It's a really hard time to be a kid right now. You can see that as a parent. Nothing is the same as when you were a kid and it seems like today's children are faced with all new and complex stressors.
That's why we wanted to sit down with some of the people who get to interact with your children in an environment that you don't usually get to see - school. We sat down with teachers from across the state of Pennsylvania to chat with them about how, from their perspective, children are doing right now. What are they struggling with? What do they seem to be coping well with? What kinds of concerns do they have about their student's mental health?
It really surprised us just how similar their teaching experiences currently are, even though they teach different ages in completely different parts of the state. While we talked with many teachers we wanted to specifically highlight the conversations we had with three of them. Amanda is a pre school teacher in the city of Pittsburgh, Claudia is a 7th grade teacher in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and Emma is a high school teacher in Centre County, PA.*
Below are the top 5 things that these teachers are concerned about right now.
1. Focusing Challenges
"I work with the really young kids. A lot of them have never been away from home before. It is taking them longer than it ever has for them to learn routine and realize they have to follow rules throughout the day. Pre-pandemic this used to take about 4 weeks for them to learn now I would say it's more like 8 weeks." said Amanda.
Students having a difficult time focusing was brought up early and often with every teacher we spoke with. Many of them have noticed a significant decrease in the time that their average student is able to sit down and learn. With a laugh Claudia shared with us; "You would think sitting in your seat is the most 'out there' concept to ever exist. It is so challenging for them. Finally this year, sometimes, we can stay in our seats. Last year they didn't even know what a chair was."
Not only are children struggling to stay in their seats, once they are in them they are having trouble focusing on the material itself. "There is no longer an expectation for them to sit down for 45 minutes and take notes. That is not even a concept anymore. Scientifically that's not even recommended but that used to be the expectation. Now it's not even a possibility. Thanks to Tik Tok everything has to be instant gratification. At this point I don't lecture for more than 15 minutes. That's as long as I can keep them. I need to insert time for discussions and activities throughout our class to keep them interested." said Claudia.
2. Behavioral Challenges
Amanda mentioned that in her classroom focusing challenges and behavioral challenges often go hand and hand. "They are very quick to get mad and have little patience. I have about 5 minutes of focus and then they're done and start doing things they aren't supposed to do." said Amanda. She noted that compared to her pre-pandemic students her current students have a much harder time with their behavior and it has been a big challenge to get the entire class to focus on the topic at hand because of the behavioral distractions.
"It's just not the same as it was before COVID. I don't want to say arrogant because that's not the right word but many of my students do have this level of arrogance when it comes to how they behave in school. They don't feel like they need to follow any rules or expectations. They are very independent in that. Like the dress code - they could care less. They don't care how many times they have been written up. Hats, earbuds, all of it - they don't care. "They almost have this expectation like 'Aren't you just glad I came to school today?'" said Emma.
"Depending when the kids had the gap and which grades they missed in school really impacts how they are doing and behaving at school right now. The timing plays a huge factor. This year my students lost 5th grade but did a hybrid kind of 6th grade so they were able to get used to middle school before coming to 7th grade. My students last year were had a much more difficult time with their behavior. I couldn't leave the room for a second. If I did all I could think about was; "Is someone about to get into a fight?", "Is someone going to stand on a desk and fall and get hurt?" "Is someone going to vape weed in my classroom? Luckily, this year I have noticed a lot of improvement with my student's behavior and I am hopeful as we gain distance from that loss of learning it gets even better"
3. Self Esteem
This was a topic that we didn't necessarily expect every single teacher we talked to to bring up. However, there wasn't a single teacher who didn't mention a student they have that is struggling with their self esteem currently." At the beginning of this year many of my students wouldn't answer any questions about themselves, or if there was any chance they could get an answer wrong. I thought that was very strange and their engagement was very low. They would say; 'I don't want to share it out loud.' They were nervous that they would get made fun of." said Emma.
Claudia has noticed this in her classroom and in her school in general; ""For a lot of my students anxiety spiked when they had to be around people again. I know germs and COVID played into it for a number of them but I think a lot of it had to do with students developing self confidence issues. They didn't want to lose the mask and kind of used them as a shield (not talking about the students who still wear them for covid related reasons). They thought no one would interact with them because they felt like they were ugly or had acne. I had so many students who were very hesitant to lose the comfort they found in the mask covering the bottom half of their face", said Claudia.
"I have a little girl right now. She thinks everyone is laughing at her at all times. Out of nowhere she bursts into tears. Usually twice a day, sometimes more like 5 times a day. She can't explain why. She isn't able to verbalize what's upsetting her." said Amanda.
The student that Amanda is talking about is 4. However she has some similarities in nature to a story that Emma told us about one of her high school students. "I have a student this year who is really concerned with how she looks. She asks to go to the bathroom every single day. She doesn't want to put her hair up when we need to for class."
"I will have students who are best friends in my classroom. Instead of turning to each other and talking when we have a moment of down time they will just text each other. It's not to be discreet, not to follow my rules, but because for the last couple of year that is how they talked to their friends and for some of my students that way feels more comfortable than actually talking in person. They will have these full conversations and friendships all over snapchat because that's what they know." said Claudia.
Emma has noticed a similar trend in her classroom of avoidance of socializing; "They completely avoid social contact with their peers for the most part. As far as problem solving goes, like conflict resolution, I don't feel like they know how to talk through things or have different opinions. A lot of times it's straight to screaming and fighting." said Emma. "They seem to associate things with someone not liking them. Like if a friend doesn't take the same class as them they get so upset and question the friendship. They're making wrongful assumptions that are only making socializing more intimidating for them."
However, thankfully, according to Claudia she is only seeing improvements when it comes to socializing. "You can certainly see where the deficits are. There wasn't that connection for any of my students. But I think that was much more noticeable last year than this year. I think this year they are not struggling socially as obviously as they were last year. Most of them have their masks off. Of course that's a personal choice and if they want to keep it on for health reasons I think that's awesome. But I know of several kids who were working with the guidance counselor for quite awhile to get over that personal hurdle of not having the mask as a security blanket."
5. Overall Mental Health
As you know, so many things impact a child's mental health - including every single thing on this list. School becomes a much more anxiety inducing place if children are struggling with their focus, behavior, self esteem, and or socializing with their peers. If you have noticed that your child is struggling with their mental health - you are not alone. We asked each of the teachers we spoke with to give us their best rough estimate of the percentage of their class that is struggling with their mental health and Claudia, Emma, and Amanda ALL said 40%. Obviously there is no statistical significance to that number but we found it astounding that it was so consistent across the board, and sad because that is a lot of children.
While we know many children struggle with depression, it is perhaps a little less obvious to teachers than anxiety challenges are. Every teacher we talked to mentioned that they have very anxious students right now. "Anxiety. That's the big one. So many of them are anxious being around this many people. They got used to being isolated and now they just are not comfortable in crowds." said Claudia.
Emma fully agreed. "I think their anxiety levels are high. They're worried. I have had a number of students who have came into my classroom during a panic attack," she went on to say; "Instead of working through the problems that are causing them anxiety they are avoiding them. Some of them are using anxiety to get out of things."
Thankfully each of the three teachers who we spoke with for this blog mentioned that while children may be struggling with their mental health, most of them are not scared to talk about it. Mental health has this nasty stigma that has followed it around but according to the teachers we spoke to - they're ready for that to stop.
"I think kids are much more willing to talk about their mental health than they were. I actually credit that, and I know this sounds backwards, but I do credit that a little bit to social media. Over the pandemic so many of them had more access to social media for better and worse. One of the betters is that they felt like they could learn more about mental health and feel like they had a community. Coming back to school that kind of carried through. They are more comfortable sharing about their struggles, more comfortable reaching out for help. I think a great part about this generation is that there is no shame to these challenges, and there has always been shame surrounding them. I think that's so incredible", said Claudia.
If any of this article resonated with you - you're in the right place! We know how stressful it can be for your child to struggle with their mental health and we want to help. Click here to learn more about joining our community of parents who get what it's like to raise a child who is struggling.
Notice anything glaringly missing? Yeah - us too. Check back next week for teachers' number one concern about students right now and how you can help.
*The names and defining features of the teachers we spoke with have been changed to protect their privacy and the privacy of their students.