Coping with the Return to School During the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Melissa A. Callen, MA, LPC, ACS, Effective School Solutions

As school districts across the county begin the new school year, they are faced with the increase in mental health challenges students are experiencing due to the global pandemic. Many students have been struggling for months with a toxic combination of social isolation, environmental stress, and increased anxiety- in short, a collective trauma shared by a whole generation of young people.

The Impact of Traumatic Stress on Children & Adolescents

Childhood traumatic stress occurs when violent or dangerous events overwhelm a child’s or adolescent’s ability to cope. Examples of traumatic events include neglect, psychological, physical, or sexual abuse, racism, discrimination, natural disasters, terrorism, school violence, commercial sexual exploitation, serious accidents, life-threatening illness, or sudden or violent loss of a loved one. (SAMHSA)

Like adults, children are experiencing new or intensified stressors as a result of the pandemic, including the loss of routine, separation from friends and extended family, and increased anxiety and frustration. Families may also be experiencing:

· Food insecurity

· Caregiver job loss

· Loss of parent or loved one

· Not being able to engage in rituals

· Extreme illness in the household

· Exposure to abuse

The first step to healing trauma is to identify the signs that trauma has occurred. Everyone reacts differently to stressful situations. How you respond to the outbreak can depend on your background, the things that make you different from other people, and the community you live in.

Educators, aids and caregivers need to know the signs of traumatic stress that students may exhibit. Below are a few examples that students may show:

In Preschool

• Fearing separation from parents or caregivers

• Frequently crying and/or screaming

• Eating poorly and losing weight

• Having nightmares

In Elementary School

  • Becoming anxious or fearful

In Middle School & High School

  • Feeling depressed or alone

If trauma is left untreated, students may develop a number of challenges including:

  • Learning problems, including lower grades and more suspensions and expulsions

When trauma is identified, the conversation needs to center around “What happened to you” and not “What’s wrong with you?”

Tips on How to Support Students in the Classroom

The return to school will look different not only across the country, but also within each state. Teachers need to be prepared to support students in person and or virtually.

Patience, Tolerance and Reassurance

  • Remember the classroom starts with you

Misbehavior is a Symptom

  • Behavior is communication

Teach Social Emotional Learning

  • The goal is self-awareness and self-regulation

Classroom Strategies

  • Provide consistency and structure

Connecting Language

  • “Good morning, Charlie! It’s great to see you today.”

Remember Your Nonverbal Cues

  • Paralleling


  • Taped pacing area

Connect to Parents/Caregivers

Don’t underestimate the power of positive phone call home!

  • Identify yourself

Transition Time Interventions

  • Play soft music

Environmental Interventions

  • Warm lighting

Self-Care for Teachers & Students

Educators are feeling the pressure of the ongoing pandemic. They are stressed, worried, frustrated, nervous, the list goes on and on. Students feel the same way. It is important that teachers and students take care of themselves. Teachers, you need to model this behavior. Most importantly, be kind to yourself, in turn your students will be kind to themselves and each other.

In summary, all districts can make a meaningful difference in the mental health and wellness of their students not only during the back to school period, but the whole school year.

Reinventing K-12 Mental Health Care. Effective School Solution partners with school districts to help develop K-12 whole-school mental health programs.

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