The importance of supporting vulnerable youth during the pandemic

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One of the most effective protective factors is the caring relationship, which serves as a resource that increases resilience.

Published on May 21, 2020


By Pierre Potvin, retired professor in the department of psychoeducation at Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières.

Réseau réussite Montréal is seeking researchers studying various aspects of school perseverance as it relates to the current health crisis. We thank them for contributing to our special section on COVID-19 and educational success.

State of affairs | The most vulnerable | The safety net | The caring relationship | Solutions | About the author

Author’s note: This article is based on my research in education and psychoeducation, on my published writing, and on my experiences guiding schools at the Centre de Transfert pour la Réussite Éducative du Québec (CTREQ).


The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the experiences of families and young people throughout Québec, but especially those in Greater Montréal, where the virus has hit hardest.

The pandemic’s numerous repercussions have affected families, can impact family structures and dynamics, and can jeopardize the safety of the most vulnerable children.

This transformation of environments and lifestyles can trigger anxiety, fear, and stress among children, teens, and parents alike.

Additionally, if support does not continue, the cessation or reduction in school learning could lead to learning delays, reduced motivation, and, for some teens, an increased risk of dropping out.

The most vulnerable

The most vulnerable children and teens, who represent about 20% of all youth, are those who experience one or more of the following situations:

  • Living in an underprivileged environment
  • Living in a dysfunctional family with a risk of negligence or abuse
  • Having learning difficulties
  • Have externalizing disorders (opposition, aggression, hyperactivity, etc.)
  • Have internalizing disorders (anxiety, fear, withdrawal, peer rejection, etc.)
  • Have little educational motivation
  • Have been identified as being at risk of dropping out


A social safety net refers to various government programs and work by community organizations aimed at assisting the most vulnerable people of society. Having and effectively deploying a safety net is a vital protective factor for at-risk children and teens. Its importance is especially great during the pandemic, since the crisis has heightened the vulnerabilities of parents, children, and teens through factors such as parents losing jobs, stress, the lockdown and being forced together into a confined space, limited contact with school and friends, changes in lifestyles, and the fear of contracting the virus.

During the pandemic and throughout the summer, it will be very important to be proactive with vulnerable youth, parents, and schools. This means:

  • Encouraging young people to persevere and supporting them in their schoolwork at home.
  • Following up with the most vulnerable youth by maintaining contact and supporting the link with their schoolteachers.
  • Supporting, informing, and encouraging teachers in their relationships with their most vulnerable students.
  • Being creative and inventive in addressing limitations and restrictions, changes brought about by the lockdown, and the lifting of the lockdown; striving to keep young people physically and mentally active despite the constraints; and, as much as possible, setting limitations on screen time.
  • Working to counteract feelings of discouragement and powerlessness among young people, parents, teachers, or staff at youth organizations; one way to do this is to be proactive in offering alternative solutions.


One of the most effective protective factors is the caring relationship. Such relationships must be nurtured by workers from community organizations, parents, teachers, education professionals, and school administrators.

The caring that adults show toward children is one of the most important ways that we can create a climate of healthy interpersonal relationships that help young people develop self-esteem, self-confidence, a sense of safety, and the motivation to succeed in school that is so vital for learning.

What is a caring relationship?

Showing that you care means:

  • Listening to the person
  • Caring about the person
  • Supporting the person
  • Being empathetic
  • Showing understanding and warmth in the relationship[1]

Young people who experience caring respond positively by showing appreciation and accepting the kindness. It is quite possible that more vulnerable youth may not know how to respond to caring because they do not experience it in their families. In such cases, they must be taught how to react to such positive relationships. One way to do this is to remain open to the relationship and stay positive.

By caring, organizations such as schools and youth centres become “havens of peace and islands of security” for youth experiencing major hardships or growing up in inadequate family environments. In such cases, they serve as resources that increase resilience.[2]


Against this general backdrop of caring, various actions can reduce the negative effects arising from the pandemic and the many constraints caused by the lockdown and lifting of the lockdown. Here are a few examples.

The pain of separation

Work with the school and teachers to ensure that all young people (children and teens) can “say goodbye” to their teachers, and that teachers can respond in kind.

  • This can take the form of a note from the student to the teacher, or from teacher to student.
  • The message might also be a drawing, an email exchange, or a videoconference.
  • High school students might want to choose their most meaningful teacher, and teachers can choose students they are closest too.
  • This suggestion also applies to, perhaps even more so, to non-teaching staff such as remedial teachers, specialized educators, psychoeducators, or speech therapists, who have assisted students having trouble at school.

Rites of passage

In principle, there will not be any end-of-year activities such as grade 6 graduation ceremonies or high school graduation balls. Such events are rites of passage for teens, so it would be a good idea to work with the school to hold a symbolic activity that helps underscore these important events in young people’s lives.

Maintaining connections with significant adults

Make sure that vulnerable youth have at least one significant adult in their lives. In other words, an emotional bond with a significant adult.

  • This could be an aunt or uncle, a grandparent, a teacher, a school staff member, a community organization worker, and so on.
  • Make sure this relationship continues over the summer.
  • The relationship can develop face-to-face (respecting social distancing measures if necessary) or virtually (over Skype, Zoom, etc.). If the young person does not possess the necessary technology (laptop, tablet, etc.), see if it might be possible to lend them equipment and, if so, initiate them to the technology if necessary.

Developing a passion

Just as it is important for a young person to have a bond with a significant adult, it is also important to support young people’s involvement in an activity or project they are passionate about. This helps to develop self-esteem, self-worth, and well-being. Regardless of the type of activity (e.g., sports, art, music, video games, mechanics, crafts, science, camp monitor), the important thing is to encourage a passion and guide it toward a constructive outlet.

Ensuring that learning continues

Over 20% of youth have difficulty learning at school, and this percentage is even higher in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Distance learning (doing schoolwork at home) seems to have been unevenly implemented, and at-risk youth are the ones experiencing the most negative effects. If the return to school in the fall is not to represent too great a challenge, it will be important for them to continue “school” activities over the summer that will help them catch up. These might include literacy activities, science game projects (not just for “Whizkids”) or, for some, remedial activities if necessary.

Preparing for back-to-school

The return to school in September is likely to be complex. A variety of scenarios are being contemplated by the education ministry. Regardless of which scenario plays out, the challenges will be great, especially for at-risk students. So, while it is difficult to foresee what these challenges will be, it will be important for organizations working with youth to support young people and their families in facing them.


Pierre Potvin Ph.D. ps.ed.

A psychoeducator with a doctorate in psychopedagogy from Université Laval, Potvin is currently a retired full professor from the psychoeducation department of Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières (UQTR). Known for his expertise in the dropout phenomenon, he is an associate researcher at the Centre de Transfert pour la réussite éducative du Québec (CTREQ). He has authored and co-authored numerous scientific and professional papers, research reports, books, screening applications, and psychoeducation intervention support resources. He is an emeritus member of the Ordre des psychoéducateurs et psychoéducatrices du Québec (OPPQ) and has received various awards and recognitions (honorary memberships, excellence in research medal).


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[1] Potvin, P. (2018). Élève à risque d’échec scolaire. Un regard sur la résilience et les facteurs de protection. Collection psychoéducation. Béliveau Éditeur.

[2] Henderson, N., Bernard, B. et Sharp-Light, N. (1999). Resiliency in Action: Practical Ideas for Overcoming Risk and Building Stenghs, in Youth, Families and Communities. San Diego, Resiliency in Action Inc.