Generation COVID: Kiwi teenagers acting younger since returning to school from lockdowns, teachers say

Your teenage years can be awkward at the best of times; the pressure to figure out who you are and what you want to do with your life.

But our Generation COVID teens have had to navigate a time like never before.

And since they've returned to school, our teachers have noticed something different about them - they're acting younger.

Being stuck at home with the family could seem like a cruel and unusual punishment.

But for George Holland, the head boy of south Auckland's Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate, the 2020 lockdown provided a welcome change.

"I come from a working household," he told Newshub Investigates. "It's rare that we see everyone in the household at once and we just got together and [we were] vibing."

But as the face-to-face family time for many increased, every other relationship moved online - which forced teens to get creative.

"We'd have calls and we'd just tell each other jokes and stuff, mock each other… like the usual," Holland said.

But, at some point, school work had to be done.

"A big challenge for me was just prioritising my work and family at the same time," said Mela Baice, Sir Edmund Hillary Collegiate's deputy head girl. 

"My parents could only tell me so many times to get my school work done but, at the end of the day, it was up to me to want that for myself," head girl Adeleine Eli added.

When the school bells welcomed students back, not everyone returned. In term four last year, 26,186 high school students - close to one in five - were considered chronically absent; missing from school three or more days a fortnight.

For those who returned to school, they were different. Albany Senior High School principal Claire Amos said some were acting younger than expected. 

"We need to be cognisant of the fact that they may have some socio-emotional delays that means they might be behaving a bit differently."

And they've needed more from their teachers than book learning.

"We had to focus a lot on, 'This is what face-to-face communication is like'," Waiuku College principal Stuart Kelly said. "We almost had to go back and focus on the functional, emotional and social skills, and then work on the academic skills."

That's all while an increased number of 15 to 19-year-olds (79,600 in the year to March this year) juggled school as well as jobs.

Amos said some have managed it really well and maybe how teens learn needs to change in order to support that.

"We've had these 9am to 3pm school days, 10-week terms since we can all remember and every other part of our sector and society is looking at more flexible ways of working. 

"I wonder if we've hit a point in time where we might start thinking about senior secondary learning a little bit differently."

Because things are changing and more young people need help.

"Anxiety and depression have increased, self-harming and eating disorders have increased," NZ Counsellors Association president Christine MacFarlane said. "The anxiety around coming back to school and the school pressure because they've missed out on so much."

All the teens Newshub Investigates met felt shortchanged. They'd missed school balls and whole seasons of sport, and are now playing catch-up - not just socially but academically, too.

"We missed out on two years of exams which is crazy and it's daunting now having to go into them," Waiuku College head girl Keely Lipscombe said. 

Over the past two years in lieu of more traditional assessments, teachers were able to grant learning recognition credits and evidence learning in "other" ways in order to assess a student's ability.

"There might be - on paper - some gaps in learning in terms of NCEA," education futurist Claire Amos said. "I don't think we should forget about the incredible skills and competencies they've developed over this time. 

"These young people - whilst we may doubt it - have developed resiliency, they have learned to manage their time and manage their learning."

And in their words, they're survivors. 

Watch Newshub Investigates: Generation COVID in full on ThreeNow.