Covid-19 has truly impacted students of all types: the over-achievers, the shy students, students with disabilities, the at-risk students who struggle with academic engagement, the anxious students, and all the other personalities in between. All students have been through a traumatic academic event. Think about it ‑ until this point most students have encountered the same school environment and structure. They sat at desks or tables with their peers and their teacher stood in front of the room delivering the day’s lessons. Even if a student changed schools, the setup was the same. Students were able to find their niche and figure out their own way to navigate high school. Now that system has drastically changed and some students may be feeling like fish out of water or students without a “place”. There is no question that remote learning has impacted the way our students learn and perhaps even how they are evaluated. But how does remote learning impact our students’ mental health? What are some of the things school counselors should look for, especially when some of you cannot see your students as much as you typically would? How could this pandemic (or other traumatic events) influence your students’ academic future?
This year at the National American College Application Campaign (ACAC)* Conference one of the workshops focused on just that. Dr. Laura Owen from American University, and Dr. Kara Ieva, from Rowan University addressed how those working directly with students can help them to navigate trauma, stress, and grief. Supporting Students in Navigating Trauma, Grief, and Stress and the Impact on the College-Going Process is an incredible presentation that discusses how much this pandemic has affected students emotionally and academically. The title is a bit misleading; although there is attention to the college process, the workshop is truly applicable to any age group and is a very thoughtful and comprehensive look at stress, trauma, and what that looks like for different students. This webinar discusses students’ abilities to cope with difficult situations and some of the long-term effects and behaviors that can result. It also highlights how to interpret some behaviors that are triggered due to stress such as avoidance, over planning, lack of focus, defiance, and chandeliering.
Even if students have found the academic part of transitioning to online learning easy the lack of social interaction and loss of in person time with teachers, friends, clubs, organizations, and sports has deeply affected many of our students. The New York Times has an ongoing Current Events Conversation for which high school students are given a prompt to write in with their thoughts and opinions. Recently, students were asked how they have been coping with remote learning. Some students discussed the things they missed about being at school, while others focused on the challenges remote learning has posed, such as being easily distracted, difficulties in understanding their assignments, and unreliable internet. Another group of students shared they have found they enjoy learning at their own pace, setting their own schedules, and being free from the stressful environment they felt at school. Regardless of their situation, students have had to make adjustments, and change can be stressful.
At the end of the day, whether your school district has opted for an in-person, virtual, or hybrid learning platform, it is not the same. Change can be difficult and we are asking our students, who are already tasked with trying to figure out who they are and what they envision their future to be, to alter almost everything to which they have become accustomed. Take note of changing behaviors in students, especially those who are your overachieving and high-achieving students. Lacking access to the usual social outlets, classroom discussions (without being unmuted), and teacher check-ins, these students could start to feel limited by online learning and may begin to feel anxiety about their performance. Praise students who are flourishing such as your typically anxious-to-come-to-school kids; being home gives them a more comfortable environment and in turn could positively impact their academic growth. Even as we try to make masks and temperature checks a new norm, everything still feels a little upside down. Take the time to care for yourself, check in with your students, and reach out to colleagues for support during these crazy times.
*ACAC is a national effort to increase the number of first-generation college students and students from low-income families pursuing a college degree or other higher education credential. The primary purpose of this effort is to help high school seniors navigate the complex college application and admissions process and ensure they apply to at least one postsecondary institution. The effort occurs during the school day, with a focus on students who might not otherwise apply to college. The Center for College Planning coordinates New Hampshire’s “I Am College Bound” initiative which began in 2014 at six (6) public high schools with the “I Applied” campaign. Each year since 2014, additional public high schools have been added to the program. In 2020, high school seniors from fifty-four (54) New Hampshire public high schools will participate.
Since its inception, the program has taken on two additional components, “I Filed” and “I Decided”. The “I Am College Bound” series follows students from the beginning of their senior year of high school by first helping them complete their college applications, then encouraging them to complete a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and finally by celebrating their postsecondary education or career decision.