Elementary students still grappling with pandemic stress
Academic delays and barriers to learning are common for school children due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, but local counselors and therapists say some younger school children are still experiencing delays and difficulties in their emotional growth and normal social.
Elementary students don’t just learn academic subjects, they learn skills about friendships, relationships, and social interactions. Pandemic pressures have made it harder to learn some social and emotional skills, said Cheryl Fullerton, a school counselor at Strawberry Park Elementary.
“This whole school year has been devoted to recovery and crisis management. It’s been emotionally very difficult for a lot of people,” Fullerton said.
For that reason, local teachers, counselors and child therapists are working together to help students through the lingering stress of the pandemic, Fullerton said.
“There are a lot of kids who haven’t had the same social interactions, and when issues arise, they don’t know how to react,” Fullerton said. “For example, when children are feeling really strong emotions, they don’t have the skills to say, ‘I feel really anxious.’ manage their emotions and express their feelings.
Fullerton said school counselors teach weekly classes in classrooms on topics including problem solving, mindfulness, naming and expressing emotions, empathy and understanding others. Many classrooms also have a “calming corner” that students can use to recharge, relax or refocus, Fullerton said.
“This pandemic has exacerbated already existing conditions, whether it’s anxiety or dysregulated behaviors,” Fullerton said. “Because there was such intensity, it brought things to the surface because the kids don’t know how to cope.”
After working with a school counselor for four to six weeks, students who still need help can be referred to local therapists. The pandemic has increased those referral numbers, Fullerton said.
A local resource is certified child psychotherapist and play therapist Beth Wendler, who has an office in downtown Steamboat Springs. Wendler and three colleagues working in play therapy are currently very busy, with an average wait time of a month for new appointments. Wendler meets weekly with colleagues Tiana Schneider, Brooke Lightner and Sophie Berkley to support each other in helping clients.
“The general issues that I see are that children have missed two years – certainly a year and a half – of school time where they have learned developmental processes, interactions, coping and many skills that children learn at school,” Wendler said.
Child therapists often use play therapy where children’s playful activities can provide insight into their anxious thoughts.
“It’s really helpful for kids to understand how their thoughts and emotions can influence their behaviors,” Wendler said.
The psychotherapist said children who realize they are falling behind their peers in normal academic or social learning may develop increased levels of anxiety. Children may feel frustrated, sad or embarrassed, which can lead to generalized anxiety.
“Kids who are behind academically, it affects them emotionally. They feel like they’re not as smart as their peers,” Wendler said.
Young children who are still honing their social skills have been hit hard by the pandemic stress, but older students have also been affected because they didn’t have as many healthy outlets.
“Because kids had so much downtime and downtime spent on social media, it can be quite toxic,” Fullerton noted.
Professionals said some signs that a student could benefit from seeing a therapist include the child’s inability to calm down, unusually strong reactions to small things, difficulties in relationships and friendships , withdrawal or self-isolation, and being stuck in a sad emotion when the child is more often sad than happy.
“If a child is so emotionally unregulated, they won’t learn,” Fullerton said.
UCHealth has created an online educational video series called Coping with COVID Stress to help children and parents cope with the ongoing mental impact of the pandemic. The first video helps parents and children identify stress-related anxiety, anger, and cognitive issues. The second video helps children understand that it’s normal for stress to evoke many feelings at once, and that the sudden flurry of emotions can be mitigated by using a number of coping skills. The third video aims to help children feel safe and comfortable asking for help.
The series features interviews with experts, children, parents and teachers as well as animations. The 6 to 10 minute videos are available on bit.ly/CopingWithCovidStress.
“Everything that was normal and expected was kind of removed, and now it’s slowly coming back to normal. Some things, even in healthy families, can be hard on kids,” Fullerton explained. attentive, it’s always very difficult, because the children are not emotionally mature enough to handle what is happening.”
To reach Suzie Romig, call 970-871-4205 or email [email protected].