Post-COVID world for students and the need to support the whole child

By Dr. Tami Silverman, Indiana Youth Institute

We have all thought about our individual “Before pandemic times…” looking back to a seemingly easier period. But what has the continued pandemic experience and impact been on our youth?

For many, if not most students, the past 18+ months have been particularly traumatic. They have experienced persistent uncertainty and change, with little control over their situations. In addition, their peer interactions have been limited, making their ability to create and maintain positive connections more challenging than ever.

Understanding the pandemic’s total impact

It will be some time before we understand the total impact of COVID on our communities. Yet, we are already seeing elevated levels of student stress, anxiety, and depression. We continue to learn more about the compounding nature of childhood traumas, such as living in an environment exposed to substance use disorder, child abuse or maltreatment, neighborhood violence and poverty, all of which has increased during the pandemic. Furthermore, remote learning has combined with existing high-stakes testing, hyper-competitive sports and activities, and ever-present social media to heighten the already present developmental stressors of growing up and finding where you fit in.

Alarmingly, in Indiana, suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for youth ages 15-24. In 2020, the percentage of Hoosier middle and high school students who considered attempting suicide ranged from a low of 11.8% (or 1 in 9 sixth grade students) to a high of 19.3% (or 1 in 5 tenth grade students). According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics, suicide rates for youth ages 10 to 19 increased 56% between 2007 and 2016. For girls ages 10 to 14, the suicide rate has increased about four-fold in the past 20 years. The risk of suicide is an increasing reality for high school students. Last month, Indiana University Associate Professor Anna Mueller received a $1.24 million dollar grant to advance research on schools and youth suicide, understanding that school personnel, often counselors, play a key role in teen suicide prevention.

In addition, school suspensions and expulsions are commonly used to discipline students for disruptive behavior. However, many disciplinary techniques negatively impact student achievement, increase students’ risk of dropping out and increases the likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system. In Indiana, black students are disproportionately subject to this type of intervention. Pre-pandemic, Black students are twice as likely to receive in-school suspension, 4 times more likely to receive out-of-school suspension, and twice as likely to be expelled than their white peers.

Where we go from here to best support youth

Every day, our teachers and youth workers identify and address the behavioral health needs of large numbers of students. The Indiana Department of Education’s (IDOE) Indiana Social-Emotional Competencies (Competencies) address the social and emotional needs of students in grades Pre-K through 12. These Competencies are sometimes referred to as character education, 21st Century skills, whole-child education, employability skills, etc. The Competencies are a skill development framework, rather than a set curriculum, focused on the developmental and ongoing process of teaching, modeling, practicing, and reinforcing the knowledge and skills essential to well-being, and personal and professional success.

IDOE’s Competencies are rooted in five core standards: self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making, as well as foundation sensory integration and the mindset. This program is designed to advance student social and emotional development and has been proven effective in promoting academic achievement, reducing conduct problems, improving prosocial behavior, and reducing emotional distress.

Students engaged in social and emotional learning programs routinely report increases in their optimism, improved social behavior, better self-control, and decreased aggression. There also is evidence that equity focused interventions, such as social and emotional competency programs, along with alternatives to suspension, help reduce the discipline gap, mitigate the above negative impacts, keep students in school and improve overall school climate.

Wisely, many state and local leaders continue to focus on school climate and school safety, including strong support in recent legislative sessions for funding programs that increase student access to mental health services. Students who feel unsafe at school are more likely to miss days of class, and students who witness school violence are more likely to experience physical and mental health problems.

Investments in addressing the social and emotional, as well as academic, needs of our students will likely pay dividends for years to come. Studies show that on average, every dollar invested in such programs yields $11 in savings from juvenile justice crime, higher lifetime earnings, and increased mental and physical health. It is also clear that social and emotional learning programs are even more effective when schools partner with afterschool and community programs and families. The intersection of social and emotional well-being, school safety, and student success is clear. We all benefit when all Indiana students are prepared and supported on the path to success.

To access the resource, please click here.