Written by Dr. Kelly Kapitz
The abrupt and sustained closures of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a decline in the mental health of students. A recent survey of students by the Brookings Institute indicated that 8 out 10 students are struggling to focus and engage in school work and over 20% of students reported an increase in depression or anxiety. The report suggests that educators and parents are vital in detecting warning signs of poor mental health. In the Greater Marathon County Area, schools have been monitoring the behavioral, social, and emotional health of students for nearly 10 years. Now more than ever, these results are assisting school staff in working to support students as they return to school and re-engage with more typical activities.
The Behavioral Emotional Social Traits (b.e.s.t) tool is a universal screening tool developed by Dr. Eric Hartwig with over 40 years of research and data. (It’s worth mentioning that Dr. Hartwig is a retired Administrator of Pupil Services for the Marathon County Children with Disabilities Education Board, after 44 years of service in the community).
Now adapted for online administration, the b.e.s.t. screening platform allows school staff and students to rate how they are doing in various aspects of mental health, such as anxiety, aggression, withdrawal, and inattention. Through a grant from Security Health, area schools in Marathon County have been able to utilize the b.e.s.t. screening tool to help create and deliver interventions to support students.
The b.e.s.t screening results seem to suggest that globally students are adjusting to the school closures. However, when looking more closely at the data, there has been a downward trend in almost all measures. When comparing Spring 2019 data to Spring 2020 data, generally students are showing a decrease in overall behavioral, social, and emotional health rather than holding steady. The specific areas where students seem to be doing less well are in anxiety, withdrawal, lack of engagement, and inattention.
In addition to the universal screening conducted by area schools, the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) conducted research using 23 focus groups in January and February 2021. A total of 160 middle and high school students from across the state (many from our rural schools) participated in the study entitled The Voices of Wisconsin Student Projects: Learning, Coping, and Building Resilience During COVID-19. The project gathered feedback from students around the state regarding the impact of school closures on their learning and what coping skills they were employing during this difficult time.
Separate reports of the project findings have been prepared for middle and high school age groups. They can be accessed via the WIPPS Research Partners website at: https://wipps.org/research-partners.
During the study, students discussed a range of topics with their peers, including their experiences with school and learning environments, levels of stress and anxiety, and barriers to receiving mental health support, as well as providing advice on how school leaders could better support them. Not surprisingly, many students indicated that the school closures increased feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression. They reported that the inability to access friends, sports, clubs, and other extracurriculars contributed to a sense of isolation and that this resulted in less energy for studying and completing school tasks.
The WIPPS study also found areas of resilience. For example, students frequently indicated that their teachers and parents played an important role in helping them to feel connected to school and peers. Many students reported strategies such as self-reflections, writing, journaling, and spending time with hobbies or new activities also helped build their resilience. Other students reported that listening to music, staying physically active, and getting out in nature helped reduce feelings of loneliness and isolation during the pandemic.
Universal screening and focus group research have aided in leading schools to act. By identifying the students who are struggling early, schools have ramped up efforts to connect students to outside resources and have increased the availability of online appointments with in-school personnel, such as school counselors and social workers. In addition, many school districts have provided virtual town hall events with mental health professionals to support parents as they help their children in adjusting to atypical schooling.
The greatest advice on how to navigate the future, however, has come from students. Communication, empathy, information sharing, and more mental health support are among the top requests from student participants in the study.
Now that more and more schools are returning to in-person learning, the work ahead will be important as students, staff, and parents support one another in re-engaging in learning. Supports will be necessary to help students acclimate to social settings by providing the necessary resources to help them be successful.
A webinar presenting findings of the research study was hosted by WIPPS Research Partners and the Medical College of Wisconsin on May 5, 2021. The presentation and slides are scheduled to be uploaded to the dedicated project page at the WIPPS website if interested in learning more about the study.
Dr. Kelly Kapitz has been involved in rural education for over 30 years. She began her career as a school psychologist and later entered administration as a Director of Special Education and Pupil Services for the Marathon County Special Education Department. She received her PhD in Education Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her dissertation and particular area of interest is transition services to students with disabilities. She has served on several state and local taskforces related to providing high-quality educational services to rural students. Dr. Kapitz serves on the Board of Directors for the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services. She and her husband have three children and enjoy tending their apple orchard and traveling. Email Dr. Kelly Kapitz.
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