Students today return to school—whether fully online, onsite, or a hybrid model—with a host of new challenges to their mental health and well-being after several months of school closures triggered by COVID-19. Many are struggling to cope with difficult emotions including worry, fear, anger, and grief. Anxiety was on the rise in students before the pandemic closed most schools. With the many new uncertainties students face at this time, anxiety is one of the most common student complaints. Today, more than ever, students require new tools and strategies to help them navigate a dramatically changed world and deal with difficult emotions, in order to make healthy decisions and succeed academically.
Many students report that transitioning from onsite to online learning has been stressful. An ACT Center for Equity and Learning survey conducted March 26 to April 1, 2020 and shared by EdSurge highlights specific student feedback. Students share that they miss their teachers, can’t concentrate as well, and need more motivation. In addition to their studies, many are tasked with taking care of siblings at home and other caregiving duties. And many students are dealing with the economic impacts of parents’ job losses or cut backs in hours. It’s clear that students today have a lot to cope with.
Coping skills help people deal effectively with problems and difficulties. Without conscious awareness and strategies, coping typically happens unconsciously, by default. The American Psychological Association’s APA Dictionary of Psychology defines “coping strategy” as:
“…an action, a series of actions, or a thought process used in meeting a stressful or unpleasant situation or in modifying one’s reaction to such a situation. Coping strategies typically involve a conscious and direct approach to problems, in contrast to defense mechanisms.”
The brain’s prefrontal cortex, the seat of executive function that includes critical thinking and self-regulation, is still developing in children and adolescents, only maturing at around age 25. Children and teenagers can benefit by early support with coping skills to help them meet the myriad of challenges they face. Coping skills can help students learn to identify triggers for stress and anxiety in their environment and apply strategies to help calm runaway emotions, focus their minds, and respond in healthy ways to the various situations that arise in daily life.
Extensive research demonstrates the positive impacts on learning when students receive support in developing social emotional learning skills such as coping. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning or CASEL, cites research on impact on their website:
Students participating in SEL programs also showed improved classroom behavior, an increased ability to manage stress and depression, and better attitudes about themselves, others, and school.
Many of the challenges students face today in the online learning environment are not going away—missing their teachers, missing their peers, managing their time and attention, disrupted sleep schedules, competing demands from home and increased conflict with family, fears about health, and economic pressures are just a few. Students need support in developing skills and strategies to help them understand how various challenges affect them and to help them to creatively cope.
In the classic book Stress, Appraisal, and Coping (Springer Publishing Company, 1984), psychologists Richard S. Lazarus and Susan Folkman from the University of California, Berkeley, identified two types of coping strategies—emotion-focused coping and problem-focused coping. Emotion-focused coping aims to reduce negative emotional responses triggered by stressors. The second type of coping strategy—problem-focused coping—is useful when a situation provoking stress can actually be changed. With problem-focused coping strategies, students learn actions they can take to meet the challenge creatively.
Emotion-focused coping strategies help students identify and regulate the automatic negative emotions that can arise in response to various stressors out of their control. For example, students may have lost family members, teachers, or peers to COVID-19 and may be suffering from grief, a sense of helplessness, or depression. Some students may be tasked at home with supervising younger siblings while parents work. They may be feeling impatience, anger, frustration. Emotion-focused coping strategies help students identify those feelings and learn tools such as mindful breathing or bracketing (e.g., temporarily detaching from feelings of grief to take a rest) to gain a sense of agency in the face of overwhelming feelings
The purpose of Problem-focused coping strategies is to reduce or remove the stressor itself, not just responses to the stressor as in Emotion-focused strategies. For example, this approach would be helpful for students struggling with getting work done and handing it on time in the online environment. A strategy might involve brainstorming approaches to time management and tools for alerts, or partnering with an accountability buddy to check in on progress and due dates. Another typical stressor for students during virtual learning might be problems with technology that make it hard to attend classes or get homework done on time. A problem-focused strategy here might be to help students identify how they might solve their technical difficulties—by reaching out to the teacher by phone for advice on tech support possibilities.
With 11 years of experience delivering more than 2.5 million teletherapy sessions, PresenceLearning is the leading provider of live online special education related services—and behavioral and mental health services for all students, not just those with an IEP—for K-12 students nationwide. Core service areas include speech-language therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral and mental health services, and assessment. We partner with schools in two ways: 1) By connecting our network of 1,300+ licensed clinicians to students in school or at home, and 2) By training school-based teams on the effective delivery of teletherapy and tele-assessment. In both scenarios, services are delivered on PresenceLearning’s proprietary platform built by clinicians for clinicians specifically to serve K-12 students with special needs.
Recognizing the need school districts have to support students in K-12 with positive skill building, PresenceLearning offers two types of groups for students.
1. Behavior Integration Groups focus on one of six topics (Coping Skills, Anxiety, Emotional Regulation, 21st Century Stress Management, Social Skills, and Prevention and Active Depression) in twelve-week small online groups to give students the support they need. Group sessions can be conducted by PresenceLearning’s network of licensed clinicians or by your district’s clinicians.
In the Coping Skills 12-week group, students learn to:
The Coping Skills Behavior Intervention Groups use the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) framework and curricula DBT STEPS-A and Think Good-Feel Good.
2. Finding Your Power in Uncertain Times is a psychotherapeutic program designed by clinical psychologist Dr. Isaiah Pickens to help middle and high school students navigate current stressors including the impact of COVID-19, economic uncertainty, and recent civil unrest. Offered as a 6-week program, for small groups of 3-5 students, students will gain:
Students today are struggling with a wide range of new challenges on top of the normal challenges of school and home life. Proactively addressing student mental health and well-being by providing tools and strategies to meet these new stresses—concerns about health and safety, social distancing requirements, learning from home, mastering new technologies, managing attention challenges to name a few—can make a difference not only in short-term academic success, but in long term health and well-being.
PresenceLearning’s live online small group therapy offerings support the development of critical social emotional skills, mental health, and well-being for all students, not just those with IEPs.
To learn more, request a consultation to make sure your students have the support and skills they need.