As we navigate the new territories of remote learning amidst a global pandemic, nurturing the mental health and emotional well-being of our students has never been more crucial.
For better or worse, we know through developmental research that adolescents tend to experience their feelings much more intensely than adults. The levels of joy, silliness, and excitement that emanates from a group of teen girls can be equally matched by higher levels of anxiety, overwhelmingness, and hopelessness. A recent survey by the National 4-H Council shows that 7 out of 10 teens in the United States currently report struggling with their mental health, and 64% of teens believe that COVID-19 will have a lasting impact on their generations’ mental health.
While these statistics may not come as a surprise to parents and guardians living through the pandemic with their teens, understanding precisely why this period of time is so challenging for our students has helped Marymount create more targeted support systems based on their unique needs. Pre-COVID, two vital precursors for positive teen mental health were built into students’ daily routines, and thus, would naturally occur without much effort: physical movement and connection with their peers. Walking to and from the bus stop, laughing with friends during lunch, and conversing alongside classmates while strolling across campus in the fresh air are just a few examples of small, but meaningful moments that remote learning unfortunately cannot provide. Additionally, the natural flow of the school day – moments of intense focus followed by movement, changing environments, and social interaction – helped keep students motivated, an element now lacking. As a result of these disruptors, we, as educators, have been tasked to build in more opportunities for positive coping strategies, decompression tactics and further promote social connections throughout the school day.
Marymount nurtures a passion for the student experience. We have always put a focus on the “whole girl,” which emphasizes wellness as one of the pillars of our education. The school’s re-envisioned Advisory model could not have come at a better time given the city’s Safer at Home measures, and the disruption it has caused for the much-needed human connection that teenagers yearn for. Each week, students meet in a group with their faculty advisor to connect with each other in an informal and inclusive space utilizing a curriculum built to meet the specific needs of each grade level. Students are particularly eager to make new connections and maintain a sense of normalcy during this increased time of stress and isolation. Ninth graders, for example, will participate in activities to help build friendships despite their lack of social interaction. While tenth through twelfth graders will engage in deeper, and more meaningful conversations processing the current issues that our nation faces.
This deep emphasis on mental health and wellness helps to bridge the gap of distanced connections, allowing students to empathize with one another, hear similar experiences from their classmates and teachers, and to know that they are not alone. This is crucial in maintaining a positive psychological state at a time where students are increasingly vulnerable. As counselors, we have shifted the conversation inside the classroom to empower students with the tools necessary to self-assess their emotional wellbeing. Using insights, latest research and easy-to-use methods, students are given the foundation to gauge their social-emotional wellness – a required skill to maintain positive mental balance throughout their lives. Students are also being enriched with new coping skills during this time of uncertainty – a bedrock in prioritizing their own psychological state – including, but not limited to, practicing gratitude, journaling and focused breathing exercises.
Understanding that this is an unpredictable time creates a level of heightened anxiety that will require coping mechanisms for both the short-term and long-term. Once it is deemed safe to return to campus, though healthy interactions may commence, the emotional support that will be needed to move forward from this time is something that educators and health practitioners are still unpacking. Once we are back on campus, Marymount will continue to provide workshops on a variety of social-emotional topics, as well as meet individually with students to understand their specific needs and concerns. We understand that the implications of this time in our history is one that will not just disappear, and so we will continue to acknowledge it, create new strategies, and work through it together.