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How does anxiety caused by Covid-19 affect learning?

By Kayleigh Luntz and Aadilah Dadabhay - Intern Educational Psychologists


The impact of Covid-19 on mental health has gone beyond the rapid and alarming rate at which the virus has spread in our country and throughout the world. Reflecting back on these past few months and on our current lived reality, Covid-19 has brought about many stressful changes and disruptions to everyday routine. For some, this has evoked many early and unprocessed feelings of loss, separation, and trauma.

Although it is natural to feel anxious when we face a crisis or experience drastic change, the physical, emotional, social, and financial implications of Covid-19 have left many of us feeling overwhelmed by anxiety and fear. As adults, we are better able to understand and identify the source of our anxiety. However, for our children this can be a lot more difficult. Their lives have been turned inside out; they miss going to school, getting out of the house and having fun - even when they play with their friends it’s not the same.

Anxiety can show itself in many ways in children and it can often look like something else. Some of the ways anxiety presents in children include:

·Anger and emotional outbursts- continuous anxious feelings can trigger the fight or fight response in a child’s brain, leaving them feeling angry without knowing exactly why.

Difficulty sleeping- a common flag of anxiety is not being able to fall or remain asleep.

Defiance- more acting out/attention seeking behaviours and ‘not listening’.

Needy/ clingy – wanting more attention, love and time with Mom and Dad than usual.

Avoidance – anxiety can lead to children wanting to avoid people, places or tasks that may trigger uncomfortable feelings.

Overthinking- becoming preoccupied with details and facts about the virus and it’s implications.

Regression – this is one of the most noticeable shifts. Some examples with young children can be having difficulty calming down and using more ‘baby talk and behaviour’ like wanting a dummy back. Some children may regress in toilet training, wetting the bed/themselves more often, or wanting to sleep in your bed again like when they were younger.

The impact of the fear and anxiety caused by Covid-19 extends beyond children’s psychological, emotional, and behavioural functioning. Its effects have also crept into the learning space (at school or at home), impinging on their ability to learn and to perform academically. Across the globe there have been many research studies conducted on the effects of anxiety on children’s learning and academic performance. One such study done in South Africa suggested that children who experience high levels of anxiety are at risk for poorer academic performance. Research shows that there may be a few reasons which can help us understand why. This includes:

Anxiety affects Working Memory

Working Memory is a type of short-term memory which looks at our ability to hold information in our minds whilst carrying out a certain task. In the classroom, tasks that make use of a child’s Working Memory include remembering instructions from a teacher, being able to organise their thoughts or being able to understand stories they have heard or read. These tasks require a lot of concentration and attention and when a child is preoccupied or distracted by worries around Covid-19, their Working Memory can become overloaded and can cause the crucial information that is needed to complete academic tasks, to be lost.

Anxiety makes it harder to process information

Just as anxiety can impact on a child’s Working Memory, it can also impact on how fast they process through information and how long it takes them to complete class work and homework. Children who might be distracted by their anxiety around Covid-19, may find it extremely difficult to concentrate during academic tasks. They may appear to be daydreaming, may seem ‘spaced-out’ and their slow pace of work may cause them to fall behind in class.

Anxiety can lead to avoidance of homework

Despite anxiety impacting on a child’s ability to concentrate and to complete their homework, it can also cause a child to feel completely overwhelmed causing them to lack the motivation and interest to complete their work at home.

Anxiety may lead to school refusal

In some instances, the anxiety and fear around Covid-19 and returning back to school with an increasing threat of getting infected or infecting others, may become so severe that children avoid going to school at all.

What can Parents do to help their children?

  • Be in touch with your own emotions and practice self-care. It can be difficult to manage our children’s anxiety when we are so overwhelmed with our own.

  • Name and acknowledge big feelings. Acknowledge how angry/worried/upset your child is. Putting their feelings into words or pictures can help them understand where it is coming from and can help them manage it better. Example, “It is so hard that I cannot play with you right now even though I am at home because I am still working. This can be confusing and makes you feel so angry that you want to scream”.

  • Set aside consistent quality/ special one on one time to do something fun together. Baking, cooking, or reading a story are some examples of activities to do together.

  • Give your child extra support, especially with schoolwork. Supervise their homework and break instructions down to make it more manageable.

  • Sit with them in a quiet space when completing school work. Make eye contact and get down to their level.

  • Routine, structure, and consistency are especially important for children to feel secure and safe. This can include eating dinner/breakfast or having a ‘homework hour’ at the same time each day. It makes life feel a little more predictable and controlled.

  • Stay calm and firm during tantrums/outbursts- this can be difficult but it’s often your child’s way of telling you they cannot manage the big feelings inside. Taking deep breathes and use the 5 senses to help them feel grounded.

  • Physical activity- get moving! Setting up obstacle courses, going for walks or playing catchers are all fun ways of releasing endorphins that make us feel good.

  • Reach out for support and contact us at JPCCC, where a team of professionals can help you and your children cope better during these very difficult times.

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