Mental health among students is a challenge that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Distance learning has presented its unique challenges for attention, emotional engagement, socialization, and more, plus the added stress of the situation outside the home and changes to the usual lifestyle. Higher stress can affect a person’s mental health and overall well-being. This means that it is important to look at improving this situation, if possible, in this situation. To begin, we can explore the positive and negative effects of virtual schooling on mental health.
The Positive and Negative Effects of Virtual Schooling on Mental Health
Let’s start by looking at students who have reported mental health concerns pre-Covid. Even before the pandemic, certain groups of students were studied to see whether online classes were their preferred choice and whether they could be used to improve their outcomes. Several studies have found that distance learning can be a better option for some, seeing that distance learning can be an effective, and even a preferable alternative to in person learning for some students.
Students…are choosing virtual schools when given a viable choice and excelling…Current research suggests that high-risk students, with or without a disability, are choosing virtual school as a viable option. Students who need extra support, self-pacing, or cannot attend school physically can potentially benefit from virtual schooling(Cavanaugh, Repetto, & Wayer, 2011)
This study focused only on specific types of learners, such as those who are high-risk. Other individuals may also benefit from distance learning. Students who are bullied, have depression or anxiety, and face other social or emotional problems may not be able to seek additional support from their school staff and can benefit from the more controlled and paced environment of distance learning.
This suggests that distance learning is not the problem in itself and can even be a positive for many students. However, the current situation has brought its unique challenges. A problem for students, educators, administrators, parents, and anyone involved was the need for a sudden switch. There was a lack of agency in the implementation of this modality and the timeline in which it had to be implemented. With time to plan and organize, educators would have been able to introduce this learning approach much more effectively. So, virtual schools are not the problem in itself. The problem is more related to the lack of infrastructure and educator training to provide adequate support for distance learning.
Another study comparing the benefits of in person support groups versus remote support groups found that “communication difficulties may arise resulting from lack of visual and aural cues found in traditional face-to-face communication.” (White & Dorman, 2001). Although researchers focused on a specific group of people, their findings are of note to the topic of distance learning, as individuals might feel more limited and more confined in their communication.
Improving Distance Learning Through Student Mental Health Support
The sudden switch to distance learning has impacted all students differently, depending on the existing problems with mental health and other factors. There’s no one piece of advice for how to approach students within this context, and it’s important not to have assumptions about how students are doing. All learners are experiencing dramatic changes in their home lives and may be presenting new behaviors or facing new issues.
Both students with existing mental health conditions and those who don’t have them are likely struggling during this time. Here’s a few actionable tips on what educators can do to support students during this time.
1) Keep the line of communication open and reach out first
Students who are depressed or are facing other emotional difficulties might be unable to reach out first. However, in all cases, the educator is the adult. You need to reach out first to let students know you’re there. This is critically important when it comes to students who have any disability or who are facing any degree of stress.
2) Overcome inefficient practices
Efficiently communicating with students through a centralized platform is the best way to manage your own time. Fortunately, the MTSS framework provides an efficient structure for communication and centralization portals like FightSong. Communication with students is a way of supporting their mental health, however, it is often done Inefficiently and without being inclusive. For example, traditional, less efficient and effective means of communication (in person appointment only) can exclude the most vulnerable students who aren’t able to reach out. For SEL reporting and other cases, educators might need to learn and train more to accomplish better results.
Because of this, an argument can be made that schools integrate mental health services for their students to positively impact their mental health outcomes. This article outlines how multitiered systems of support (MTSS) can assist schools in providing all students with mental health services including students with disabilities.(Marsh & Mathur, 2020)
3) Ensure you’re taking time for yourself and limit your online time
Caring for others starts with caring for yourself as an educator. Make sure that you have Do Not Disturb mode on your devices when possible to take care of you and your family. It’s essential to improve mental health literacy in educators for both themselves and their students (Whitley, Smith, & Valliancourt, 2013).
4) The curriculum is important, but it’s impossible without mental health support
Learning the contents of the curriculum is important, but for many students, it might not be possible right now to excel and do their best. To meet the increasing need for mental health support, time and money are required to increase the number of trained professionals and the amount of available support. Many students do not have the tools to emotionally process everything that is happening, between the pandemic, stressors at home, and the changing procedures for school, students are having to quickly develop coping mechanisms.
5) Accept that some students may be regressing
Many students with mental health concerns rely enormously on forced socialization, an externalized schedule, and other support systems that are currently not working. Students with existing mental illness may find distance learning makes them experience certain symptoms, while those who have not a history of mental illness might experience the symptoms for the first time. Some students might miss more work or struggle more with simpler situations. The stress of being locked in, the risk of illness, the threat to their loved ones, increased financial struggles, not having access to events and fun activities – all this can limit the effectiveness students have today.
6) Online spaces provide a great way to connect students with SEL support and resources.
Kids are already online and might find online resources easier to access. Besides, SEL support has been repeatedly shown to improve mental health outcomes.
SEL programs improved students’ social-emotional skills, attitudes about self and others, connection to school, positive social behavior, and academic performance; they also reduced students’ conduct problems and emotional distress. Comparing results from these reviews to findings obtained in reviews of interventions by other research teams suggests that SEL programs are among the most successful youth-development programs offered to school-age youth.(Payton et al.,2008 )
By providing students with SEL support and resources online through text, which is often the preferred method of communication, especially when it comes to social emotional reporting, there can be better outcomes. These resources have 24/7 access, so submission can take place at any point. Kids are used to asynchronous dialogue.
Membership in online groups, on the other hand, may be unlimited and not contained by international boundaries. Availability 24 h a day, 7 days a week makes online support convenient and accessible at user discretion.(White & Dorman, 2001)
7) Some students may really, really hate distance learning no matter what you do
It can be useful to remember that some students might still struggle with distance learning and online resources, requiring additional support. SEL is more important than ever for educators, especially for school counselors and other support staff. Keeping the line of communication open with students is necessary during forced distance learning and the way to do that is through SEL.
Virtual schools aren’t the problem– they’re a great solution, but they are not perfect. It´s important to improve the infrastructure and provide training needed for virtual support and emphasize student mental health above other things at the moment.