Written by Rachel Vinciguerra, MEL Manager and Tricia McGuiness, MEL Director

During the COVID-19 crisis, marginalized youth are disproportionately impacted, bearing “the heaviest burdens of trauma and economic fallout” (Astesano, 2020). Our elementary school girls, especially, face compounding challenges:

  1. Kids in mentorship programs like SWSG are almost twice as likely to live in extreme poverty (Astesano, 2020).
  2. Between the ages of 8 and 14, research shows girls’ confidence drops by 30% in a non-crisis context (YPulse, 2019).
  3. In crisis situations when children are removed from school, they fall behind not just in academics but in critical social-emotional learning (Kamenetz, 2020).

Social isolation and related mental health concerns have continued to rise since the emergence of COVID-19 as access to schools, public places, and support organizations diminished. People have experienced negative effects on physical and mental health due to isolation, compounded by inconsistent access to education, food and job security. Consistent programming from SWSG is essential at this time in order to support the well-being of our mentees.

SWSG’s programs are based on positive youth development principles that promote social-emotional learning. Two decades of research shows that social-emotional learning about skills like conflict resolution and self-awareness results in higher academic achievement, fewer conduct problems, positive social behavior, and less emotional distress (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 2017). It is more important than ever that young girls have access to these programs when they are distanced from their peers and other trusted adults outside of the home.

Through virtual group mentoring sessions, SWSG has worked to address aspects of girls’ lives that are being negatively impacted by the pandemic. We have worked with more than 430 mentees over the last five months to work toward social-emotional, physical, and mental well-being.

In weekly virtual mentoring sessions, SWSG continues to deliver a curriculum that aims to promote social-emotional skills in our mentees by providing opportunities to identify and share their emotions (Character), give and receive support from a community of peers and mentors (Caring & Connection), and, foster strength and positive identity (Confidence & Contribution).

Social-emotional skills are a key factor in positive youth outcomes. With virtual learning focusing primarily on academics, it is critical for kids to access social emotional learning (SEL) and support through other outlets. A Pittsburgh Public Schools resource (https://www.pghschools.org/sel) suggests that SEL skills are ever more important to help youth handle the uncertain times and trauma presented by the pandemic. They cite skills such as identifying emotions, managing stress, social awareness, and resiliency as areas that should continue to be addressed.

“…one of the girls told us her favorite part of the week was going to SWSG.” ~SWSG Mentor

By providing a consistent, supportive group of peers and mentors to meet with virtually on a weekly basis, SWSG provides stability and a sense of community that can help decrease feelings of isolation.
In a May 2020 survey of elementary, middle, and high school girls, The ROX Institute for Research and Training found that 79% of girls reported feeling more lonely or isolated since the start of the pandemic, with 33% saying they feel much more lonely/isolated. The report also suggests that feelings of isolation and disconnectedness can have a major impact on mood, motivation and engagement; and because relationships are a significant source of support for girls, this disconnectedness can be harmful to their health. In a summary of a Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry article (2020), researchers proposed that children experiencing loneliness might be three times more likely to develop depression in the future that could persist for years, and that loneliness will decrease for many as social connections resume. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University suggests a common factor of resilient children is a steady relationship with a supportive adult.

Participating in SWG, even remotely, can offer our college mentors a community of peers to maintain supportive relationships through weekly meetings and bonding opportunities through the semester, as well as the opportunity to build impactful relationships via weekly meetings with mentees.

College students are also feeling an increase in social isolation and mental health concerns as a COVID-19. In a September 2020 study conducted by Texas A & M, about 86% of college students surveyed reported an increased level of social isolation resulting from the pandemic, with more than half experiencing significant decrease in general interaction with other people in their lives. Social isolation is a compounding factor that can lead to serious mental health concerns such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. The Texas A & M researchers also found that 8% of survey participants reported mild of moderate thoughts of suicide.

In SWSG, girls receive reminders to move their bodies, a supportive group to move with, and activities they can use on their own or with their families. Physical activity has decreased for youth across the country. More screen time with virtual schooling has meant that youth have fewer opportunities to be active and move their bodies. We asked parents about screen time and physical activity when they joined SWSG in the Fall. We learned that 63% of girls were experiencing 3-8 hours of screen time each day. Coupled with 61% getting less than 45 minutes of physical activity per day. This finding is backed by a study out of the University of Southern California (2020) which indicated children have been sitting more and less active during the pandemic which can lead to diminished mental health, difficulty paying attention, and sleep problems. SWSG incorporates movement into its sessions via yoga poses, dance breaks, and other physical activities as a means of releasing energy. Movement is even more critical now as it impacts the physical and mental health of our mentees.

“One day we did yoga all together and the girls absolutely loved it. They started showing mentors different poses. Now, some girls are doing it to relieve stress with online school.” ~SWSG Mentor

We know that SWSG helps create the conditions for girls to be their most confident, caring, awesome selves. At SWSG:

  1. Almost half of the girls in SWSG live in households earning less than $27,799 per year.
  2. In just one semester of the program, girls show a statistically significant improvement in confidence.
  3. SWSG provides girls with important social-emotional skills with nearly 90% of responding parents this year sharing that their girl got better at resolving conflict peacefully and 86% saying their girl helped more often as a result of the program.

Most importantly, at a time when things feel out of control, SWSG gives girls a sense that they can make a difference in the world. This year alone, 97% of responding parents said girls’ belief they could make an impact on their community increased because of SWSG.

Although we cannot meet with girls in-person at our 40 schools and community centers to play, learn, and cheer together right now, we will continue to deliver high-quality programming to them at home. And we will create safe and impactful opportunities for girls to connect with their mentors virtually for social-emotional learning and connection. Now, more than ever, we need to step up and support the positive development of the next generation of girl leaders.

Original Post: May 4, 2020

Updated: May 13, 2021

Hinkelman, L. (2020). Findings from 1,273 U.S. girls on school, technology, relationships and stress since COVID-19. Ruling Our eXperiences (ROX), Columbus, OH. https://rulingourexperiences.com/covid19

Center on the Developing Child. How to Help Families and Staff Build Resilience During the COVID-19 Outbreak; Harvard University. https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/how-to-help-families-and-staff-build-resilience-during-the-covid-19-outbreak/

Sasangohar, F., Son, C., Hedge, S., Smith, A., & Wang, X. (September 2020). Effects of COVID-19 on College Students’ Mental Health in the United States: Interview Survey Study. Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering, Texas A&M University. https://www.jmir.org/2020/9/e21279/

Elsevier. (2020). Loneliness in youth could impact mental health over the long term: Children and adolescents more likely to experience higher rates of depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends. ScienceDaily, 19 November 2020. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/11/201119124626.htm.

Lewis, W. (2020). COVID-19 pandemic widens exercise gap between younger school children and adolescents. Keck School of Medicine of University of Southern California. October 14, 2020. https://keck.usc.edu/study-covid-19-pandemic-widens-exercise-gap-between-younger-schoolchildren-and-adolescents/#:~:text=Sharper%20decline%20in%20exercise%20among%20tweens&text=Among%20parents%20of%20children%20aged,13%20gave%20the%20same%20answer