Opinion: COVID is stressing Georgia children. How can adults help?

Early in the pandemic, these signs sprouted up in Dunwoody to offer reassurance that Georgia would get through COVID-19. Now, almost two years later, there are growing concerns about how children have been affected by the prolonged pandemic and its impact on schools. (John Spink / jspink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

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Early in the pandemic, these signs sprouted up in Dunwoody to offer reassurance that Georgia would get through COVID-19. Now, almost two years later, there are growing concerns about how children have been affected by the prolonged pandemic and its impact on schools. (John Spink / jspink@ajc.com)

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Experts agree kids are under stress from two years of pandemic

Research shows trauma in children often results from stress that is chronic, unpredictable or prolonged.

In other words, the story of COVID-19.

More than two years into the pandemic, stresses are surfacing not only in K-12 students in Georgia, but in the adults who care for them.

“Before the pandemic, we certainly were at a mental health crisis point with young people. COVID has exacerbated it,” said clinical child psychologist Erica Fener Sitkoff, executive director of Voices for Georgia’s Children. “There is no way to avoid this kind of uncertainty, frequent change and isolation fundamentally impacting child development.”

Consider the disruptions faced by children who started school in 2019. In kindergarten, they had to shift abruptly to online classes as COVID-19 spread. In first grade, they attended a combination of in-person and remote school as the virus persisted and the debate around it grew rancorous. Now, with omicron depleting the workforce, second grade has become a series of starts and stops.

Amid a deadly virus spread by airborne particles and droplets, children are living with constrictions about what they can do and daily cautions about whom they can see.

“I am pro-mask. I would not send my kid to school without masking up,” said Atlanta therapist Amy Bryant. “But this is a hard message for them, for all of us, seeing other people as dangerous and breathing as dangerous.”

ExploreThe latest on how coronavirus is affecting Georgia schools

Bryant sees heightened anxiety in children and more resistance from some to even going to school. While parents want to be rocks for their kids, she said: “They are also having anxiety and depression. It’s nobody’s fault. Therapists are burned out. Teachers are burned out.”

Sitkoff said trepidation about the future has to be acknowledged. “Students today only know a school year where there are changes. They haven’t known stability,” she said. “How will our system support these children so they come out the other end being able to navigate whatever experiences they face better because they had such a once-in-a-generation experience like this?”

Jennifer Miller, a national expert in social and emotional learning, said this is not the time for schools to return to old learning standards and double down on rigor.

“That is a recipe for breakdown,” said Miller, author of “Confident Parents, Confident Kids.” Both the statehouse and the schoolhouse ought to look at the brain science that shows kids don’t achieve when they don’t feel safe, she said.

“We are treading water and getting nowhere,” Miller said. “We are drowning in academic standards, assessments, high-stakes rigor and watching our children fail and failing them. It is sad to see we can’t band together and create a safe learning environment for both our teachers and our students, so that they can actually learn something.”

Child advocates contend that schools and teachers must be allowed to create a safe psychological space where children can calm down and de-stress.

“If we don’t do that, we are losing everyone — our students aren’t learning and our teachers are leaving,” Miller said.

Here are suggestions from Bryant, Miller and Sitkoff:

1. Take daily temperature checks of how children are feeling at home and in school. “Being in touch with their emotions helps them manage their emotions,” Miller said.

2. Understand children are going to be disruptive. “They are not going to do their homework. They are going to be late. They are going to fight and argue,” Bryant said. “They don’t need threats. When kids are having a hard time, we have to stop punishing them for it. They need discipline practices that build their skills instead of scaring them out of their misbehaviors.”

3. Teachers and parents also need to take steps to deal with their own anxiety and depression so they can be there for children. “We know anxiety is contagious. If a parent is anxious, the child is two or three more times likely to develop anxiety,” Miller said. (Go here to read more.)

4. Build time and space in schools for programs and groups where kids can support one another, which can be peer-led in the upper grades and teacher-led in the elementary schools.

5. Recognize when children need professional help. If local therapists are booked — often the case now in metro Atlanta — consider telehealth appointments with therapists elsewhere.

6. Remember that children are learning many things during the pandemic, including courage. Rather than see children’s futures diminished by COVID-19, lead the charge to ensure they become emotionally intelligent adults who can survive and even thrive in tough times.

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