This week’s blog was contributed by Jeremy Sharp, PhD, licensed psychologist and clinical director at the Colorado Center for Assessment & Counseling and the host of the Testing Psychologist Podcast. Dr. Sharp earned his undergraduate degree in experimental psychology from the University of South Carolina and earned his master’s degree and doctorate in counseling psychology from Colorado State University. He specializes in psychological and neuropsychological evaluation of children and adolescents and provides private practice consulting for psychologists and other mental health professionals who want to start or grow psychological testing services in their practices. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado with his wife (also a therapist) and two kids.
Have you seen that social media meme on “The last normal school year” that’s been going around? It has one column listing kindergarten through Grade 7 (students’ current year) and another column showing their last “normal” school year, which was, at this point, THREE GRADES AGO. Essentially, a kid who is now in seventh grade hasn’t had a typical school year since they were a fourth grader. The math makes sense, but it truly blew my mind. That means that current kindergarteners, first graders, and second graders have never experienced a typical school year. Eighth graders are just now getting a real sense of what middle school is like (for better or worse). Though the pandemic is far from over, psychologists and other mental health folks have several considerations to keep in mind as students encounter their third school year of the pandemic.
First, the impact of the pandemic cannot be underestimated. At baseline, children are generally more vulnerable to the stress of a pandemic because they have more difficulty understanding the scope and circumstances of a global event than adults. Studies around the world are consistently documenting the negative effects on kids. A variety of personal and environmental issues have been proposed as contributing factors. For example, authors cite increased parental stress, increased risk of abuse and domestic violence, and increased exposure to social media as potential reasons for elevated mental health symptoms. Physiologically, there is some evidence to suggest that kids and adolescents are experiencing higher levels of cortisol, eating poorer diets (or experiencing notable food insecurity), and missing out on the brain development that comes from participating in novel social and academic situations. And children have varying responses to the pandemic. Variables that contribute to a child’s response include prior exposure to traumatic events, socioeconomic status (SES), and disability status. Regarding specific mental health symptoms, research shows that anxiety, loneliness, and depression are the most common mental health concerns to arise from the last several months. Others have described increased clinginess, distraction, irritability, and fear for family members’ safety. I’ve experienced this firsthand, as my eight-year-old daughter developed significant and acute separation anxiety upon going back to school this fall.
What about the impact on academic skills during the last 18 months? Data is still emerging, but some have attempted to estimate the decline in achievement. Researchers suggest that kids, on average, may have acquired about 65% of the reading skills and 37–50% of the math skills they would have gained in a typical school year. Studies that look at the influence of missing instructional days have shown that crystallized intelligence decreases by 1% of a standard deviation for every 10 days of missed learning. These numbers are simply estimates, however, as many highlighted the fact that kids didn’t only miss out on instruction, they also missed out on timely assessment and the resulting feedback or adaptation to their learning that comes from knowing their level of achievement in real time. But again, individual and environmental characteristics matter. Learners with a growth mindset adapted more quickly to online learning compared to those with a fixed mindset approach. Motivated learners and those from higher socioeconomic backgrounds experienced less decline or even made gains in some cases (i.e., reading skills in higher-SES kids).
Given these concerns, how can we adjust our expectations for this school year? First, we must keep in mind that kids will be coming into this school year with widely varying degrees of achievement and learning from the past year. This exaggerated version of the typical “summer setback” will likely show wider gaps between the kids with access to food, internet, financial stability, and parental stability and those without. Kids with identified learning or mental health concerns are also likely to be further behind. Social–emotional needs may be higher across the board.
As mental health folks, we need to recognize that our assessments and interventions for the next 6–12 months have a huge asterisk beside them. We should be less confident identifying learning and behavior disorders, knowing that kids are in an ongoing period of adjustment (at best) or trauma (at worst). We can test academic and social–emotional functioning more frequently to keep a handle on kids’ evolving needs. Children will likely need more instruction and more review. Providing stability and predictability will be important. Giving kids the benefit of the doubt and being deliberate as we consider more externalizing disorders (i.e., oppositional defiant disorder) is also crucial. Our report recommendations may shift from providing numerous, long-term recommendations to making sure we are only recommending what kids and families need right now. Relatedly, we can assure families that our findings may not be permanent, and that we can help them navigate the next several months by providing updated, brief evaluations throughout the school year.
RELATED POST: Dr. Sharp discusses trauma-informed assessment
Finally, a brief word on assessment using personal protective equipment (PPE). We don’t know much about whether or how the use of PPE affects assessment results. Limited research with adults (using the Neuropsychological Assessment Battery [NAB]) showed lower scores on the Language Index but no other differences. If you’re still testing with PPE, like many of us are, try to choose the option(s) that provide the most protection for you and the client with the least amount of deviation from standardization.
Ultimately, kids going back to school is a positive step for the vast majority of us. As assessment clinicians, this is just another time for us to practice flexibility and think outside the box with our jobs. It won’t do for us to administer tests and interventions robotically—we need to be cognizant of kids’ individual needs as we do our best to support them.
RELATED POST: Assess trauma symptoms exhibited at school
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