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Helping with Student Anxiety During the Global COVID-19 Crisis

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), anxiety disorders (including phobias, social anxiety, separation anxiety, panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder) are among the most common mental illnesses to affect children and adolescents, impacting 7% of 3 to 17-year-olds. While there is considerable evidence that individuals vary in their biological vulnerability to anxiety, researchers also theorize that current environmental factors such as social media and mass shootings are contributing to the increase in childhood anxiety that experts have been seeing in recent years.

Enter the novel coronavirus. This global health crisis is contributing to a spike in fear and anxiety in both adults and children. Teachers and students alike are struggling to adapt to remote instruction, as well as to changes in family routines and demands.

It is important to remember at a time like this that anxiety is a normal and protective human emotion that serves an evolutionary, survival function. The human fight-flight response allows us to become vigilant when there is a new and possibly threatening circumstance that we must assess and adapt to. By design, anxiety is higher when the threat is different from any we’ve experienced before.

Below are some suggestions for supporting your students and their families, and to cope with your own anxieties:

Remember that this is temporary, although timeframes for a return to “normal” remain unclear.

Limit exposure to media coverage, both in terms of time spent per day and who you choose to listen to. Tune in to only one or two trusted sources (e.g., the CDC, a state medical official). Shield younger children from the news altogether; for older children and adolescents, watch together so you can explain and discuss what is presented.

Normalize feelings of sadness, fear, anger, loneliness, uncertainty, lack of control, etc.

Create new weekday and weekend schedules: time for school-work, for family exercise and games, for preparing healthy meals together, for connecting with others virtually. Be flexible, however, since anxiety and other unpleasant emotions will ebb and flow.

Monitor adult conversations in front of children and adolescents to protect them from additional worries over which they have no control (e.g. family finances).

Carefully monitor students who have already been identified as having mental health, learning or substance abuse challenges. Encourage parents to remain vigilant in maintaining medication regimens and to participate in virtual ESS and community provider therapy visits.

Students in high conflict families are extremely vulnerable. There is evidence, for example, that rates of domestic violence have increased.

Students with trauma histories are also especially vulnerable to the isolation and disrupted routines caused by school closure.

Encourage parents to facilitate Skype or FaceTime playdates and family visits for younger children, and help older children creatively use technology to stay connected to friends and beloved family members.

Incorporate mindfulness practice and movement into online, virtual classroom activity.

Younger children have a tendency to blame themselves for things that go wrong (“Mary got sick because I didn’t take a bath”), so both reassure them and encourage positive health behaviors like hand washing.

Challenge yourself and your students to consider the unexpected silver linings that might appear after we safely emerge from this pandemic: more time with family, a greater appreciation for school and in-person relationships, a reassessment of priorities.

References:

https://www.apa.org/monitor/2019/12/combat-anxiety

Resources:

https://store.samhsa.gov/product/Coping-with-Stress-During-Infectious-Disease-Outbreaks/sma14-4885

https://store.samhsa.gov/product/How-To-Cope-With-Sheltering-in-Place/SMA14-4893

https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/fact-sheet/outbreak_factsheet_1.pdf

https://arfamiliesfirst.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/Cognitive-Distortions.pdf. A useful self-help tool by renowned psychiatrist Dr. David Burns.

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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