Child psychiatrist explains health impacts of remote learning on kids

Child Psychiatrist explains the impacts on health with remote learning
Published: Oct. 22, 2020 at 1:26 AM EDT|Updated: Oct. 22, 2020 at 4:29 AM EDT
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BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) - As Burlington High School parents worry their children are suffering because of remote learning, our Erin Brown spoke with a local child psychiatrist to better understand the health risks and concerns.

Dr. Jeremiah Dickerson says research is still being done to assess the consequences of remote learning on children’s health and development. He says it’s unknown exactly how remote learning is currently impacting students and how it will affect them later in life.

Dr. Dickerson says the outcomes ultimately depend on a number of variables for each individual student, such as home environment and social or learning disabilities. But he does say there are reasons for parents to be concerned.

Nearly 1,000 BHS students have been deprived of in-person social interaction for seven months -- first, because of the pandemic and then again in September due to PCBs being detected in the school.

Dr. Dickerson says something as simple as stopping by a friend’s locker to chat on the way to class is an interaction vital for students' positive growth. He says without it, some kids may become more anxious and irritable. “Socializing is what helps us think about our own identity and perhaps try out different identities and see where we fit in and see where we don’t fit in. So, socializing is very important for positive development and positive growth,” he said.

Dr. Dickerson also says the lack of a classroom structure can make it harder for kids to focus and stay on task. Additionally, the dynamic of parents now being teacher can be confusing for kids and challenging for mom or dad. He suggests parents try to maintain as much predictability and routine as possible. “For some families, it’s also useful to have a separate space,” he explained. “This is your school space. This is your desk. This is your computer and when you’re sitting at this desk, you’re a student at the school but when you leave this desk, I can be dad again and we can talk about going outside and getting some physical activity and doing something fun.”

Increased screen time is another concern. Many students are spending the eight-hour school day on their tablets and laptops. After school, they may turn to another screen, such as the TV, to play video games or hang out with friends virtually. Dr. Dickerson says that could negatively impact the areas of kids' brains that are still developing. “Especially the areas of their brains that are responsible for focus and concentration and making solid judgments and planning and organizing,” Dickerson said. “For most of us, after the age of 25 and 26, those areas of the brains are fully developed. There is some concern about how heightened screen time will inform the development of certain brain areas but again, I think it’s unclear what the long-term outcomes may look like.”

Dr. Dickerson says psychiatrists are also worried about the health and safety of students whose homes are violent and unstable. “We worry that for some kids, home is not a safe, comfortable, predictable place, and not having the escape of going to school can be concerning because those kids are also not presenting to teachers and other grownups in their lives to say, ‘Hey, what’s going on? Is there anything I can do to help you?’” Dickerson said. “And it’s teachers and staff at school who also are more apt to make reports to [the Department of Children and Families]. And so if kids aren’t going to school and are experiencing heightened levels of adversity and potentially trauma, we do worry about the long-term impacts of those environments of those particular kids.”

Dr. Dickerson says the outcomes will depend on how severe and frequent the trauma is, but he warns the impacts could be detrimental to the children subjected to it. “We do know that kids who experience trauma can develop a range of mental health concerns -- anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “They can have trouble making and maintaining friendships. They can exhibit a wide range of regulated behaviors: becoming aggressive really quickly, demonstrating oppositionality, and it can also affect their learning too. If you’re in a heightened state of anxiety, you can imagine how hard it is to attend to doing your schoolwork.”

Dr. Dickerson says there’s been a national and local uptick in families seeking mental health services. He says anyone who notices changes in their child’s sleeping habits, behaviors, or appetite should call their child’s pediatrician.

As for Burlington High School students, Dr. Dickerson is encouraging the Burlington School District to provide a semblance of normalcy for students and establish a routine that incorporates safe socialization while they continue learning at home.

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