As the end nears on one of the most jarring school years in history, the long-term effects of social distancing, changes in school structure, and wide-ranging pandemic-induced trauma on children remain to be seen.
According to a local child development expert, there are things families and educators can do right now to help kids recover and push forward.
Amanda LaLuna-Chorak, an assistant professor and director of the Child Development Program at Olivet Nazarene University, said there isn’t much data yet on exactly how these unprecedented times will impact children’s development.
“We are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel with this pandemic, but we’re still very much in it,” she said.
LaLuna-Chorak, whose experience includes work as a certified child life specialist for Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital and Rush University Medical Center, said it will take some time for researchers to do a thorough, comparative analysis of developmental assessments taken before, during and after the pandemic.
“I think the impact is also going to be far beyond the test scores and the measurable academic data,” she said.
It will be critical for school systems to act from a developmental standpoint and use a trauma-informed lens when addressing learning loss and bringing kids up to speed academically, she said.
The three hallmarks of child development, which she calls the “three P’s,” are play, predictability and pause.
“Let’s do some repair that’s developmentally appropriate,” LaLuna-Chorak said. “Then we’ll be able to see the brain repair itself, calm down from the trauma and meet those academic targets 10 times better.”
Children use play to help make sense of the world, and it’s particularly important for them to be able to process traumatic events.
“Play calms the brain,” she said. “You can’t be engaged in play and creativity and have the high-cortisol stress area of the brain activated at the same time.”
Children are also reeling from the loss of predictability in school and in general over the past year, so anything adults can do to bring familiar, guaranteed opportunities for children in their daily lives will help to restore a sense of security, LaLuna-Chorak said.
The third piece is being able to “pause” for time to build meaningful, in-person relationships in which children feel seen and heard.
The potential developmental effects of extended remote learning vary for different age groups, she explained.
Younger children are in need of opportunities to exert autonomy, take initiative and explore through play and socialization.
Middle school age and adolescent children also require meaningful social interactions in a group setting; it is important for them to establish identity with peers.
Rebecca Parks, business development coordinator for Riverside Behavioral Medicine, said she has been hearing a lot of mental health concerns from students struggling with the pandemic. Riverside created a hospital-school liaison role to help streamline its services to schools, she said.
“There are a lot of students right now, due to remote learning, due to the effects of things from the pandemic, younger ones are struggling with social and emotional issues,” Parks said. “Even the older kids are just not knowing how to deal with the unknown and the anger, and are just very anxious.”
Remote learning has shown some benefits despite the challenges, LaLuna-Chorak said.
In cases where caregivers were able to spend time helping children with their school work, it may have restored predictability in a different way and fostered a deeper relationship that wasn’t possible before during school hours.
Seeing teachers interact with them virtually or principals doing home visits are ways in which children may have seen support coming from a different angle, and fostered resiliency.
LaLuna-Chorak said trauma for children over the past year has been similar to the experiences of adults, but impacts can be greater on younger, developing minds.
Families in which parents are experiencing increased anxiety and grief due to job loss or the sickness or death of loved ones will see children experience the same stress, she said.
“Children are like sponges,” and will absorb the energy around them, she noted.
Kids need age-appropriate explanations for traumatic experiences; this won’t be a “one-and-done” process, though.
It will take time, especially for very young children who have never experienced loss before and are not yet able to understand abstract thought.
“This is not just going to be something that is addressed right now and they move on,” LaLuna-Chorak said. “It will have ripple effects. There will be opportunities to revisit and give support as they move ahead in development.”