5 Student Emotional Struggles and How to Spot Them

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are still faced with the grim reality that our students are struggling with their social emotional health and wellbeing. This can result in challenging behaviors or decreased academic performance in the classroom.

Recent data has demonstrated a surge of mental health struggles among youth. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that emergency departments across the U.S. recently saw nearly a quarter to a third more mental health related visits of children from ages 5 to 17. A recent survey found that seven out of 10 teenagers reported experiencing emotional struggles ranging from an increase in loneliness, depression, and anxiety, an increase compared to pre-pandemic rates.

To better support students in the virtual or in-person classroom, teachers need to know the warning signs of students’ top five social emotional struggles: exposure to family violence; loneliness; feelings of hopelessness; feelings of stress; and cyberbullying.

Exposure to Family Violence

With increased time spent at home for both students and parents/ guardians, coupled with social isolation and profound economic stressors, studies have reported a significant increase in family violence. For our students, such violence may mean personally experiencing or witnessing someone else experience threatening or violent behaviors such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. During remote learning, students may not have safe and confidential opportunities to share with their teachers or other trusted adults about experiences of family violence due to the presence of other family members in the home.

Signs students may be exposed to family violence:

  • Constantly looking around the room, or speaking very calculated during virtual learning as if someone is watching them
  • Unexplained bruises or injuries
  • Students citing misinformation about the pandemic that came from a parent/guardian in an attempt to frighten them
  • Complaints of being tired and not able to fall asleep at night due to experiences at home
  • Students appearing hypervigilant, having a heightened alert response to any unexpected noises or movements, and/or constantly on-edge
emotional struggle

Loneliness

For students who have spent their previous academic years surrounded by their peers, doing group projects, playing sports, engaging in clubs, and participating in extracurricular activities, the preventative social distancing measures have transformed their school experiences. During times of remote learning, students become further isolated. Feelings of loneliness is a common result of social distancing and remote learning.

Research has found a clear association between loneliness and mental health struggles, and the detrimental impact of loneliness and isolation can last for up to 9 years, and result in students being five times more likely to require mental health support.

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Signs students may be feeling lonely:

  • Reaching out to teachers at all hours of the day and night
  • Trying to excessively engage teachers and peers in non-academic, non-school, and personal related topics
  • Increased time on social media and the need to constantly check social media
  • Attempts to self-soothe using unhealthy coping habits
  • Using negative self-talk and having a negative sense of self-worth

Feelings of hopelessness

Without a clear picture of the future, students do not know what to expect. Faced with a devastating death toll and fears of new strains of the coronavirus, many students may be feeling hopeless about the future. Children and adolescents are considered a vulnerable population in regards to mental health and resiliency as studies have shown an increase in depression during challenging times and disasters. Feelings of hopelessness can contribute to thoughts of suicide, which is a documented growing concern, particularly for teenagers.

Signs students may be feeling hopeless:

  • Disengaging in class and/or increase in absences
  • Not completing any work or completing work of much lower quality
  • Making negative comments such as “this is pointless”
  • Having a pessimistic outlook
  • Loss of energy and loss of motivation

Feelings of stress and anxiety

For many students, school once was a stabilizing force in their lives, where they knew the everyday routines and what to expect. Now, students in schools with a hybrid or in-person model face daily uncertainties of whether they will be required to go remote or be put in quarantine at any moment. Researchers have found that many students are experiencing a sense of uncertainty of their future during these difficult times, resulting in an increase in stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Signs students may be feeling stressed or anxious

  • Needing constant reassurance
  • Demonstrating a regression in academic skills or academic performance
  • Needing additional supports/unable to work independently
  • Becoming overwhelmed and shutting down
  • Focusing on “what if” and perseverating on negative future events

Cyberbullying

Remote learning and a reduction in in-person social interactions, have resulted in many students spending significantly more time online. Increased stress, isolation, boredom, and time spent online has had detrimental consequences in increasing cyberbullying and harassment.

A company that detects and filters toxic online content reported a recent 900% increase in hate speech against China, a 70% increase in bullying and hate speech among children and adolescents during online chats, and a 40% increase in toxicity on popular online gaming platforms.

Signs students may be experiencing cyberbullying:

  • Withdrawal from class or reluctance to participate
  • Isolating from others and not wanting to engage in partner/group work
  • Other students making faces or snickering at one or more students
  • Other students making comments that appear as inside jokes
  • Other students increased use of sarcasm directed towards one or more students

Coping with emotional struggles

Many of our students are currently struggling with their social emotional wellbeing. Research has demonstrated that emotional struggles in childhood and adolescence increase the risk for poor academic outcomes, indicating the need for increased awareness and early interventions. With a better understanding of the common social emotional struggles for students, we are in a better position to intervene and help struggling students.

Despite the grim realities of the COVID-19 pandemic and the students’ emotional struggles, caring teachers can continue to make a difference in these challenging times for students.

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Sometimes, such issues need to be referred to a professional therapist. BetterHelp can help you find one that is best suited to your needs.

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Carolyn A. Curtis, EdD, LCSW
Dr. Carolyn Curtis, LCSW, is a school social worker at a high school in Maine. Carolyn has worked in the field of education for over ten years, helping students who struggle with social, emotional, behavioral, and academic challenges. Her doctoral dissertation focused on the important role that school staff and educational systems can play in preventing opioid misuse. Carolyn is a part-time lecturer for New England College’s School of Graduate and Professional Studies and teaches education courses on how to support mental health in schools.

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