The Kids Are Not Alright: Growing concerns in B.C. elementary classrooms

Young children who grew up in the pandemic are now facing developmental setbacks, according to B.C. teachers. Sarah Chew has more.

Something is happening with B.C.’s youngest students — those who spent some of their most important formative years during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers are seeing it in their classrooms, parents are living with and dealing with it at home, and now it is the focus of an in-depth CityNews investigation, The Kids Are Not Alright.

In Part One of this series, we look into the sharp rise in concerning behaviours from kids in elementary classrooms.

There’s no question the pandemic has had an impact on students of all ages, but if you ask teachers about the youngest grades, many will say something is just different.

“I’m in my 29th year of teaching and this is the first year where I stepped back in September and went ‘whoa … whoa,'” said Jennifer Knibbs, a Grade 2/3 teacher in North Vancouver.

“I felt there was a significant delay. There are all sorts of different levels of development — you’ve got your physical, your cognitive, your social-emotional — and this was across the board.”

Knibbs and other primary grade teachers who spoke with CityNews describe Grade 1 and Grade 2 students who are far behind peers in previous years when it comes to social and emotional skills, things like problem-solving, and negotiating conflict. There are also higher levels of anxiety and disruptive behaviour in the classrooms.

Knibbs says this year was the first in her career she was unable to start with a soft review in September and then move on to the current curriculum.

“These kids needed help, in this setting where they have 21 peers, with how do I interact with these kids, how do I socially and appropriately have conversations, how do I handle things when they don’t go my way?”

Others teachers describe a rise in the number of students in the earliest grades who have more difficulties focusing, maintaining attention, and following instructions.

“It has been more challenging,” said another North Shore Grade 2 teacher, who doesn’t want to be identified. “With the addition of COVID impacting a lot of their early years, you are definitely seeing more behaviour, more anxiety, more time having to be spent on stuff related to self-regulation.”

‘The biggest word these days is anxiety’

Some elementary teachers and counsellors also point to an increase in extreme behaviours disrupting classrooms, with suggestions these are kids who spent more time at home, isolated during the first years of the pandemic and not getting the social interactions that would prepare them for in-person learning in the classroom.

But some experts believe it is more than that.

“The biggest word these days is ‘anxiety,'” said Dr. Shimi Kang, a psychiatrist in Vancouver.

“Whether it’s a family doctor, psychiatrists like myself, teachers, coaches, or parents, that’s really what we are seeing — a lot of children who are anxious and who are scared of simple things like going to school, separating from their parents, and all kinds of other worries. And the research supports that, as well.”

Kang says there were already rising rates of anxiety before COVID-19, related to children being over-scheduled, sleep deprived, and not getting enough outdoor and unstructured play.

“And then the pandemic hit and it was an environment of fear and stress,” Kang explained. “In the young, developing brain, they can sense that. There’s a saying: ‘where focus goes, neurons grow.'”

If the focus is fear, stress, anxiety, and safety, Kang says, the brain will develop to protect against that.

“That’s where we need to work harder with messaging that school is safe, playdates are safe, and going over to a grandparent’s house is safe. We can’t just assume they are going to quickly recover because that is how their brains developed during that time period.”

Kang says in 20 years of practice and working with the school system, she has never seen such burnout and stress among teachers who are dealing with both children’s and parents’ anxiety.

“We need to bring in more social-emotional learning, teaching kids coping skills, gratitude, breathing practices, how to regulate their stress. This is manifesting not just in anxiety but perfectionism, irritability, kids who are really distracted and not engaging. Technology is a key part here, with kids on their devices way too much and we know there are links to anxiety, stress, and sleep deprivation.”

Kang calls it “virtual autism,” a recent term describing young kids, generally under the age of six or eight, who have symptoms similar to neurodivergent children.

“Things like poor eye contact and difficulties with early socialization. Really, when we dive into it, the technology piece of it, being on screens, not socializing in real life, it’s a key factor,” she explained.

She describes an “absolute, perfect storm” of the pandemic, poor socialization, and extreme screen time leading to a mental health crisis, particularly for young people.

More from the series: 

If you want to share your thoughts reach out to reporters Mike Lloyd and Sonia Aslam.

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