These are the words of school counselors across America:
‘Kids have the highest level of anxiety I’ve ever seen: anxiety about basic safety and fear of what could happen.’
Fall River Elementary School,
‘I’ve seen more physical fights this year than in my 15 years combined.’
Ida B. Wells High School,
‘The foundational skills for learning need to be retaught.’
Grace Snell Middle School,
American schoolchildren’s learning loss in the pandemic isn’t just in reading and math. It’s also in social and emotional skills — those needed to make and keep friends; participate in group projects; and cope with frustration and other emotions.
In a survey of 362 school counselors nationwide by The New York Times in April, the counselors — licensed educators who teach these skills — described many students as frozen, socially and emotionally, at the age they were when the pandemic started.
“Something that we continuously come back to is that our ninth graders were sixth graders the last time they had a normative, uninterrupted school year,” said Jennifer Fine, a high school counselor in Chicago. “Developmentally, our students have skipped over crucial years of social and emotional development.”
Nearly all the counselors, 94 percent, said their students were showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic. Eighty-eight percent said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions. And almost three-quarters said they were having more difficulty solving conflicts with friends.
Share of school counselors who said they noticed these student behaviors more often, compared with before the pandemic
|Having trouble focusing on classwork||86%|
|Breaking classroom rules||72%|
|Having trouble with time management skills||69%|
|Having trouble collaborating on schoolwork with peers||58%|
|Showing signs of anxiety or depression||94%|
|Having trouble with emotional regulation||88%|
|Showing signs of low self-esteem||67%|
|Having trouble solving conflicts with friends||73%|
|Having trouble making new friends||59%|
|Harassing peers online||51%|
|Physically fighting with peers||51%|
Unsafe Student Behaviors
|Being chronically absent from school||85%|
|Using computers or the internet in school-inappropriate ways||45%|
|Vandalizing school property||44%|
|Possessing drugs or alcohol at school||38%|
|Engaging in age-inappropriate sexual behavior||31%|
|Bringing non-firearm weapons to school||11%|
|Bringing guns to school||3%|
Based on responses from 362 counselors in April.
“They have less stamina; more frustration; less flexibility; less effort; less perseverance; more escape and avoidance behaviors,” Cassie Cerny, an elementary school counselor in Weston, Wis., said in response to open-ended questions in the survey.
Jennifer Schlatter, an elementary school counselor in Brighton, Colo., said: “Anxiety is filling our kids right now. They are worried about their family and friends. They are stressed because they are behind in school.”
And even though schools have, with brief exceptions, been open this year, students have not yet made up the losses. Seven in ten counselors said that they had seen some improvement in social and emotional skills but that there was still work to be done. Just 11 percent said there had been a lot of improvement since the fall, while 17 percent said there had been none.
Only six of the 362 counselors said that behaviors and social-emotional skills were back to normal for their students’ age or that they hadn’t seen lagging skills this year.
Among the survey respondents, counselors served an average of 377 students. In rural schools, the average was 413 (the American School Counselor Association’s recommendation is one counselor for 250 students). Three-quarters said their school did not have enough counseling staff.
“With 375 students, my biggest fear is missing a kid,” said Curtis Darragh IV, a middle school counselor in Danbury, Conn. “What if a kid tells me they are hurting themselves and I didn’t get a chance to see them because of the amount of other duties that I am doing? I can’t handle this by myself.”
Virginia DeLong, who works with high school students in Norwich, Conn., said: “It’s just nonstop putting out fires with kids. We don’t have the staffing to do preventative work, which is what we’re trained to do.”
‘Elementary students are throwing things, needing holds, and yelling and screaming.’
Woodside Elementary School,
‘Kids are more impulsive, less controlled, and struggle with emotional regulation.’
Gilbert Intermediate School,
‘Students are less bought in to school, less excited about life after high school.’
Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired,
Since the fall, there have been increasingly loud alarms about children’s mental health. Doctors who work with children called it “a national emergency,” and Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the U.S. surgeon general, warned that the effect of the pandemic and other stressors on youth mental health were “devastating.” These concerns have been amplified since the mass shooting by an 18-year-old at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas.
Schools, along with pediatricians, are on the front line to spot problems. The Biden administration nearly doubled this year’s investment in social-emotional learning, mental health and student support, to $353 million, and some schools are spending Covid funding on counseling. Yet people in the field say schools desperately need more resources.
“This was a shared trauma, and that trauma and grief is not something you just come back and get over,” said Jill Cook, executive director of the American School Counselor Association. “We want every child to have access to a trained school counselor. The issue, though, is there are not enough qualified, licensed personnel to fill these positions.”
The counselors who participated in the unscientific survey are members of the association, which distributed it for The Times. The survey included counselors in 49 states who work with various age groups, from kindergartners through 12th graders. About a quarter were in urban schools, a third in rural areas and the rest in suburban schools. Roughly one-third worked in schools in which a majority of children qualified for free lunch.
In the last two decades, the role of school counselor has changed, from mostly providing academic guidance to teaching social-emotional learning to the whole school. During the pandemic, more students need their help than ever, they said, yet other responsibilities — paperwork or filling in for teachers because of staffing shortages — keep them from that work. They’re referring more children to outside providers, yet these providers often have no availability. In some places, social-emotional learning has come under political fire.
“I can help you in crisis, but ultimately I need you to get to someone that has more time and often more training than me,” said Leslie Spiller, a high school counselor in Bettendorf, Iowa. “But we have long wait lists to see psychologists and psychiatrists, and then don’t even get me started on insurance. This speaks to a huge line between those that can afford to get help and those that don’t have that ability.”
Nine in 10 counselors said their jobs were more stressful than in previous years. Still, Ms. Fine in Chicago echoed a shared sentiment: “Kids are still kids. They still laugh, love deeply, find joy, and make this job worth it, no matter how stressful.”
‘Teamwork skills are almost nonexistent.’
Green Magnet Academy,
‘Kids are struggling to make friends, and when there is a conflict, they aren’t sure how to work through it.’
‘They prefer screen time with friends as opposed to doing things with friends.’
Oakland Schools Technical Campus,
Emotional health is necessary for learning to happen, counselors said, yet children had lost stamina and motivation in the classroom: “If what they are asked to do requires critical thinking or more than 10 minutes of effort, many students struggle, become frustrated and refuse to do the work,” said Laurenne Hamlin, a junior high counselor in Elkhart, Ind.
Another weakness was social skills. Sixty percent said children were having more trouble making friends, and half said there had been more physical fighting and online harassment of peers. “There is horrific violence and bullying,” said Alaina Casey Mangrum, a counselor in a Pittsburgh elementary school. “There are physical altercations every single day.”
Nearly all counselors said they were seeing more students with signs of anxiety or depression, and trouble regulating their emotions. In children, these issues often appear as acting out — yelling, fighting or arguing. “The smallest things will trigger an extreme emotional response that is disproportionate with the trigger,” said Stephanie Coombs, an elementary school counselor in Wagener, S.C.
Many had seen an increase in suicidal thoughts, even among those in elementary school. “My department is conducting far more student safety screenings for suicidal ideation, gestures, plans, attempts than ever before,” said Helen Everitt, a middle school counselor in Cary, N.C.
Children’s mental health was worsening before the pandemic. The reasons aren’t entirely clear — researchers point to rises in internet use and loneliness; less sleep and exercise; and earlier puberty. But the stressors of the last two years — disruption in routine; illness and death; parents’ job losses — exacerbated the challenges.
One factor associated with more issues, the survey suggested, was how long a school was closed; other research has shown similar findings. At schools closed to in-person learning for a year and a half or more, three-quarters of the counselors said children were physically fighting more often, compared with less than half at schools that were open longer.
‘So much self-harm and suicide ideation.’
Everett High School,
‘We’ve seen an increase in self-medication with vaping and substance abuse.’
Edith M. Smith Middle School,
‘Cyberbullying behaviors are through the roof! We deal with this almost on a daily basis.’
Mercer County Intermediate School,
Computers were another factor, they said. After using them to attend school from home for so long, students are having trouble disconnecting, and more have had unrestricted access to the internet. Counselors connected that to an increase in age-inappropriate sexual behavior, drug use and vandalism. Thirty percent to 40 percent said they had seen an increase in each. In comments, many mentioned TikTok challenges, like one to vandalize or steal from school bathrooms.
“Having our students each have their own district-provided computer, I have seen a huge rise of inappropriate use during and after school hours,” said Shannon Donnellon, a junior high counselor in Clarkston, Mich. “Students have been caught looking at inappropriate websites, playing video games during class, and even chatting with their peers during class time.”
Amy DeCesare, a counselor at a Catholic elementary and middle school in Albuquerque, said: “The influence of things like the TikTok monthly ‘challenges’ to young people, encouraging them to vandalize or disrespect the school environment and staff, is obvious. We also see significant online bullying and harassment — frequently teachers are the targets.”
‘Students are on their phones and earbuds and are not engaged in the classroom.’
Flandreau Indian School,
‘The number of students with chronic attendance issues is much higher than prepandemic.’
Buckman Elementary School,
‘There is an increase in sexual behaviors and vandalism due to the viral TikToks.’
Ada B. Cheston Elementary School,
Despite counselors’ deep concern, they had reasons for optimism. Most had seen improvement once schools and in-person extracurricular activities reopened. Dozens said they were struck by children’s resilience. And some said the experiences of the past two years had helped children grasp the importance of mental health.
“They are learning a lot about resilience and hardship, and we are finally talking openly about mental health and suicide,” said Melissa Dole, who works with high schoolers in Longmont, Colo. “This makes me hopeful for students’ ability to learn coping strategies and reach out when help is needed.”
Michelle Flores, an elementary school counselor in Aloha, Ore., said: “Kids are so resilient. The smiles on their faces and the connections we are making is so encouraging. There’s no way to make up for lost time, but we sure are trying.”