How to Help Kids Recover From COVID-19 School Disruptions

Jake Remaly

October 25, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Physicians may be able to help students get back on track after the pandemic derailed normal schooling, a developmental and behavioral pediatrician suggests.

The disruptions especially affected vulnerable students, such as those with disabilities and those affected by poverty. But academic setbacks occurred across grades and demographics.

"What we know is that, if it was bad before COVID, things are much worse now," Eric Tridas, MD, said at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics. "The pandemic disproportionately affected vulnerable populations. It exacerbated their learning and mental health problems to a high degree."

In an effort to help kids catch up, pediatricians can provide information to parents about approaches to accelerated academic instruction, Tridas suggested. They also can monitor for depression and anxiety, and provide appropriate referrals and, if needed, medication, said Tridas, who is a member of the National Joint Committee on Learning Disabilities.

Doctors also can collaborate with educators to establish schoolwide plans to address mental health problems, he said.

Tridas focused on vulnerable populations, including students with neurodevelopmental disorders, as well as students of color, English language learners, and Indigenous populations. But other research presented at the AAP meeting focused on challenges that college students in general encountered during the pandemic.

Nelson Chow, a research intern at Cohen Children's Medical Center in New Hyde Park, N.Y., and colleagues surveyed college students in June 2020 about academic barriers when their schools switched to virtual learning.

Nearly 80% of the 307 respondents had difficulties concentrating. Many students also agreed that responsibilities at home (57.6%), mental health issues (46.3%), family relationships (37.8%), financial hardships (31.5%), and limited Internet access (25.1%) were among the factors that posed academic barriers.

A larger proportion of Hispanic students reported that responsibilities at home were a challenge, compared with non-Hispanic students, the researchers found.

"It is especially important to have a particular awareness of the cultural and socioeconomic factors that may impact students' outcomes," Chow said in a news release highlighting the research.

Although studies indicate that the pandemic led to academic losses across the board in terms of students not learning as much as usual, these setbacks were more pronounced for vulnerable populations, Tridas said.

What can busy pediatricians do? "We can at least inquire about how the kids are doing educationally, and with mental health. That's it. If we do that, we are doing an awful lot."

Education

Tridas pointed meeting attendees to a report from the National Center for Learning Disabilities, "Promising Practices to Accelerate Learning for Students with Disabilities During COVID-19 and Beyond," that he said could be a helpful resource for pediatricians, parents, and educators who want to learn more about accelerated learning approaches.

Research indicates that these strategies "may help in a situation like this," Tridas said.

Accelerated approaches typically simplify the curriculum to focus on essential reading, writing, and math skills that most students should acquire by third grade, while capitalizing on students' strengths and interests.

Despite vulnerable students having fallen farther behind academically, they likely are doing the same thing in school that they were doing before COVID-19, "which was not working to begin with," he said. "That is why I try to provide parents and pediatricians with ways of...recognizing when appropriate instruction is being provided."

Sharing this information does not necessarily mean that schools will implement those strategies, or that schools are not applying them already. Still, making parents aware of these approaches can help, he said.

Emotional Health

Social isolation, loss of routine and structure, more screen time, and changes in sleeping and eating patterns during the pandemic are factors that may have exacerbated mental health problems in students.

Vulnerable populations are at higher risk for these issues, and it will be important to monitor these kids for suicidal ideation and depression, especially in middle school and high school, Tridas said.

Doctors should establish alliances with mental health providers in their communities if they are not able to provide cognitive-behavioral therapy or medication management in their own practices.

And at home and at school, children should have structure and consistency, positive enforcement of appropriate conduct, and a safe environment that allows them to fail and try again, Tridas said.

Tridas and Chow have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2021 National Conference.

This article originally appeared on MDEdge.com.

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