The Stress of COVID 19 – What It Looks Like in Children and What You Can Do To Support Them

As children and adolescents everywhere cope with the world as they know it being turned on its head, many of them are struggling.   They are experiencing unprecedented levels of anxiety and stress.

What Children and Adolescents are Feeling

One could venture to say that every child and adolescent is experiencing some measure of

  • stress,
  • anxiety,
  • a sense of isolation,
  • loneliness,
  • boredom,
  • and fear

due to the COVID 19 emergency.

Students at the highest risk are the 20% of children and adolescents who were already struggling with anxiety before this emergency.   These students are typically having the greatest struggle because the COVID 19 emergency has layered additional stressful circumstances onto the ones that they were already experiencing.   A similar layering of stress is also true for those children who are experiencing food or housing insecurity.

How Children and Adolescents May be Manifesting their Emotions 

Younger children may not be articulating their feelings.  Instead, their intense emotions may be manifested in their actions.

  • They may appear to be more irritable.
  • They may have meltdowns and tantrums.   .
  • They may be quick to anger, quick to burst into tears.
  • They may experience high levels of frustration.
  • They may need frequent reassurance.
  • They may be reluctant to separate from their parents.
  • They may have physical symptoms like headaches or stomach aches.
  • They may have trouble sleeping.

Older children may be able to articulate their feelings.   However,  the stress and anxiety may look like other things.   Children this age may exhibit some of the same behaviors that younger children exhibit.   In addition, they may express their feelings primarily through their actions.

  • They may be more irritable.
  • They  may appear to be sad.
  • They may be sleeping a lot.
  • They may be hungry all the time.
  • They may be eating more than normal.
  • They may be staying up very late and sleeping for most of the day.
  • They  may be exhibiting poor hygiene.
  • They may have a poor diet.
  • They may not be taking care of themselves.

Teenagers in high school may be more inclined to articulate some of their sense of loss.    Seniors in high school may talk about a huge sense of loss as they are forced to miss milestones for which they have been planning for so many years:   graduation, prom, college visits, a last season of high school sports or other extracurricular experience, .   They may be expressing grief at the loss of all the smaller celebrations of their senior year as well.   Juniors may be struggling with heightened levels of anxiety as they prepare for the final push to gain admittance to the college of their choice.    They find themselves facing the potential loss of the ACT and SAT testing, the potential loss of those extra GPA bumps in their grades, the potential loss of learning that may make the difference on their standardized testing or AP exams.   They face ever shifting ground as colleges decide how they will handle admission expectations given this emergency..   As they navigate this ocean of uncertainty, they may not have the same level of support from counseling staff who would ordinarily guide them through the admission process.   Teenagers may also express their emotions more readily through their actions.

  • They may exhibit depressive behaviors.
  • They may have poor sleep habits.
  • They may eat poorly.
  • Their nights and day may be turned around.
  • They may not take care of themselves.

What Parents and Teachers Can Do to Mitigate Some of the Stress 

There are an array of strategies that adults can use to help children and adolescents cope with the stress that they may be feeling.

  • Provide structure to their day.   Structure sets boundaries.   Boundaries can give a sense of safety and security.   In structuring the day, it may be best to alternate chores or school with fun activities, free time, and exercise.   It is important to include time for children and teens to socialize with their friends virtually as well.
  • Model self-care.   Talk about self-care.   Do self-care:  exercise, eat right, get plenty of sleep, unplug from the news and social media, spend time outside if that is a safe option.
  • Monitor technology use.
  • Give honest answers that are developmentally appropriate.  (When a child asks what happens in the fall, tell them honestly that we don’t know yet.)
  • Keep open lines of communication.
  • Meet children and adolescents where they are.   Acknowledge their feelings.  “I’m sorry you will not get to go through the graduation ceremony in May.   I’m sad about that as well.”  Align your feelings with them and don’t downplay how they are feeling.
  • Listen without judging or correcting their feelings.
  • Create a sense of unity – we are all in this together.   “We don’t have control of this, but what can we do to celebrate this milestone?”   It might be a drive by birthday parade, a cul de sac barbecue where everyone barbecues from their individual driveways, still taking senior pictures or pictures in cap and gown.    Be creative with the things over which you do have control.
  • Re-frame things.   “We can’t go to the movies, but we can have a movie night at home. ”  ”  We can’t go to a restaurant, but we can play Top Chef at home.”
  • Teach radical acceptance.   This is it.   What we do with it is what will make a difference.   How do I keep my dreams alive?   How do I do things that make me happy?
  • Teach them the power of taking the focus off one-self, to see what they can do for someone else.   Teach them to find ways to bring joy to others.   They might paint rocks and leave them for others to find.   They might do sidewalk art that others can see when they go by on a walk.   They might play music or put on a concert from the sidewalk for a shut-in.

By Cheryl Leung as told by Margaret Matteucci, (Public School Counselor and Member of the Albuquerque Public Schools Crisis Team)


“Adolescent Stress In the Time of Covid 19:  Coping with Loss.”   March 22, 2020.  Psychology Today.  . Daniel Keating

“Covid 19 and the Mental Health of Your Children”. March 13, 2020.  The Youth Mental Healtth Project”

“Resiliency Guide for Parents and Teachers”. (American Psychological Association)

“Anxiety in Teens – How to Help a Teenager Deal With Anxiety”.  Hey SIGMUND  by Karen Young.

Child Mind Institute

Interview with Margaret Matteucci, member of Albuqueque Public Schools Crisis Team.






Checking In

When COVID 19 arrived in my state, my students’ world was turned on its head.   Our governor was very pro-active and quickly shut down schools for three weeks.   It wasn’t long before three weeks became the rest of the year.  At the time this began, all of my students were off for two days during student-led conferences.   As a result, it was an abrupt transition for my students during some challenging times .    There were no goodbyes.  They have not yet been able to collect the things they may have left in their lockers or their classrooms because it is not safe to do so.

Some of my students have parents who are medical professionals in the thick of things who have made elaborate plans to stay away from their family so that they don’t bring the virus home.   For some of my students, both parents are medical professionals in the thick of it.   Some of my students have parents who own small family businesses that may not survive.    Some of my student have parents who have lost their jobs.   Some of my students have parents who are going out to deliver groceries because they have been furloughed and need the income.   All of this is happening to them, just as it is happening to kids around the world.

When I see my students in class every day, I can glance at them and usually catch nuances in facial expressions or body language that give me a pretty good idea of how they are doing.   That has become much harder when I only see them via a Google Meet a few times each week.   In order to try to keep  in touch with how they are doing, I have created a Google Check In Form that I have them complete as part of their weekly assignments..   I keep it pretty short so that they will do it.   My form is adapted from a form created by my states’ Public Education Department.

These are the questions that I ask (in addition to their name)

  1.  Today, I am (select all that apply):   Happy, excited, sad, anxious, hungry, silly, tired, lonely, bored, overwhelmed, other________
  2. Give a few details about why you feel that way. (short answer)
  3. Today, I am planning to …(something fun) (short answer)
  4. How are things going with your math:   (multiple choice)  everything is fine, I need some help, other_________

I can only say that the responses have been illuminating.   I think this kind of form is going to remain a part of my weekly assignments long after we return to whatever our new normal might be.


The First of Many Days

A new semester has begun.   As it approached, I found myself anticipating the first day with a bit of dread.   I knew that as I walked the halls, countless people would ask about winter break.   It is part of the usual small talk of coming together again.   I wondered how I would respond.    Would I smile and say something to the effect that it was great and ask about their holiday?   Would I feign deafness?   Would I give an honest answer that it was complicated?

My family and I all went “home” for the holiday this year.   We all know that this may have  been our last Christmas all together.  That is the way of things when cancer has it’s way.   We have lived with that word in our family for years now.  The word has a way of hitting you like a truck so that you have to tell yourself to breath.  Then, as time passes and treatments seem to work, it recedes into the background.   Everyone has learned to live a little more in the moment and to relish each of them and to almost, not quite, but almost, forget.   Then, it sneaks back to the forefront again.   With each incarnation, the reality becomes more pressing.    The ability to push it to the side becomes a little more difficult.

I know that in the coming months (or years if I am very lucky – but luck is not something that I count upon any more), I will watch my father die.  I have seen this sight before and it is not a pretty one.   With each new stage, I find myself both looking back and looking forward as I anticipate what I know will come.   That knowledge sometimes feels like a curse.   The last time I walked this path with someone, it was easier to maintain the steadiness to carry some of the weight of fear and grief that my friend felt.   This time, I find the knowledge of what has come before makes it harder to maintain that same steadiness, the confidence that I can do what must be done.

This unsteadiness, I think, must be how students feel when they have had difficult experiences in a math class.   They have lived through those bad experiences but those experiences cast a long shadow.  That shadow from previous experiences has made them unsteady, they are unsure if they can find their way forward because they think they have seen this story before and they are pretty sure that they know how it will end.    They have no choice but to walk forward, but it is a hard, emotional journey.   It takes a long time to rediscover their feet, to find the steadiness they once had but somehow lost along the way.

I wrote this post back in January but did not publish it because it felt too personal, too raw.  More than anything, it was a means for me to process and to reflect.

Since I wrote this, we have a new treatment for my father that is working for now . I know it won’t last, but I am grateful for the now.

Unfortunately, since the time, that I wrote this post,  COVID 19 has also entered our collective experience.   That, more than anything, has prompted me to share this post.   As I think about the days ahead, I am reminded that some students will face very hard days.   I am reminded that some of those simple social niceties that are part of our everyday existence will not be easy for some of them to answer.


Story – A Tool for Making Math Concrete

There is something incredibly powerful about the idea of story as a teaching device.  It brings an idea to life.  It makes an abstraction become concrete and accessible.   The idea becomes something real and tangible to a child when they experience it in a story.

By bringing the idea of story into math class, the abstractions associated with math concepts become more concrete, more tangible, more real, more accessible.    It is not always possible, but it is incredibly powerful when it happens.    It can happen in a myriad of different ways.  It can be the set up to a math problem.   It can be the launch of a project,   It can be an example that clarifies a question.   It can be whatever it needs to be in a given moment.

Here are a few of the stories that I have used with my students this year.

The First Penguin Award  – This is a taken from one of the chapters in The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch.   Dr. Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, was diagnosed with terminal cancer when his three children were all very young.  In this book, Dr Pausch shares the stories that impart ideas that he would want to share with his children.    The First Penguin Award tells of the award that he would give to the group in his virtual reality class each year that had the most colossal failure.   He would give them an award because we often learn more from our failures than from our successes.    The twist that I tell in my math class is that when we discuss a mistake that someone has made in their work, that person is giving us a gift.   That gift is the opportunity to look a little more deeply at the math and their mathematical thinking.   As we explore that, we have the opportunity to grow together as mathematicians.   In trade for such a rich gift, that person is gifted with a small reward – a piece of candy in exchange for the riches that we received.

Rosie Revere, Engineer – This is a picture book probably targetting students in the early elementary school years, but I read it to my middle school students because it has so many messages that I want them to hear.   Rosie is a little girl who likes to make things to solve problems that she perceives.  Unfortunately, people laughed at her inventions so she learns to only invent in secret because she does not want to be ridiculed.   One day, though, her aunt Rosie (aka Rosie the Riveter) comes for a visit and enlightens her to the fact that failure is only the first step on the road to a successful invention.   I love this message.   I think it is so important for kids to see that failures and mistakes are part of the process.   They are part of the journey, not the destination.   I also love that the protagonist is a girl, that she can dream and do and create, that she can move past thinking that she needs to be perfect.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – As part of a unit on decimal operations and percent applications, I take my students on a brief visit to Diagon Alley.   They each receive a letter inviting them to Hogwarts along with a list of school supplies that they must purchase and their budget.   The school owls deliver them to their lockers while they are in class, to be discovered when they head back between classes.  (The school owls are assisted by some 8th grade former students).   When students arrive at Diagon Alley, they must do some monetary conversion (Galleons and Sickles), calculate discounts (books are on sale at Flourish and Blotts) and tax (the Ministry of Magic does not run for free) and then determine if they have enough money left for that highly coveted broomstick or owl.

The Hunger Games – During a probability unit, I have my students do a simulation based on their actual family size.   Students determine whether or not their family will need the additional food supplement provided by the government by rolling a die.   They then use their age, the number of people in their family, and the outcome of the roll of the die to determine how many times their name will go in the reaping ball.  They fill it their names on the required number of slips of paper and we simulate the selection of a male and female tribute from our district.   After selecting our tribute, each student uses the data from the simulation to determine his or her probability of being selected.

One Grain of Rice – This children’s picture book tells the story of someone choosing to use a chessboard  and rice to determine payment.   On the first day, one grain of rice is placed on the first square.   On the second day, the amount from the first day is doubled and placed on the second square.   On the third day, the amount from the second day is doubled and placed on the third square and so on.   This year, I introduced this story and challenged my students to determine how much rice the girl would have on the 64th square and how much she would have altogether.   After we debriefed this, I connected the idea of exponential growth to the spread of COVID 19.   Then we explored how the number of infected people would change if doubling did not happen on some of the days because someone stayed home and did not get infected.

Things That Make Me Happy Right Now

These are some of the things that make me happy right now.   They are in no particular order.

  1. On Tuesday, I watched a fifteen year old young woman sit patiently,  encourage,  and guide an eleven year old girl as she debugged an issue with the code for her robot.   She stuck with this girl for a good thirty minutes until the problem was resolved.  It was such a generous thing to do.
  2. On Wednesday,  I watched as eleven year olds huddled together helping each other try to figure out how to do new things as they were learning to code.   I loved that these kids would jump in and offer help to each other.   Watching them together was such a lovely sight.
  3. A colleague brought his new puppy for a visit during student-led conferences on Friday.   Playing with this little Bernadoodle for 20 minutes filled my heart with joy.  Time stopped and there was magic in those few minutes.
  4. During one of my student-led conferences, a toddler tagged along.    He discovered the wonder of a funny stuffed elephant in my room that plays music.   Every time the music stopped, he piped up “again”.   Watching his wonder and joy as he played made me happy.   Having the opportunity to see wonder and joy in a child’s eyes is such a gift.
  5. It is the fall and that means that morning skies are filled with hot air balloons.  Looking up into the deep blue sky that is only present in this part of the country and seeing the hot air balloons is one of my favorite things about fall.
  6.  I got a phone call from my daughter  who had recently returned from doing pro bono work as a physical therapist in Guatemala.   As I listened to her talk about the work she did with a 24 year old man whose spine was injured as a result of gun violence, I could hear the impact she had made in his life and the lives of the other patients that she treated.   It makes me happy that I have children who are working to make the world a little better.
  7. One of my student aides decided that since I bring baked goods for them from time to time, he would bring something for me.   It became a bit of a joke that there must be some sort of curse.   The first time he tried to bake for me, the oven broke and his parents had to replace it.   The second time he tried to bake for me, his fish tank broke and he had to get a new one.   I told him he needed to stop trying to bake for me because it was putting a pretty heavy financial burden on his parents.   He didn’t listen to me.   On Monday, he brought me a package of the best chocolate chip cookies that I have ever eaten.  He is an amazing cook and the fact that he wanted to share that with me makes me happy.
  8. At the beginning of the year, I asked my students to write one thing that makes them smile.   It has been such a gift to be able to glimpse into their lives.   One of them wrote that it makes him happy to help the homeless.   When I first read it, I wondered about it because it is not what one normally sees from an eleven year old boy.   As the year has progressed, I have seen the truth in his statement every single day.   He is unfailingly generous to everyone that he encounters and he is the happiest kid in the room.   It makes me happy to see his truth.

The Distributive Property and Rational Numbers – A Desmos Lesson

One good thing.   That has been my professional mantra for the last five or six years.   I try to find one good, research-based thing that I want to bring into my instructional practice in a given year.   That doesn’t mean it is the only thing that I change, but I try to really focus on making one piece of my practice better.   This year, I decided that bringing Desmos into my classroom would be my “One good thing.”

Over the last month, I have used Desmos five times.

  1. The first time, I used a lesson that I created matching stories to graphs.   It was a good lesson, but I had no idea what I was doing as I facilitated it.   The students loved it and learned despite my unease.
  2. The second time, I used a Desmos-curated lesson on graphing inequalities on the number line.   It went much more smoothly.  A little experience went a long way.
  3. The third time, I again opted for a Desmos-curated lesson.   This was the Battle Boats lesson in which students plot points in four quadrants and essentially play Battle Ship.   It was a huge success.   At this point students were walking into class and excitedly asking if we were doing Desmos.
  4. The fourth attempt was a lesson that I created based on Cathy Yenca’s (@mathycathy) Twin Puzzles Desmos lesson.   She had a great lesson on Order of Operations using twin puzzles.   I wanted to incorporate negative values into my puzzles, though, and she had only positive values.   So, I built a copycat of her activity and used expressions with negative values.   It was great, but I had a hard time figuring out how to input the puzzle into the activity builder.  I had not yet figured out that there was a copy function in Desmos.   I ended up creating the puzzles in Word, printing them out, and then taking photos that I inserted.   This only worked so well.   I had the puzzles in a stack when I took the photos and you could see shadows of the other puzzles underneath.   By the time I figured it out, there was no time to redo the photos so we lived with it.   Once again, the students were engaged and learning despite my imperfections.
  5. After the success of attempt number four, I went home and completely reworked my lesson for the next day to be a Desmos activity.   The lesson was focusing on the Distributive Property.   My students had already built a fairly solid understanding of it during a previous unit.   This lesson was going to build on that prior knowledge/experience and extend their understanding to include negative values.

There is a quick summary of the Distributive Property activity below and a link to the lesson if anyone would like to look at it or use it.   I included some teacher notes and notes on anticipated error points in the slides.

The lesson started with a card sort comparing visual representations and algebraic expressions.   All the values are positive at this point.   (I still need to find a better way to add diagrams into Desmos).   After students completed the card sort, we debriefed it as a class.


Next, students  explored the Distributive Property and subtraction as they rewrote expressions in expanded form.   I had students work independently and then discuss it with their table groups.   Only after table group discussions did I direct students to hit the “Share with the Class” button.   At that point, we had a whole class discussion.   During the discussion, I asked students what they noticed about the second and third elements in the table.   This was how I drew out the discussion of whether the Distributive Property works with subtraction.   After the discussion, students  explored the Distributive Property and negative values as they rewrote expression in expanded form.   Once again, I had students work independently and discuss with their table groups before sharing their responses with the class.   I focused the discussion on elements two and four in the table.

Next, students rewrote expressions in expanded form into expressions in factored form.  Some students had trouble remembering what “factored form” meant, so we went back to the first slide in the activity and reviewed which expressions were in factored form and which were in expanded form.   Once again, students worked independently and in table groups before sharing responses with the class for a whole group discussion.


Then, they applied the Distributive Property on a couple of word problems.

Finally, they wrapped up with a card sort that was a formative assessment.


Incorporating Desmos into my classroom is still a work in progress.   There are still things for me to learn and there are still things that I can do better.   That said, I’ve made a few interesting observations along this short journey.

  • Kids walk into the room and see the chromebooks and excitedly ask if we are doing Desmos.   They love it.
  • Kids who don’t see themselves as  being “as good as everyone else” at math suddenly are deep in the thick of things and are getting ideas as quickly or more quickly than others.   Math is not about being fast, but it is interesting to see how a student is suddenly grasping new ideas more quickly than he or she usually does.
  • There are lots of opportunities to introduce cognitive dissonance and to suddenly hear outbursts  of “Oh!” followed by furious typing as a student suddenly makes a big connection.
  • Students who are absent for all or part of a class can go  home and do the Desmos activity.   The days that I did the Twin Puzzles and the day that I did the Distributive Property activities, some of my students were pulled out of class to have a skype session with a scientist in Antarctica .   It’s not the sort of thing that I want them to miss so it was nice to be able to just give them the class code and tell them to do the lesson at home.


A Desmos Lesson That Felt Like a “Fail”

Sometimes, despite diligent planning and preparation, a lesson does not go quite as planned.   That was definitely true of my first Desmos lesson.   In fact, at least in my eyes, it was a bit of fail.

After attending a session on Desmos at the NCTM annual conference last April, I could see the power and promise of the platform to help students visualize math.   After returning home from San Diego, I looked at a bunch of lessons on Desmos and found several that I wanted to try with my students.   I also found one that was fairly similar to a lesson that I already teach that matches the story to the graph.   I decided that this particular lesson would be a good place for me to start.   (The version of the lesson that I usually teach is described in this blog post .)

As I prepared the lesson, I invested hours figuring out how to build piece-wise graphs on Desmos and how to build a card sort.    Once I had the lesson built, I created a class code on Desmos and  had one of my student aides enroll in it and do the lesson to test it out.    Based on his feedback, I made a few tweaks to improve the lesson.   Going into the lesson, I felt like I had done everything that I could to prepare but still felt the usual nerves when I try out a new platform for the first time.   When it comes to teaching a lesson, I like to have anticipated every possible eventuality and have thought about what I want to do in response.    That can be hard to do when I’m learning a new platform.

As I taught the lesson over the course of the day, it got a little smoother with each iteration.   I made a few changes after each period and it was fairly smooth by the end of the day.     My struggles were not with the lesson or pacing, but with how to facilitate a lesson on the Desmos platform.    All of my planning didn’t prepare me for how students screens would look when I used Pause or for the fact that when I displayed my screen on the Promethean board every student in the room could see what every other student was typing (even before they hit Share With The Class).   Hence, I did not anticipate the fact that the impulsive boys in my second period class would see it as a great opportunity to type silly messages and pull other kids off task.   After a few trials and missteps, I figured out that I needed to make kids Pause, turn to the screen to introduce the task/question, freeze the screen on the Promethean Board before kids started, and tell kids not to hit Share With The Class until I gave the direction to do so in order to ensure that each student had the opportunity to think about the task/question without being influenced by someone else’s response.

I walked away from the lesson feeling that most of my cognitive energy/focus was on how to manage facilitating the technology rather than on facilitating the discussion the way that I normally would have done.    As I looked at student work during the lesson and the ending exit ticket, I could see that students had grasped the necessary concepts.  When I graded the unit test that was the day after the lesson, the class average was 97% with the lowest score above an 80%.   So, objectively speaking, it was a success.   It definitely felt like a fail though.

So, where do I go from here? Despite the bumpy road, my students said they liked using Desmos and I still believe their is power in it.   So, I will live outside of my comfort zone.   I have two lessons planned for this week using lessons created by Desmos to teach about plotting points on the coordinate plane and graphing inequalites .   I also spent several hours this morning creating another lesson of my own on Desmos modeled after @mathycathy ‘s Twin Puzzles Desmos activity to explore order of operations with rational numbers.   (Her activity was great, but I wanted to incorporate some rational numbers rather than just using whole numbers).

Every day, I tell my students that  you get better at things when you work at them.   Hence, I am going to work at getting better at facilitating Desmos lessons by doing some more of them.