Answered by Joseph Mirabella, Ph.D., C. Psych. Chief Psychologist, Toronto Catholic District School Board
For those of us working in schools, the upcoming school year presents a new set of challenges for supporting students with learning disabilities (LDs). Since the first school closure in March of 2020, most of the initial challenges faced, while monumental, had goals that were clearly defined. First came the transition of learning and school supports to a virtual format, and making sure students and staff had the available technology and training for virtual learning. Later goals focused on working with public health agencies to make sure, once in-person schooling resumed, that appropriate protocols and plans were put in place to make sure students and adults were kept safe. School boards’ response to those initial challenges were remarkable, and in some cases courageous, given some of the changes that were required and how quickly they had to be made.
As we begin a third school year affected by this pandemic, the challenges for those working in schools are very different. And in many ways, the goals won’t be clear until after school begins in September. One major concern is a general feeling among parents and students that virtual learning hasn’t gone very well. Many students don’t feel as supported in online learning compared to being in a school building. And while there is no supporting research available just yet, the impression of many is that students with LDs and other special education needs have been particularly and negatively impacted by the absence of in-person teaching. For many, a central priority this school year will be in evaluating and addressing student achievement and progress over the last two years, and ensuring there are opportunities for remediation for those students who have been most affected.
A second concern is the mental health impact of the pandemic. There are a significant proportion of students in Ontario who have been in virtual school since the initial closure, and have effectively not been inside a school building for a year and a half. In the Fall, many families will choose to have their children remain with virtual learning, although it appears that most students will be returning in-person. The mental health impact on students who have been out of the classroom and isolated at home with their families is unknown. On its own, isolation is a significant and well-established risk factor for developing mental health problems (Loades et al., 2020). Many students are living in homes where parents may be facing financial struggles, or other family difficulties, which may increase their distress. Add to this that the mental health risks among students with learning disabilities is higher than average in typical times (Wilson et al., 2009), and stressors are likely to be exacerbated during a pandemic. The extent of the mental health needs in the school system are not known, but it’s likely that a significant proportion of our students will be returning not as ready to learn as they could be.
And so another major task for schools will be to make sure students return to the classroom re-engaged and ready to learn. This will require a focused and deliberate effort to create a school environment that allows students to feel safe, supported, and able to overcome struggles they may have faced over the course of the pandemic. We know that mental health and school achievement are strongly related (Agnafors et al., 2021; Duncan et al., 2021). And with the possibility of more students with mental health concerns, schools may be having to focus first on attending to the level of engagement, and other mental health needs. This may have to happen before learning can even begin. There may be instances where learning is paused to develop the coping skills and supports necessary for learning to happen.
There are important steps that educators can take to help re-engage students and to support them in their learning and wellness. And there is the added benefit that in teaching and presenting on these topics, the grownups are learning and focusing on the skills to reengage as well.
Building relationships and safe environments
The antidote to isolation is relationship. Actively working on relationships with students builds trust, and creates an environment where everyone is comfortable, if they wish, to discuss their experiences or feelings on how the pandemic has affected them. And in creating safety and comfort, students themselves then are able to help in creating this safety for their peers. For educators, this starts with making time for listening and acknowledging each student’s unique experience, without feeling the need to fix or change anything. While some may feel like they’re not doing enough, cultivating deeper relationships with students is an important first step and has a profound impact. Creating a school environment where students feel safe and welcomed becomes a powerful intervention. Students in a trusting space are more comfortable to ask for help. Educators can more easily recognize those students with greater needs, and can seek out further supports from mental health professionals working in schools when required.
Teaching and participating
An important component in creating safer school environments is the inclusion of regular mental wellness skill-building that can help students keep their attitudes and emotions in check. Introducing brief calming techniques, learning to recognize distress in their bodies and thoughts, and learning problem solving approaches are all valuable tools that students can rely on when things get more stressful. There are well-established, evidence-based approaches that can be incorporated into a regular classroom routine.
The role of equity
Students with learning disabilities and other learning needs are at increased risk of developing mental health concerns. However, there are also mental health disparities in racial, ethnic, and gender minorities in the classroom. Inasmuch as educators learn about approaches for supporting mental wellness, part of this learning includes understanding the various mental health disparities, and in recognizing inequities and injustices that we may encounter. So not only do we ground our work in mental wellness in general, but in practises that are culturally relevant and responsive.
While there are still many unknowns as we begin the new school year, by prioritizing mental health, educators can increase engagement, academic achievement, and the readiness to learn. Only when these obstacles are out of the way can we tackle learning loss and begin remediation.
Finally, School Mental Health Ontario (smho-smso.ca) is an excellent resource for educators, parents, families and students to access specific, evidence based strategies to address student mental health. This includes The Mentally Healthy Back to School Support Package with resources that expand on the school and classroom strategies mentioned above.
Loades, M. E., Chatburn, E., Higson-Sweeney, N., Reynolds, S., Shafran, R., Brigden, A., Linney, C., McManus, M. N., Borwick, C., & Crawley, E. (2020). Rapid Systematic Review: The Impact of Social Isolation and Loneliness on the Mental Health of Children and Adolescents in the Context of COVID-19. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 59(11), 1218–1239.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2020.05.009
Wilson, A. M., Deri Armstrong, C., Furrie, A., & Walcot, E. (2009). The mental health of canadians with self-reported learning disabilities. Journal of learning disabilities, 42(1), 24–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219408326216
Duncan, M. J., Patte, K. A., & Leatherdale, S. T. (2021). Mental Health Associations with Academic Performance and Education Behaviors in Canadian Secondary School Students. Canadian Journal of School Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1177/0829573521997311
Agnafors, S., Barmark, M. & Sydsjö, G. (2021). Mental health and academic performance: a study on selection and causation effects from childhood to early adulthood. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 56, 857–866. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00127-020-01934-5