The good news, according to child development experts, is that children are resilient. But we need to be honest about how the pandemic has inflicted real trauma on many kids, and they might need some help.
“They have an amazing gift of bouncing back in the face of adversity,” said Mary Beth DeWitt, chief of child psychology at Dayton Children’s Hospital. “Having these conversations and getting that awareness started can help these kids to be able to bounce back.”
The Dayton Daily News spoke to parents and experts about how to give these kids the tools they need to thrive.
After “Baby Shark” ended, teacher Kalyn George walked the kids through their daily school routine.
“What is the first thing we do in the morning?” she asked.
“We come to school!” several children yell.
“We come to school and do what? What do we do as soon as we come to school?” the kids chime in as George answers: “We need to wash our hands.”
In most people — children and adults — the pandemic has caused some level of distress, uncertainty and anxiety, according to DeWitt.
Some of these effects hit along familiar socio-economic lines: kids in poverty, with special needs and who had preexisting mental health issues have suffered the most, DeWitt said.
But a study last year notes that the negative repercussions of online learning among high school students — the study called it the “thriving gap” — was nearly universal.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been labeled as a traumatic event in that it’s ongoing and it caused a significant disruption to life,” said Ashley Lockemer, school psychologist with the Montgomery County Educational Service Center.
In young children, teachers are seeing speech and motor skills delays.
“A lot of that is lack of consistent access to peers in daycare settings, fewer opportunities to just climb and jump around on the playground,” Lockemer said.
Nicole Myrick, director of the Mini University, said many kids were stuck at home with just their parents — many of whom were also trying to work from home — for long periods.
“When they’re getting with a lot more other kids, they don’t know how to interact with them. So it’s trying to teach them the proper way of communicating and talking,” she said. “A lot of kids aren’t really talking as much or using their language. That’s the biggest thing we’ve noticed with a lot of kids.”
Masks have contributed to some delays. She bought clear masks for the teachers so the kids could see their mouths. But the masks still muffled speech and made it harder to model facial expressions: “Look, I’m happy. I’m smiling.”
Mini University tracks student progress to try to close the gap, Myrick said, and recently started a partnership with Goodwill Easter Seals for an intervention specialist to work with families when needed.
Myrick encourages parents to read to kids daily to develop language skills. Volunteers are starting to come back into the center to help with things like reading to kids as well.
She hopes to get the kids back on track, “to get them to where they are ready for school … just help them strive to be their best.”
Grade schoolers impacted
Sara Froats’ 8-year-old daughter Maggie Froats has never had a normal school experience. First grade was cut short by COVID. Second grade was mostly virtual. Now she’s in the third grade in Centerville schools and trying to catch up.
“When we did school at home, it was an absolute nightmare,” Sara said.
Maggie is doing much better now. And Sara Froats, a nurse whose husband works at the Dayton VA Medical Center, hopes the only long-term impact is memories of the extra time they spent together as a family.
“I hope she remembers the game nights. I hope she remembers homemade dinners,” she said. “I hope she remembers that she learned to wash her hands real good, and Mom and Dad did their best to help sick people, and she did her part by getting her vaccine and she didn’t shed one tear.”
“But I hope the fear and the panic get forgotten, and that she remembers that we got through it together.”
Overcoming adversity can make kids stronger. But they often need our help. Teachers are seeing achievement gaps and behavioral issues in many elementary school classrooms.
“In all the grade levels, the level of behavioral outbursts and difficulty following rules has exploded,” Lockemer said. “You had all these kids who went so long with no structure and consistent oversight from families, because they were working from home, too.”
“A calm brain is a ready-to-learn brain, and COVID is not helping with the calm side of that,” Lockemer said.
High school stressors
In high schools, suicide threats and depression assessments are way up, Lockemer said. Teens are old enough to hear distressing news about COVID, but they still don’t have the coping mechanisms of adults. Academics were disrupted, putting them behind in foundational subjects such as math. And they were cut off from their peers.
“Social connection becomes more and more important in those later ages,” Lockemer said.
Leanne Breslin’s two high school sons have missed out on so much.
Michael Breslin graduated in 2020. Theater was a big part of his life, and his last musical performance was canceled. Graduation wasn’t the same.
Daniel Breslin’s freshman year of high school was virtual. Kettering teachers tried hard. They brought balloons and cupcakes to his house for his birthday. But he had no homecoming, no music performances.
At the same time, Leanne Breslin had a cancer scare, so they had to be super-vigilant about COVID precautions.
“We tried to do what was best for our family but tried to make sure he wasn’t suffering academically,” Leanne said.
Now that COVID cases are down, she is reassuring her son that he doesn’t have to wear a mask to school forever.
“You have to gently push your kid into doing more, into pursuing more activities, extracurricular activities, and reinforcing to them that we’re OK. We’re good,” Leanne said. “Bottom line, communicate with them. Talk to them.”
Resources for parents
Talk to your kids. That’s the most important thing parents need to do, DeWitt said.
She said to look for changes in behavior or emotionality that might indicate something is wrong. If your elementary school kid is concerned about taking off the mask, maybe put a little bottle of hand sanitizer in their pocket to reassure them. If a little one has separation anxiety at preschool drop off, give them a small toy or comfort item if allowed to remind them Mom or Dad is coming back.
Many local schools have expanded their resources to help kids with socio-emotional needs in recent years. If a parent has a concern, they can talk to schools about what is available.
“It’s not unexpected that (kids) are going to have some anxiety, but if we don’t give them the tools to manage it, it’s going to get worse,” DeWitt said.
Parents need to model healthy coping behaviors at home, Lockemer said. And that includes taking care of themselves.
It’s not just school interruptions and academic losses kids are dealing with. Many households suffered financial strain amid the pandemic. Families lost loved ones to COVID.
“It’s important that our parents are aware of their own overall health and wellbeing in order to be good parents.” DeWitt said. “Parents are overtaxed and overstressed. Identifying that and recognizing that and getting support for parents is absolutely important for the children’s’ health and wellbeing as well.”
Kids ‘incredibly resilient’
Studies suggest babies born during COVID — for whom this new reality will be their whole life — might show decreases in overall development, DeWitt said.
“What we know about children is they’re incredibly resilient. We don’t expect it will be long-lasting,” she said. “But we want to be mindful of that and provide developmental interventions and monitoring of these kids.”
Julie Law grieves lost school Christmas programs and volunteering in the lunchroom, but said she is inspired by watching how well her kids have adapted.
“I hope they are going to continue to grow and learn and be supported and flourish despite (the pandemic). It’s just going to be a small part of the entirety of their lives,” Law said “I hope it doesn’t define the rest of their lives. I hope the good they experience and see and do outweighs all this hardship. And I hope that we’ve learned enough that we don’t force our kids into a situation where we have to do that again.”
Julie Law’s son Ethan Law was born in March 2020. When she was pregnant, one of the first things she bought was a stroller/car seat combo.
“Literally I used it like one time. We didn’t leave the house,” she said.
Her 8-year-old twins and 11-year-old daughter did online schooling. Her husband worked from home. It was hard, she said, but they got to spend extra time with the baby.
“You trade some moments for other moments,” she said.
Now, the school-age kids are catching up academically, which will take some time. But they know they are not alone. The family is planning trips again. The twins, in second grade, told their mom it was strange when everyone took their masks off, and they could see their teachers’ and classmates’ faces.
The community and schools need to continue supporting families and kids, Julie Law said.
“It has affected them in ways we aren’t going to understand for a while,” she said. “It’s hopefully made them resilient kids.”
Meanwhile, we need to stay vigilant against COVID. Teachers and caregivers agree it will be easier to help kids take steps forward, as long as we don’t keep taking steps back by closing schools and quarantining again.
“I could live without having to turn to my kids and say, ‘Things are getting bad, and kids, brace yourself.’ I’m so tired of having that conversation with them, because they have done so much and exceeded our expectations for all of this,” Julie Law said. “I like the conversations where it’s, ‘Hey kids we don’t have to wear a mask anymore, we are going to Florida this year.’ Those are the conversations I want.”