• COVID-19 lockdowns forced schools, sports clubs and community centres to close, hitting friendships between children.
  • A knock-on effect of this was a surge in the number of mental health cases for children under 18 and the isolation also had a negative effect on learning, where children use social environments and close relationships to learn.
  • Experts say parents and communities should take comprehensive approach to help young people reconnect.

After the pandemic closed schools last year, hospitals saw a surge in mental health-related emergency visits among children 18 and under. The statistics have been grim enough that a large cohort of the nation’s top pediatricians recently declared a “national emergency” in child and adolescent mental health.

COVID disrupted connections for everyone, but especially children. Cut off from social networks — sometimes even the internet — young people had few opportunities to forge relationships outside the home, said Jenlei Li, the host of a Harvard Graduate School of Education webinar called “The Healing Power of Friendships and Relationships.” Stuck at home, they lost chances to connect with peers, teachers, coaches, and guidance counselors.

With schools back to a semblance of normal, Traci Baxley and Jean Rhodes joined Li, the Saul Zaentz Senior Lecturer in Early Childhood Education and co-chair of the Human Development and Education Program, to discuss how teachers and parents can encourage kids to rebuild these critical relationships, which are integral to both learning and mental health.

“Young people are suffering,” said Rhodes, a professor of psychology and director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. In her research, Rhodes has found that strong relationships between children and caring adults can have positive effects for decades, extending through middle age. Many of those relationships are built at school.

But schools alone cannot solve mental health issues, she said. Most can only afford to employ one counselor to serve hundreds of children. “It’s a systemic problem,” she said. Rhodes advocates for “stocking the pond with caring adults,” including volunteer mentors and paraprofessionals, and teaching kids to fish. “Learning occurs in relationships,” she said.

Baxley, an associate professor at Florida Atlantic University and author of “Social Justice Parenting: How to Raise Compassionate, Anti-Racist, Justice-Minded Kids in an Unjust World,” witnessed firsthand how the pandemic isolation affected learning. Her five children include a teenage son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, who struggled with virtual education.

“Now that he’s back in school,” she said, “he’s a different kid.”

Rhodes and Baxley stressed the educational component of their message — that learning happens through relationships with teachers. And teachers, said Baxley, have the power to create community — or not. Children must feel heard and seen; teachers can build democratic classrooms, talk through stressors, and develop plans to face them. Teaching children how to handle stress, talk about emotions, and develop relationships shouldn’t be an extra, Baxley said; it should be embedded in classroom culture.

Outside school, sports teams, after-school programs, and religious institutions provide critical opportunities for kids to learn social-emotional skills and build strong connections, said Rhodes.

“We need the village,” said Baxley, punctuating her argument by noting her work in Florida’s Palm Beach County schools: “Right now, they have over 800 students that are unaccounted for since the pandemic. They shouldn’t be lost, wherever they are.”

Community organizations can help keep children safe and engaged, especially now, when adults are also struggling with increased mental health issues. The pandemic, Baxley said, is a chance to “care more and to reset how we treat people around us, including other adults.”

At home, parents can model coping skills, said Baxley, like going for a walk or talking through difficult emotions. They should also provide space for children to articulate their feelings. “A lot of the time as parents, we need to stop knowing and start listening,” she said.

Baxley taught her son with ADHD to understand his needs — academic, dietary, and physical — as well as what he can control and whom he can ask for help. “You want your kids to be independent, but part of that independence is asking for the things you need.”

Marginalized children, Rhodes added, are often the least able and least likely to speak up for themselves. Their schools tend to have fewer adult mentors and counselors to serve each child. Helping these students make connections is an urgent matter.

“The more relationships we can put in the path of children, the better,” said Rhodes.

“Amen to that,” said Baxley.