What are the mental health effects of COVID-19 on families?
During the pandemic, parents with children ages 5-12 reported their children showed elevated symptoms of depression (4%), anxiety (6%), and psychological stress (9%); and experienced overall worsened mental or emotional health (22%), according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
The diagnosis is clear: we are experiencing a mental health crisis due to the COVID-19 pandemic. How can we address a year filled with disappointment, frustration, grief, and loneliness? Most importantly, how have these feelings impacted our children?
“With children at home in isolation, there has been a lack of opportunity to develop social skills and for typical social interaction with peers,” said Dr. Kelly Murray Hall, the Chief of the Department of Equity, Engagement and Early Access for St. Mary’s County Public Schools in Maryland.
We have all experienced a lack of face-to-face interaction during the pandemic. However, we know that social interaction is critical to children’s development. We also know that parents, families, teachers, and providers have suffered tremendously with all the changes, uncertainty, and loss. So how did Dr. Hall, who specializes in family engagement, play a key role in supporting educators and families during the pandemic?
“Parent and family engagement has always been a critical component to a well-rounded education,” said Dr. Hall. “It is essential that we [educators] partner with families as we have missed out on human connection for a long time.”
Conscious Discipline (CD) Training
Dr. Hall and the Department of Equity, Engagement and Early Access team have offered problem-solving skills and more opportunities to connect through Conscious Discipline (CD) training. CD, which aligns with Head Start’s Parent, Family and Community Engagement Framework, teaches children social and emotional skills by increasing the aptitude of the adults who care for them. In a Brookings Institute article, child development experts suggest, “new forms of parent engagement can be an education game-changer post-COVID-19” in “changing the collective mindsets around the purpose of a system…”
“CD training is a mindset shift,” said Dr. Hall. “We are all on the same side, and CD fosters that partnership.”
Expert dialogue about the mental health crisis advises families and educators to “rethink education” and find creative ways to “manage challenging behaviors.” CD training reinforces the deep understanding that all behavior is a sign of communication.
“It acknowledges the stress on both families and educators, particularly now during the pandemic and provides strategies to manage it more effectively,” says Dr. Hall. “We see conflict as an opportunity to learn.”
Pre-Pandemic CD Training
Located just 60 miles south of D.C. with a population of 111,531 and a poverty rate of 8 percent, relationship building is vital to the St. Mary’s County community.
“Building relationships is at the center of everything we collectively do,” said Dr. Murray Hall.
Several years ago, teachers recognized a need to improve the social and emotional skills of their students, and the St. Mary’s County Head Start programs invited a consultant to conduct the CD training. Dr. Hall used some state funding from the Ready for Kindergarten grant to offer prek and kindergarten teachers more training. She had expanded school training using other funding sources, and the school system had offered more free workshops to families. Available in English and Spanish, the process included recognizing the adults first and children second while focusing on self-regulation skills.
“As the adult is self-regulated, the child calms and regulates,” said Dr. Hall.
The workshops had inspired partners such as St. Mary County’s Health Department, the local Early Childhood Advisory Council, Early Childhood Action Center, Promise Resource Center, and other key stakeholders to join the integrated self-regulation training. Over 600 families and educators had participated. Word had quickly spread across St. Mary’s County, which prompted Dr. Hall to offer the CD training to other early childhood programs and elementary grades. The next round of workshops included nearly 500 Judy Center Early Learning Hubs, PreK, K-3, upper elementary teachers, para-professionals, administrators, and other system-wide staff.
“Even the bus drivers wanted to participate,” said Dr. Hall. “Ultimately, we received 2,714 evaluation opportunities from educators and families with 93 percent rated at four or five.”
Pandemic CD Training
By 2020, St. Mary’s County officials found that the CD training effectively drove social and emotional learning, increased literacy skills, and promoted family engagement. Partners continued to pour in with funding opportunities related to CD training.
By February 2020, the local newspaper had noticed the CD training and published a full-page spread that highlighted how the parent “workshops explore ways to connect more effectively with their children.” When the pandemic spread in March 2020, the Department of Equity, Engagement and Early Access team adjusted their expansion plans. By July 2020, St. Mary’s County moved to virtual workshops.
“It became evident quickly that people wanted the information, and we were addressing a need,” said Dr. Hall.
Post-pandemic CD Training
Post pandemic and funding dependent, Dr. Hall hopes to expand more school and countywide family engagement and CD training opportunities.
“I believe that the CD training has been a welcome addition to our pre-pandemic strategies that became even more valuable during COVID-19,” said Dr. Hall. “It may be helpful for other school systems based on what is right for individual families, child care, and educators.”
CD training has been embraced in 101 countries and 25 languages. For over 25 years, the award-winning CD has empowered families and educators to seek positive, healthy change. Recognized by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration’s National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices and received 8 of 10 ratings in Harvard’s top 25 social-emotional learning national program analysis, it has provided St. Mary’s County with the tools necessary to not only navigate these challenging times but also offered hope for long-lasting change. As schools re-open in the fall, CD training may be the answer to ensuring a safe, connected, and problem-solving environment for families and educators.