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Getting Your Child’s Mental Health Back on Track After A Year of Distance Learning

Photo: Courtesy of Chinh Le Duc

As families prepare for a new and hopefully more normal school year, it’s important to keep in mind the challenges children face during distance learning, and how it impacts their mental health. A recent survey revealed that 48% of parents reported that their neurodiverse kids have suffered high levels of school-related anxiety since the pandemic—more than double the rate of typical kids. 

Children who struggle academically are already at a higher risk of experiencing mental health issues. Anxiety and depression commonly co-occur with learning disabilities, like dyslexia. Children with ADHD are three times as likely to have an anxiety disorder and up to five times more likely to have depression. Struggling in school can contribute to feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem, which can make learning harder for students.

As children head back to school, parents should set them up for success by learning to navigate the many ramifications brought about by the pandemic and disrupted learning. 

Make mental health a priority 

First, we must prioritize children’s mental well-being over any academic concerns. This doesn’t mean lowering expectations but making sure children know that their wellbeing comes first. The pandemic has caused more children to struggle with mental health issues, and when you look at the research, the numbers are staggering. 

Understood recently conducted “Pandemic Learning Impact Study”, which found that 72% of parents have noticed behavioral changes in their children since the start of the pandemic. And when looking at neurodiverse children, the study found that they were about three times more likely to have experienced depression during COVID-19 schooling changes. The CDC also reported a significant increase in emergency room visits for children due to mental health emergencies during the pandemic.

If you think your child is struggling emotionally, there are steps you can take to support them. Let them know that many people struggle with mental health and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Dedicate at least five minutes a day to have check-ins with your child and to engage in positive conversations. Talk about how things are going with school and how they’re feeling. Some children will need support in identifying and labeling their emotions. A good tool to use is the Yale Center for Social Emotional Intelligence’s Mood Meter app that helps children name, describe, and react to their emotions. 

Parents can teach positive coping skills by talking aloud about challenges and the ways that they’ve attempted to problem solve. When children see their parents actively problem-solving and articulating difficulties, they are better able to do it themselves. 

Mental health is essential to academic recovery 

Learning gaps are critical areas to address as schools fully reopen, especially for younger students, low-income students, and those who learn and think differently. Understood’s study found that an astounding 59% of parents of those with learning and thinking differences, like ADHD and dyslexia, believe their children are a year behind because of the pandemic and may never catch up. 

Parents can collaborate with teachers on effective academic support strategies for school and home. Parents can also let their children know that it’s okay to learn differently or to struggle sometimes—especially after such a challenging year. They can remind them that everyone has different strengths and challenges, but the important thing is to grow their strengths while working through the things they find challenging. 

Talking with children about their challenges—whether academic or emotional—is an important first step in identifying potential solutions or mental health supports that can open the door to a more successful school year and greater feelings of well-being for everyone. 

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