Signs of Social-Emotional Distress in Children (Part 1)

It is no surprise during these unprecedented times that feelings of stress, worry, and anxiety are at an all-time high for both adults and children. Many children no longer have the predictable routine of 8-3 school days or the consistent social exposure and connections they previously had. 

Parents and caregivers may still be out of work resulting in feelings of anxiety, depression, or just a general lack of direction for what’s-to-come. So as we begin the 2020-2021 school year, being vigilant to notice possible signs of social-emotional distress in our students is more important than ever.

Small amounts of stress are typical and normal for children and adolescents to experience. Starting a new school year with a new teacher or trying out for a new sport or activity results in healthy and anticipated levels of stress in children. 

While small amounts of stress are normal, sustained feelings of stress and anxiety related to negative life changes and/or environmental stressors are more worrisome.

Some examples of stressors that our students may be experiencing include (but are not limited to)…

  • Worrying or overwhelmed about school/school work
  • Problems with peers
    • Bullying
    • Conflicts with friends
  • Changes at home
    • Conflict with siblings or parents
    • Divorce
    • Financial issues
    • Homelessness
    • Unsafe home environment or abuse

When we consider that many of our younger students will likely have difficulty identifying what they are feeling or why they are feeling that way, it’s our job to look out for the signs and symptoms that our students are struggling emotionally. Most often than not, we see students who are struggling with some form of social-emotional distress exhibit these feelings physically and/or behaviorally in the classroom. 

So how can we pick up on the signs of social-emotional distress in our students? First and foremost, we need to know what we’re looking for.

Physical signs of stress include…

  • Upset stomach
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Other physical symptoms with no apparent causes

Behavioral signs of stress include…

  • Increased feelings of anxiety or worry
  • New recurrent fears
  • Not able to control emotions or overreaction to situations/small problems
  • Avoidance of once-preferred activities or withdrawn behaviors
  • Feelings of anger, and an increase in crying and/or whining
  • Difficulties with attention or concentration

If you notice a pattern with any of these physical and behavior symptoms, communicate your concerns with other professionals in the building who may be able to provide additional support and resources. 

Remember, sudden changes in behavior are often the result of an internal feeling or experience your student is processing. It may also be helpful to reach out to a parent or a guardian to see if they can provide any additional insight on the circumstances at home, which may be causing or contributing to the signs of distress present at school. Involving all stakeholders will likely result in the best chances at resolving or addressing the feelings of stress or anxiety a student may be experiencing.

Check back in next week, when we share specific tips and strategies on how to address the signs of social-emotional distress in our students. 

Disclaimer: Always consult with professionals and communicate with parents if signs of stress get worse or do not resolve.


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