Helping Students Cope with the Mental Health (and Academic) Challenges of COVID-19

Hint: Properly Designed Small-Group Instruction Can Address Students’ Need for Interpersonal Contact and Enhance their Engagement in On-line Learning

In addition to all the other challenges created by COVID-19, children and adolescents are suffering from increasingly prolonged restrictions on social contact, including widespread school closures, which has relegated students to learning at home in physical isolation from one another. A recent review of 63 studies involving 51,576 students found that the social distancing and isolation resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic was linked to higher levels of stress, fear, boredom, loneliness, anxiety, depression, and related mental health problems (Loades et al. 2020). The researchers concluded that children and adolescents are likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety even after the enforced isolation ends, and this risk is likely to increase with each week or month that students are isolated.

These findings echo research from around the world reporting elevated anxiety, anger, confusion, sadness, fear, helplessness, loneliness, and PTSD in children and adolescents as a result of social distancing associated with the COVID-19 pandemic (Imran et al., 2020; Khan et al., 2020). Further, extended social isolation has adverse effects on children’s long-term mental health, and negative psychological effects can develop months or years after social isolation (Ye, 2020). For example, research finds that children who had endured long-term social isolation were at higher risk for developing PTSD, depression, and social anxiety several years later (Loades et al., 2020).

This list of dire consequences includes academic achievement. Estimates are that students could lose between 0.3 and 0.9 years of education due to school closures during the pandemic, and these estimates become more severe the longer that the pandemic continues (Azevedo et al., 2020). In addition, up to 7 million students could drop out of school, and these academic deficits will have consequences for later educational opportunities and lifetime earnings. Students from low-income and underrepresented families are particularly vulnerable, and there is a widening gulf across economic and social classes (Dorn et al., 2000). The effects of poverty on educational attainment can be magnified by social isolation and mental health problems, with a disproportionately high toll on marginalized or underserved communities.

Mitigating Student Stress and Mental Health Problems

If social isolation is a significant source of stress for children and adolescents, then positive social contact can be an important protective factor. For example, on-line learning that involves interaction with a variety of peers in activities such as sharing knowledge and collaboratively solving problems can boost student engagement (Crawford-Ferre & Wiest, 2012; Hew, 2016; Lee & Choi, 2011). These findings echo research on student-centered forms of instruction (i.e., cooperative or peer learning) in which students teach and learn with one another in small groups. These active, student-centered forms of instruction have significant positive effects on student engagement and academic achievement as compared to typical whole-class instruction or individual seatwork (Johnson et al., 2014; Roseth et al., 2008).

In addition to effects on academic engagement and achievement, there are many other positive effects that arise from the positive social interactions during peer learning, such as reductions in stress, improvements in student mental health, and elevated levels of prosocial behavior and social-emotional skill development (Van Ryzin & Roseth, 2019; Van Ryzin & Roseth, 2020; Van Ryzin et al., 2020). Positive peer interactions have also been linked to elevated levels of self-esteem and well-being among both children and adolescents (Liem & Martin, 2011; Wentzel et al., 2009).

Implementing Peer Learning

Peer learning lessons are engaging because they give each student a unique role in a small group of peers, with the success of the group depending on each member’s contributions. The peer expectations associated with that unique role can motivate students to be an active participant in their learning. For example, in a jigsaw lesson, each student becomes an expert in their own portion of the lesson content and then teaches other students in their group. In a well-designed small-group project, each student has a specific task that fits with other student work to form a completed project.

In such lessons, students can be held accountable for fulfilling their role, ensuring that each student contributes to the success of other students in the group. Moreover, the lesson can fulfill students’ need for social interaction while they learn. This lesson structure can be a solution to the limited time that teachers can spend with each student in an on-line environment — if the teacher cannot provide all the support required for student learners, then a well-designed small-group lesson enables peers to step up and fill the gap.

The quality of small-group lessons can be enhanced through the use of specific strategies aimed at increasing student motivation to collaborate. For example, teachers may require a single deliverable for a group (goal interdependence) and may offer a reward to the group if everyone achieves above a certain threshold on an end-of-unit quiz or test (reward interdependence). The lesson plan may require that each member of the group be issued different materials that they must share in order to complete the lesson (resource interdependence), each member of the team may have a different role to play (e.g., reader, note-taker), or students may take turns performing an activity (role interdependence). Each group member may have a unique task that must be completed sequentially, like an assembly line, in order for the lesson to be completed successfully (task interdependence). These strategies can be layered upon one another in a single lesson, increasing the incentive for students to collaborate.

Peer learning also specifies that students are given opportunities for self-disclosure to support the development of positive relationships, and ensures that there are opportunities for all students to participate and contribute by taking turns, with the order often specified at random. Peer learning also calls for explicit coaching in collaborative skills, where the teacher (a) explicitly scaffolds positive small-group behavior, and (b) monitors student interactions to identify and reward examples of such behavior. Lessons should also include reflection and discussion of group performance after the lesson is completed, in which the group discusses what they did well, sets targets for improvement in the future, and provides one another with positive reinforcement for behavior that contributed to group success.

This approach contrasts with more typical small-group lessons or Zoom breakout rooms, where students are not given specific roles or tasks, but only a shared deliverable (or sometimes just a vague directive, such as “talk about it” or “help one another”). There is little incentive for students to collaborate in such situations, and no accountability if students do not engage in the lesson. There is also no scaffolding of collaborative social skills, and no opportunity to reflect on group performance. In such a lesson, there can be disagreement or conflict over the group’s activities, or a high degree of disengagement. Attempts at social dominance can lead to microaggressions against less assertive students. These unstructured approaches are likely to yield negative academic and social experiences for students.

Enhancing Student Mental Health While Boosting Achievement

These findings suggest that the mental health (and academic) problems experienced by children and adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic can be mitigated through positive learning experiences with peers that are designed to enhance peer relations and promote engagement. These learning experiences, designed using the framework of peer learning, can reflect local learning standards and content requirements, and can be implemented throughout the school day at any grade level. Thus, the on-going social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic argues for an increased emphasis on peer learning as a school-wide prevention program that can enhance social, behavioral, academic, and mental health outcomes for students of all ages.

Citations

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