Just like the economy, children cannot simply rebound from the pandemic. Social-emotional recovery for children must begin immediately to avoid long-term consequences to their mental and social wellbeing. Releasing them back into the pre-pandemic school and social settings might not be enough for their recovery from the trauma of social alienation.
Fortunately, parents enjoy an abundance of options when it comes to afterschool opportunities to deliver social and psychological enrichment to their children. The process of healing can begin, but parents must be discerning in their afterschool choices to get the best for their children.
First, let’s discuss the overwhelming scientific consensus from mental health experts. Children, particularly adolescents, have suffered a potentially devastating threat to their social and mental development. Perhaps most troubling is the fact that there is no equivalent historical parallel to evaluate the consequences of mass social withdrawal of children from social interactions. Researchers for the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry examined studies since the end of World War II and found none that evaluated conditions like those experienced by children during the Covid-19 pandemic.
What the data does indicate is troubling. Children and adolescents who are withdrawn from school and other social activities suffer higher rates of mental disorders, including depression, anxiety and antisocial disorders. They are more likely to suffer from suicidal thoughts and a myriad of self-destructive behaviors, including substance abuse and juvenile delinquency. These children and adolescents are more likely to drop out of school, suffer from unemployment as adults and commit crimes.
These problems are predictable given the role of socialization in childhood development. In the middle of the 20th century, theorists such as Erik Eriksen, Jean Piaget, Albert Bandura, Lev Vygotsky, and B. F. Skinner conducted the research and theoretical development that comprises the canon of childhood development. Most of our school curricula and afterschool activities are based on the premise that social adjustment means more than simply placing children into the social environment. Remember the lesson of Lord of the Flies? Children need more than socialization. They require social enrichment, and this is an intentional construction of the social environment.
When children were withdrawn from their school and social activities, their social development was suddenly disrupted. But the harm can be repaired. That’s where afterschool activities can play a role. Already, schools, nonprofit organizations, and commercial aftercare providers are designing afterschool activities for the pandemic generation. Bolstered by the theory and research on childhood development, these activities are intentionally constructed to address the specific types of harm that might have occurred due to such a prolonged experience with social withdrawal. Many of these activities resemble those of the pre-pandemic era, but many are being adapted to account for the impacts of social withdrawal.
Your school, local government (i.e., parks and rec department), community groups, or aftercare businesses can provide more information about how they are preparing to meet the unique challenges of post-pandemic children. The consequences of social withdrawal could last for a lifetime. But there is hope that social reentry through afterschool activities will do more than restore children — it will make them more resilient.