Like an onion, the mental health challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic to school-aged children are layered. While it seems clear that non-traditional instruction (NTI) isn’t giving children everything they need, the changes that schools have to make to ensure safe in-person education are likely to cause their own set of challenges related to children’s social and emotional needs. Everyone is between a rock and a hard place.
During normal times, Carrie Christensen, program manager at Peace Education Program, and her colleagues would be in schools several days a week doing activities that help students understand their feelings and learn to manage conflict (both internal and external). “At Peace Ed we teach conflict resolution and a lot of people assume we talk about being angry and what to do with that, which we do, but anxiety plays a huge role in conflict, too,” she says. And since March 2020, there isn’t anyone who hasn’t experienced heightened levels of anxiety.
In trying to help others manage their anxiety once schools were no longer in-person, one of the first things staff at Peace Ed did was make a series of videos which they put online and sent to Jefferson County Public Schools’ Family Resource Centers for families, counselors, and staff to utilize. These Conflict Resolution Building Blocks videos help elementary, middle, and high school students recognize their triggers, cues, and how to communicate when they are overwhelmed by their feelings.
The organization has also been holding virtual workshops with teachers, JCPS administrators, Family Resource & Youth Services Center coordinators and community youth development leaders. “We did a great one about how to make cooperative games work in a virtual [learning] environment,” Carrie says. “We always teach skills through cooperative games but in virtual classes that wasn’t happening.” Peace Ed translated 12 of its most popular cooperative games into a virtual setting and invited teachers to learn how to use those to build emotional literacy skills into their NTI classes.
Staff is also working to help teachers be prepared for when public school reopens. “How do we help the adults be ready for what everyone is going to face when coming back, not only with whatever trauma the pandemic hit, but the anxiety levels,” Carrie says. There is a lot of apprehension about the return to in-person learning, especially since so many of the things that work so well for student learning, such as small groups and manipulatives, may not happen in a socially distanced classroom. Children who are already experiencing anxiety from COVID may feel more anxiety and even anger because in-person school might not meet their needs in the way they hope or expect. Peace Ed is intent on helping local schools manage this task of bringing students back to in-person school safely while also helping them manage whatever feelings they bring with them to in-person school each day.
Despite so many challenges during COVID, Peace Ed has seen increased participation in several of its programs, including PeaceCasters which is for middle and high school students. “It’s a youth-led program, and their whole point is do conflict resolution focused around social media,” she says. A blend of youth, support and advocacy group, PeaceCasters involves both online and in-person programming and has been extremely well-received by the young people who participate.
By Carrie Vittitoe