Learning Well: Beyond the Pandemic

Why mental health is the key to dealing with learning loss

April 15, 2021

The best way schools can help students catch up academically after a year of distance learning is to ensure they feel relaxed, safe and connected to their friends and teachers as they return to the classroom.

A year after the pandemic forced school districts to close campuses, students across California are beginning to return to the classroom at least a few days a week. But their experiences during the pandemic and their needs upon returning to school — academically, as well as emotionally — have varied greatly.

Some students adjusted well to distance learning and thrived academically, but many others struggled with online classes and endured hardships at home, such as Covid-related sickness or deaths of family members, parents’ unemployment, or time-consuming responsibilities such as caring for younger siblings or going to work to help support their families.

“There is a direct link between mental health and academic performance,” said Jeannine Topalian, president of the California Association of School Psychologists and a psychologist in Los Angeles Unified School District. “When a child is worried about a parent being unemployed, or whether the family will become homeless, how can they learn to add? Or read? Students will not be able to move forward until their mental health needs are met.”

Nearly all students over the past year felt some degree of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic, but some experienced far more serious mental health challenges, depending on their circumstances.

More than half of California students who responded to a survey by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California said they experienced serious stress, anxiety or depression at least some time during the past year. An increasing number said they had suicidal thoughts. Some students simply vanished from schools’ radars by not logging into online class or responding to emails, texts or phone calls.

But the overall picture of students’ sense of well-being is nuanced. Education Analytics, a national data research nonprofit, analyzed surveys of 30,000 California students in grades 4 to 12 and found differences in the way students of different ages and subgroups felt about themselves and their relationships with others during the pandemic.

Older students, for example, tended to rate their personal well-being as poor, but had higher opinions of their relationships with peers, possibly because they were able to stay connected through social media, said Libby Pier, director of impact at the firm. English learners in upper grades reported higher personal well-being, but across all grades, expressed lower opinions about their relationships with others.

The survey was given in the fall and again in the winter, and the results will be released later this month by Policy Analysis for California Education. Researchers then matched the survey results with students’ individual academic records to determine a connection between academic performance and how well a student is feeling emotionally. Schools will be able to use the information to help individual students who need support.

“There are a lot of variables, but in general we found that if students feel more positively, they do better academically,” Pier said. “And if they like school more, they perform better.”

Well-thought-out, concise surveys about students’ well-being should be a part of all schools’ reopening plans, according to a report by PACE released in February. Schools should also adopt a comprehensive plan to address students’ social-emotional needs and provide help for students with more serious mental health issues, according to the report, which includes several examples of surveys that schools can use.

Learning loss, defined as a slowing or reversal of academic progress, is expected to be severe as campuses reopen, especially for younger students and low-income students, according to recent PACE research. Gaps in achievement among different student groups are also likely to widen because of the disparate impact of the pandemic on different subgroups, according to the report.

That’s why it’s so important for schools to prioritize students’ mental health before delving into academics, said Amy Cranston, executive director for the Social Emotional Learning Alliance for California. Students who are lagging behind will not be able to progress academically until they feel good about themselves and connected to school, she said.

“If it was up to me, I’d focus on nothing but SEL and mental health until the end of the school year,” she said. “It’s an equity issue.”

Students need time to reconnect with friends, practice their social skills, get to know their teachers and adjust to the routines and rules of campus life again. That means daily check-ins for students to talk about their emotional state and plenty of activities such as yoga or mindfulness. It also includes lessons that emphasize communication skills, self-awareness, relationship-building and ways to express emotions.

Teachers should check in with students every day, either one-on-one or in small groups, about how they’re feeling, and know when to refer a student to an on-campus counselor, social worker or psychologist if needed, Cranston said.

Schools should hire more counselors, train teachers and administrators on social-emotional learning techniques and, if needed, open on-campus wellness centers or partner with local nonprofits to provide mental health services for students and their families, she said.

Cranston advised schools and parents to not overly focus on learning loss during the first few weeks of reopening. Some students actually excelled academically during the pandemic, and children in general are resilient; many will quickly pick up what they’ve missed once they’re feeling good emotionally, she said.

The California Department of Education is encouraging districts to use their state funds from AB 86, a $6.6 billion California school funding initiative that passed in March, to train teachers and staff in social-emotional learning practices, expand mental health services, and broaden after-school and summer programs to focus on activities that help students feel connected to school, such as field trips and hands-on learning activities.

“I am unapologetic about this. Students need to feel seen, recognized and supported right now. In essence, they need to feel love,” said Michael Funk, director of expanded learning for the California Department of Education.

Summer programs will be especially important, particularly for students from low-income families who can’t afford camps for their children, he said. Some districts have contracted with YMCAs, Boys and Girls Clubs, local departments of parks and recreation and other agencies to provide extensive summer programs for students to socialize, visit new places and do activities that connect to academics, such as reading or math.

Ideally, investments in students’ mental health and emotional well-being will become a permanent part of districts’ planning and budgets, Funk said.

“This is not the time to go back to business as usual,” he said. “We have an opportunity, coming out of the pandemic, to do something transformative. This should not be a one-off.”

In Tehama County, a rural area north of Sacramento, districts have expanded their social-emotional learning and mental health services for several years, due to increased problems with student attendance, behavior and academic performance. Those practices have proven to be effective — the suspension rate at Red Bluff High School has dropped by half since 2016-17 — but during the pandemic, they’ve been invaluable, said Jim Southwick, assistant superintendent at the Tehama County Department of Education.

Most students in Tehama County have been attending school full time or in a hybrid model since September, and daily check-ins, classroom conversations about emotions and other activities have helped students cope with a tumultuous year, he said.

“Even students who had attendance issues were excited to be back in school,” Southwick said. “We think it’s because of the relationships they built on campus. And SEL (social-emotional learning) is all about relationships.”

In Orange County, the Department of Education is providing free or low-cost training for teachers, administrators and other school staff in social-emotional learning techniques in order to ease students back onto campus.

The practice goes beyond activities and check-ins; it’s a comprehensive approach to creating a positive mood on campus, said Colleen Ferreira, the county’s coordinator of social-emotional learning. It ranges from direct instruction on communication skills and identifying emotions, to including student input on how and which academic subjects are taught.

“You can have academics and SEL at the same time,” Ferreira said. “They can be integrated. It should be a whole system approach.”

Any classroom approach should be flexible enough to allow for a variety of student experiences, Topalian said. Each student will have had unique experiences in the year away from in-person class, and schools should not try a one-size-fits-all approach, she said.

“Every student’s experience is going to be different,” she said. “Some students will have experienced death, wildfires, social injustice, domestic violence. And others will have had very enriching experiences at home and be doing well. We have to be careful not to transmit our own anxieties on those students.”

So far, she’s heard of few surprises or hiccups regarding students’ return to campus.

“Mostly, I hear students are really excited to be back in school. And their teachers are, too,” she said. “Right now, everyone’s really happy. So that’s good.”

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