Melissa Wilson, LMHC
Education in a Pandemic: Re-socializing Our Children
We - as parents, teachers, grandparents, and any caretaker who has provided support for our children during this pandemic - spent so many days ensuring the children were accessing online learning, while keeping everyone in the house physically safe, working from home, making sure food got onto the table every night, and likely - doing a lot of worrying. And - like many of us - we stayed apart and away from loved ones including parents, grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors (the list goes on). You had the people (and animals) who were living in your home - and, for some, neighbors who you would gather with outside at the fire pit at night because you needed other humans and you craved that socialization. We all did - especially our kids.
However, for many of us, we followed the laws and we stayed apart to keep everyone safe, but, no one really warned us of the emotional repercussions of keeping everyone apart, especially the impact this would have on the children and adolescents. I mean - as a mental health clinician - my colleagues and I regularly discussed the impact of the pandemic on this vulnerable population. We made predictions about how we would see an increase in anxiety, depression, and trauma; however, we never could have predicted how challenging this "re-socialization" process would be for everyone. As soon as adults started receiving the vaccine, the state of Massachusetts (along with many other states) started making plans for students to have a full re-entry back to public school. Of course we wanted everyone back to the traditional routine where children headed off to school and families went back to work - safely; however, no one was ready for the amount of social-emotional support our children would need.
For many of us, we were so focused on our own anxiety and getting back to our former routines - especially the routine of where the children learned AT school, instead of on "Zoom School" (as we called it in my home!) - that state leaders simply thrust everyone back together again, like we had not missed out on over a year of learning and socializing regularly in person. There was no plan to support educators, but, at the same time, no one really knew the full impact of how the pandemic had impacted our children and students, until we witnessed it ourselves. This fall, the children returned back to school with sky-high anxiety and that anxiety has been presenting itself in a variety of ways, like disrespect to peers and teachers, lack of focus and attention, difficulty with emotional control, impulsivity, all the executive functioning challenges you can think of (organization, time management, planning, etc.), lack of motivation - and the list goes on.
Yet, we certainly cannot blame the poor kiddos. For some, they have witnessed deaths of family members due to COVID, they have seen their families struggle with finances, they have watched family members lose jobs, they have seen parents' relationships deteriorate, they have lost their own friendships, they have witnessed the emotional or mental deterioration of family members in their homes, they have witnessed an increase in substance use and abuse within their homes. For others, their lives may not have reached this level of trauma; however, the isolation increased feelings of anxiety and depression that were not acknowledged or realized until we returned to social situations, particularly at school.
Since we went into this without much of a plan - what do we do now? How do we help to re-socialize our children? I don't really have a concrete answer for this - it really is a loaded question with so many variables. I mean, when I look at my own children - my oldest child is currently in 4th grade, but he has not had a full year of in-person learning since 1st grade. My child who is in 2nd grade has never had a full year of in-person learning in elementary school. So - we have gone back to basics in my house. In my brain, sometimes, I am like: "...but he is almost 10 years old, he should be able to...", but I stop my thoughts in their tracks. The thing is - he can't do it because he has not been taught, so I cannot ever say "he should be able to do something". For example, my boys don't really know how to make small talk with peers or neighbors because we have not been in those social situations in a long time. So, now, we practice and we talk about it - I kindly address it with them and we laugh at mistakes we make. I am not going to lie - for some reason, it feels more exhausting than ever - but, we keep at it and we are getting there. My point: we cannot assume that the children and teenagers know how to do things in life right now. We cannot place those unrealistic expectations on them because they have missed out on so many important social situations for a really long time. Just because our children are a certain age does not mean they know how to handle these social situations or the academics or the executive functioning demands. We have to teach them - explicitly. It cannot only fall onto the shoulders of educators - re-teaching our children will take collaboration. It is hard work.
I wonder if it feels so hard because, as caretakers, we continue to carry around our own worries as a result of this pandemic - when you feel worried or when you feel depressed, caring for others can feel especially challenging. So, in my case, I am really trying to take care of myself - a lot of meditation, exercise, yoga, and just time to be by myself, so then I can be more patient to address the needs of my own children. I still wonder how long this will take - for the anxiety to diminish, for all of us to feel comfortable in social situations - or if, for some, the trauma is far too deep for it to simply be resolved in a single season. How has the pandemic impacted your children or the children you know, especially in school and in other social situations? What are you doing now to help them? What do they need to help reduce anxiety and feel more successful in school? If your kiddos appear to be unaffected by the social challenges so many others face, what did you do to maintain stability for them? Like always, sending love your way as we navigate living life in a pandemic.