Thanks to Linda McGovern for providing the content for this article.
There is a lot of talk and concern regarding the potential learning loss during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is understandable that schools and parents are nervous about how much content students may have lost during school closures, virtual and hybrid learning.
As we begin returning to a more “normal” school schedule and expectations, schools are very focused on classroom strategies for closing the educational gap.
Here’s an important factor that schools must take into consideration: without addressing the student mental health issues that have increased exponentially during the pandemic, closing the educational gap will become difficult, if not impossible.
Closing the educational gap: the connection between mental health and learning
Why would we as educators need to understand and address the mental wellness of our students, and why is this critical for closing the educational gap?
The answer is relatively simple: mental health impacts most aspects of their learning! Until we help our students be emotionally available for learning, those educational gaps will only grow wider and students won’t be able to meet their full academic potential.
Anxiety impacts learning
Have you ever tried to focus on something (take a test, complete a work project, plan a trip, etc.) when you were feeling anxious? It’s hard! Anxiety impacts one’s ability to pay attention, interpret information, concentrate, and remember details. Worry takes up mental capacity needed for other tasks. As the depth and breadth of worry increases, the ability to concentrate on academic tasks and solve problems decreases.
Are your students telling you that they can’t remember what they learned? That’s because anxiety is associated with decreased short term memory capacity, general memory deficits, and poor recall of previously mastered material.
Depression impacts learning
Depression has a similar effect on learning. Depression interferes with cognitive functioning, healthy thought processes, and the ability to concentrate and make decisions. Similar to anxiety, it also impacts people’s memory and ability to recall details.
In a nutshell, anxiety and depression significantly impact not only a students motivation to learn, but also the executive functioning skills NEEDED to learn.
Mental health impacts executive functioning
Executive functioning is a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one’s resources in order to achieve a goal. These include (but are not limited to) organization, emotional control, initiation, working memory, planning, and self-monitoring. When students can’t access these skills due to mental health issues, while also struggling with motivation, academic tasks can feel impossible.
Mental health impacts physical health and social interaction
Students who are suffering with their mental health are also more likely to be struggling with unrealistic expectations of themselves, overall poor physical health, and unsatisfying social interactions. These students often set high expectations and when they begin to struggle academically, the sense of disappointment can lead to a further spiral of anxiety and depression.
When someone is mentally unwell, there are often health struggles that follow suit. Symptoms of both anxiety and depression often include physical complaints such as fatigue, nausea, headaches and stomach aches. As these symptoms worsen, missed school days tend to increase.
Anxiety and depression can also lead to little to no social interaction. Anxious and depressed children tend to act less socially competent and avoid peer interactions that may involve a potential threat. Social interactions can be a great motivator for children to come to school. However, social interactions at school can unfortunately have the opposite effect when someone is trying to avoid threatening or vulnerable situations.
Poor mental health leads to school refusal
When students are avoiding uncomfortable social situations, are wrestling with the thought of getting sick in school, have a fear of failing and school work feels impossible, what happens next? They avoid school.
It is very difficult to educate students who are not in school. Mental health must be addressed in an effort to be successful in the education of our children. Being proactive is key!
Steps to address student mental health and enable learning
1. Identify students who are struggling with their mental health.
In addition to noticing a decline in their academics, let’s look at some of the other signs to watch for that a child/adolescent might be struggling with anxiety and/or depression.
- Prolonged or significant changes in mood (sadness, irritability)
- Changes in behavior
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns
- Loss of interest in activities
- School avoidance
- Excessive self-criticism
- Increase in risky behaviors
- History of trauma
- Thoughts of suicide
2. Provide the support necessary for children to not just survive school, but thrive!
Having school counselors, child study team members, and in-district clinicians available and trained to counsel students is imperative. Training teachers in how mental health impacts learning can make all the difference in their approach and expectations. Providing students and families with resources to understand mental health issues and begin to address them can also be very helpful.
School communities need to work together to close the gap and provide our children with the best chance for success.
Once we identify and begin supporting the mental health of our students, then, and only then, can we begin to close that educational gap and have students that are available for learning.