assignments. When you provide students with opportunities to incorporate your feedback into tests or papers, you can foster a growth mindset.
  • Value student voices. Solicit student feedback through the use of surveys to check in about pace, workload, expectations, assistance needed, etc. Allow students to ask for help in a variety of ways—for example, through direct messages, emails, or a question forum in the virtual classroom page.
  • Use breakout rooms to work one-to-one with students. Some students may need help with task initiation and starting assignments, so using a virtual breakout room during independent work times can help them talk through an assignment and come up with a work plan.

In the face of stress and distance learning, teachers can make a dramatic difference when they support the social and emotional well-being of students. These strategies emphasize the importance of connections and compassion.

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  • Mental Health
  • Social and Emotional Learning
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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