Online Learning’s Impact on K-12 Students’ Mental Health

When schools turned to online learning options during the COVID-19 pandemic, educators, psychologists, and experts in student health and wellness began to express concern that the lack of in-person, face-to-face interaction with teachers and peers would increase student stress and interfere with students’ social and emotional learning (SEL).  

Sitting in an online classroom for weeks—and then months—away from the support of friends and teachers would, it was feared, have long-lasting and negative consequences for student mental health. 

This has prompted a wider discussion on K-12 students’ mental health and the role schools play in it. But it goes beyond online learning.  

Whether they are learning in the classroom or remote settings, students spend much of their educational time online. Studies have demonstrated that students experiencing social, emotional, and mental distress frequently address those feelings and experiences in their online activity. 

Luckily, technology can also be incredibly useful for helping educators and caregivers gain insight into these issues of student mental and emotional wellness. 

Student mental health and online learning

Identifying signs of stress and spotting mental health red flags in students can be challenging, even in traditional face-to-face classroom settings. Monitoring the warning signs over remote learning can be even more difficult.  

To address social-emotional learning needs when teaching online, it can be helpful to check in with guides such as this. Key suggestions include: 

  • Be aware of the effect online learning may have on already introverted children and teens and make extra efforts to reach out to these students.  
  • Be flexible around scheduling or bandwidth issues that may arise as students juggle online schooling with other family members at home. 
  • Make sure to provide opportunities for sharing and open discussion, just as might exist in an in-person classroom.  

It’s important for educators to stay attuned to their students’ needs and experiences and help them be aware of any mental health challenges that may arise, whether everyone is in the classroom together or not. Effective online tools and distance learning best practices can also play a valuable role in helping educators keep an eye on students’ social and emotional health. 

Benefits of online learning

The challenges of distance learning have been well-documented but online learning appears to be here to stay in one form or another. And while there are difficulties with remote learning, there are many benefits to it.  

Online learning reaches students where they already spend much of their time—the internet. In addition to providing students and educators with additional flexibility and readily available resources, online learning also situates the classroom in the digital space where many students’ careers will also one day take place. 

Other benefits of online learning that emerged during the pandemic include:  

  • Some students find the calm of working from home instead of in a busy classroom to be a mental relief 
  • Some students have said it’s easier for them to learn and go at their own pace when learning from home, allowing them to personalize their learning 
  • Some teachers have found that online classroom management systems better enable them to chart the progress of individual students  

An unexpected benefit of online learning—social-emotional learning

Another, perhaps unexpected, benefit of online learning is that it can provide educators with a powerful resource for teaching SEL. By helping students develop personal skills like self-awareness, good decision-making, and relationship skills, SEL has been shown to help schools be safer, help students achieve more academically, and promote positive mental health. 

The Boston Children’s Hospital Digital Wellness Lab notes that,

Technology can help teachers amplify students’ voices and give students a chance to direct their own learning. Incorporating technology within SEL instruction and core academic content can help students work to their strengths, complete assignments at their own pace, and enjoy a more personalized experience in the classroom.

Educators can also apply SEL skills specifically to the online space by teaching students how to practice good digital citizenship. When students learn how to protect themselves, treat others with empathy and kindness, and respect personal information and property online, they also learn important social-emotional lessons for the rest of their lives. 

How technology can keep students safe during online learning

When students are in a mental health crisis, seconds count. Time is critical in dealing with incidences of student selfharm or possible suicide or violence. And as we noted earlier in this article, monitoring and spotting the early warning signs of mental health problems during online learning is difficult.
That’s where technology and online monitoring tools come in.  

Software like Lightspeed Alert™ help educators and other responders successfully implement student suicide or self-harm prevention, impede the planning of violent behavior against others, stop a student from being bullied, and reach students who are in need. Lightspeed Alert has been proven to be effective at recognizing the warning signs of student emotional and mental distress—and critically, identifying those signs early enough for successful and safe intervention.  

Sophisticated artificial intelligence analyzes student data and locates, interprets, and flags warning signs in students’ email copy, Google docs, social media posts, web searches, Microsoft® Teams and Meetings chat—practically anywhere students are active online. Effective online monitoring tools like Lightspeed Alert meet students where they are and boosts a school’s ability to keep students safe during online learning


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