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Distance Learning and Its Effects on Mental Health

While the pandemic continues, distance learning continues to be the best option to keep students, faculty, and staff safe. While technology has been a saving grace, and remote learning offers advantages, it has also introduced a host of mental health challenges for others.

Reports of exhaustion from participating in online learning from teachers, students, and parents have become so commonplace that the experience has been dubbed “Zoom fatigue” and includes Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling platform. 

That exhaustion isn’t merely a matter of having tired eyes, a stiff neck, or lower back pain from video conferencing; science shows that remote learning forces the brain to work differently than it does in person. In a traditional classroom, our brains discern body language and other nonverbal cues, and experience increased dopamine amounts from face-to-face interaction.

The subconscious brain also reacts to timing issues. Although it seems that video calls are happening in real-time, there’s a millisecond delay that can trigger the brain to search for ways to overcome the lag. That makes the brain tired, worried, and anxious. 

Just a few months into remote learning, nearly three in ten parents said their child is experiencing emotional or mental harm because of social distancing and school closures, according to a nationwide Gallup poll in June 2020. 

The shift to online learning has left many students feeling isolated and struggling with sticking to a routine outside of the structured classroom environment. According to a study conducted by Barnes and Noble Education, 64 percent of students surveyed shared they felt anxious about staying motivated and focused in their home environments, 55 percent were worried about the lack of in-person social interactions, and 45 percent feared this isolation could impact their academic performance.

The challenges are similar for parents. Balancing remote work schedules with facilitating distance learning for their children has many parents feeling overwhelmed and overworked. One body of research found mothers were more likely to feel anxious and overwhelmed while working from home than fathers.

For students who are already prone to depression or anxiety or are already having difficulties in their social relationships, academics can become another hurdle in that child’s life.

Schools as Mental Health Centers

Research shows that the school environment is critical for fostering academic motivation and social development, and many students rely on schools for mental health care. Among adolescents who received mental health services between 2012 and 2015, 35 percent received these services exclusively from school settings. 

Before the COVID pandemic, there was mounting evidence that young people’s mental health problems were on the rise. The 12-month prevalence of major depressive disorder in U.S. adolescents increased from 8.7 percent in 2005 to 11.3 percent in 2014. Suicide rates also increased among people ages 10 to 24, from 6.8 per 100,000 people in 2007 to 10.6 per 100,000 in 2017.

As a result, more than half of U.S. states have passed laws or enacted policies requiring schools to have a mental health curriculum or include mental health in their health or education standards. Many such frameworks have been developed just within the last five years. 

Schools faced significant hurdles with figuring out how to operate in crisis mode because of the pandemic, such as ensuring internet access and supplying meals to students, forcing them to focus on basic needs for the most vulnerable. Resources were stretched thin, and in some cases, impacted a school’s ability to provide mental health interventions.

7 Tips to Foster Children’s Emotional Well-Being

Below are several tips with examples of how we can help foster children and adolescents’ emotional well-being during this challenging time. 

  • Establish and maintain a routine

In times of stress and turmoil, a routine can help satisfy our human desire for comfort and predictability. Establishing and maintaining routines can help children cope and can make schoolwork time more productive. 

  • Maintain relationships, as much as possible, with family and friends

There are many friends that children are no longer able to see. Providing continuity in relationships can help children feel better now and in the future when they return to school.

  • Talk about your feelings and encourage children to express their feelings

In the existing situation, we all experience emotions, some positive, some negative. Adults may feel that they should “put on a happy face” to avoid exposing children to negative feelings that are strong, frequent, or unregulated. But, sharing your feelings with children and letting them know when you feel frustrated, down, or sad validates their feelings.

  • Understand and convey that behavior is often rooted in emotions

When people feel frustrated or angry, they may withdraw, lash out, or be disagreeable. Making this connection between emotions and behavior can help parents and children better understand different behaviors they’re seeing.

  • Help children see feelings in others

It can be challenging for children to notice and understand that two people in the same situation may feel differently about it. By noting when another person may be feeling a way that is different than your child, you can foster empathy and perspective-taking skills. 

  • Practice generosity and thankfulness

Even if you’re dealing with stress because you’ve lost your job or your salary’s been reduced, showing your appreciation for the good things in your life, big or small, can make you feel happier and more satisfied. Helping children to see these things in their own lives can help them be happier and get through tough times. 

  • Seek professional help

It’s an unprecedented time in history, and the entire family is impacted by the lifestyle changes necessitated by coronavirus and remote learning. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, you can find a local therapist through Eagle Valley Behavioral Health, who will help you through any behavioral health challenges you may be facing. Financial assistance resources like Olivia’s Fund are also available to those who live or work in Eagle County and cannot afford treatment themselves.

Online classes are a major adjustment for students, teachers, and parents. Keeping in mind that it’s challenging for everyone can help reduce some of the stress and frustration.

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