Impact of pandemic-related stress on children persists, experts say

Experts detailing how the pandemic still is affecting kids’ mental health and learning loss want to emphasize that children are resilient and can flourish with good support.

“What we’ve seen are patterns of lost learning persisting,” said Jim Soland, an assistant professor of quantitative methods at the University of Virginia.

Soland was among panelists attending an online briefing hosted by SciLine, a nonprofit based at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

“Our most vulnerable students are also the ones being hit the hardest,” Soland said. “There are a bunch of different ways to define the vulnerable, and along almost all of those dimensions, those kids have had bigger interruptions to their learning.”

Noting that solutions to catch up with learning loss might entail long-term strategies, such as extending the school day, reducing class size or adding extra tutoring and “some optimism to go with it,” Soland said recovery will take more than what schools alone can provide.

“In my opinion, too little attention has been given a student’s psychological and socioemotional needs, in large part because we don’t measure those things quite so frequently,” he said.

Even before COVID-19, the rates of mental health problems with kids were escalating and access to services was low. A child clinical psychologist at the Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, panelist Tali Raviv said now it’s worse.

Rates of suicide attempts among girls 12 to 17 years old increased 51% from February and March 2021, compared to the same period in 2019. Boys saw an increase of 4%. The number of teenage suicides has been rising steadily in the U.S. since 2007,  Raviv said.

“You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic — meaning that every adult in a child’s life has a role to play,” Raviv said. She added that stable, supportive adult relationships with everyone from community members to coaches and mentors can buffer the impact of toxic stress on children, help them cope and build resilience.

Raviv said schools have shortages of counselors, social workers and psychologists; and teachers are challenged. The system needs more support.

“Things like co-located school-based health centers, I think, is a really promising approach to advocate for that,” Raviv said.

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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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