How schools can help children heal themselves after the uncertainty of the pandemic


Kai Humphrey, 9, has been learning from home for over a year. He misses his elementary school in Washington, DC, along with his friends and the hustle and bustle of the classroom.

“I’ll be the first person to have all the people in the world as my friend,” she said in a recent call to Zoom, with her sandy brown hair hanging down to her shoulder blades. For Kai, this kind of proclamation has no desire to boast, rather as an exuberant kindness.

But when Kai’s school recently invited him back, he refused. This is because her list of worries is long, crowned by the fear of staying covid-19 and giving it to her 2-year-old sister, Alaina. He was born with heart disease, Down syndrome and a fragile immune system. For her, the disease poses a deadly threat and he is her protector, the only one who can make her laugh without breathing.

Kai also worries about the separation of his mother, Rashida Humphrey-Wall. Her biological father died in 2014 and she remains her rock, her breast bear and occasional taekwondo partner. Sometimes the visit at the head, in the middle of the night, just to check it out.

This pandemic has been stressful for millions of children like Kai. Some have lost a loved one due to covid, and many families have lost jobs, their homes, and even reliable access to food. If the adult you care about doesn’t hinder that stress, it can have lifelong consequences.

“Children have been exposed to chaos, crisis and uncertainty,” said Dr. Matt Biel, a child psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital.

But there is good news for children like Kai: educators across the country say that right now their top priority is not doubling in math or reading, but helping students control the stress caused by a pandemic.

“If children do not go back to school and pay close attention to safety, security, predictability and the restoration of strong and secure relationships, [they] they will not be able to regain ground academically, ”Biel said.

Promote mental well-being in the classroom

To re-establish relationships in the classroom and help children cope with last year’s stress and trauma, mental health experts say educators can start building on time each day, for each student, in each classroom, to share their feelings and learn the basics. of naming and managing their emotions. Think about morning circle time or, for older students, homework.

At Irene C. Hernandez Middle School in Chicago, Professor Lilian Sackett begins each day checking in with students, then immersing herself in a brief lesson in mindfulness and other socioemotional skills.

The school is in a predominantly Latin area that was hard hit by the pandemic, Sackett said. He taught English as a second language and learned that many of his students ’families were facing many tensions related to job loss and illness, which adds to any trauma that had preceded the pandemic.

“We need to allow students to share their experiences with the pandemic and give them that safe space [to] talk about it, ”Sackett said.

Also, he said, children can benefit from very few minutes each day in class quiet. When he found out about his students, they loved Bob Ross and his quiet, televised painting lessons of the eighties and nineties, Sackett decided to work it into his morning routine.

“We see five minutes of Bob Ross and we see the whole painting session within a week,” he explained. “When they have fun, they’re very excited – they’ll learn everything you throw at them.”

Sackett said his approach was informed by one virtual training, provided by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, which focused on the impacts of trauma on children.

“They mentioned that a bad grade is never about a lazy kid,” he said. If a child is struggling academically, they may have very difficult circumstances at home. Sackett learned that teachers can help by creating a supportive environment that fosters resilience.

Sheyla Ramirez, an eighth-grader at Sackett School, has benefited greatly from daily visits with her teacher. Last fall, her family fell with covid and her little sister ended up hospitalized before recovering. Sheyla’s uncle had died after testing positive for the virus months earlier. She said it was a very stressful time, especially for her third grade sister.

“My sister said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to die,'” Sheyla recalled, “I didn’t know what to say to her because she was in shock, too.”

School staff members routinely checked in to see if she or her family needed anything and offered to connect Sheyla with a school counselor. But Sheyla said the brief daily lessons of attention at the beginning of each school day and being able to share her feelings and concerns with her teacher were enough to help her overcome it.

“They’ve been doing an excellent job,” Sheyla’s mother, Amparo Ramirez, said. “I’ve been telling them, ‘I’m grateful you’re here.’

When more serious help is needed

For many children, they only need a short break in the morning with a supportive teacher or an occasional chat with a school counselor. And the more schools invest in promoting mental health and equipping children with socioemotional skills, the fewer children will develop more serious problems, said Biel, a child psychiatrist.

But there will always be children who need more intensive interventions, which may involve social workers and school psychologists, when available, or a referral to a mental health professional beyond school.

Kai has been talking regularly with a therapist through her elementary school. And he said it has helped him come up with strategies to control stress at home.

“I would go to my room, go to bed and watch TV or play with my toys or do something like that,” Kai said. “And then I’ll go out again when I’m calmer and happier.”

As a solo father, Kai’s mother, Humphrey-Wall, has also had a tough year. He admitted that caring for two children, in addition to taking on a new job, during a pandemic has been stressful. “At first, I think I had depression, anxiety … whatever comes to mind, I probably had it.”

Biel said this type of stress can reach children.

“All of the world’s evidence-based best practices will not have the desired effect if this child lives in a family overwhelmed by stress,” he explained.

One of the best ways to address this is to also help caregivers, such as Humphrey-Wall. And that’s exactly what Kai’s school has done. Through a partnership with MedStar Georgetown Center for Wellbeing in School Environments, Kai’s school arranged for Humphrey-Wall to meet with a clinical psychologist once a week for what they call “parent wellness sessions.”

Without her, he said, “I don’t know what I would have done, really.”

Partnerships between schools and mental health care providers may be costly for districts and may not be an option in rural or low-income areas where there are simply not enough child-focused services.

Biel said he expects the rise in telehealth to increase. But whatever the solution, he said, schools need support as they explore their options.

“Schools can’t borrow, borrow and steal what they already have to do this,” Biel said. “We need to support schools and school systems with more resources to make that possible.”

Federal aid for schools

For districts that want to do more, the latest covet relief package it could be a big help. The American Rescue Plan contains approximately $ 122 billion for K-12 schools, some of which can be used to hire more counselors, social workers, and psychologists. And a U.S. senator has been pressuring the Biden administration to emphasize mental health as it guides districts on how to spend that money.

“Not all schools and districts are equipped to work on these complex mental and behavioral health issues and to meet the unique needs of today’s students,” said Senator Catherine Cortez Masto he wrote in a letter to the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services. “Many suffer from a drastic shortage of counselors, social workers and psychologists to work with students even under normal circumstances. They will need strong assistance from community-based service providers and the healthcare community. “

Cortez Masto said a recent wave of student suicides in a county in his state, Nevada, stresses the urgency of needs.

“This is a unique situation we find ourselves in, we hope it will be a pandemic once in a lifetime,” he said. “We don’t know the impact it will have in the long run [on] our children. But we know the short term. I’ve seen it here in southern Nevada and its devastating consequence here. So we need to change that dynamic. “

In the United States, where access to health care, especially for children’s mental health, is inequitable and inconsistent, the difficult task of identifying and addressing the mental and emotional health of this generation of pandemic will fall on deaf ears. part on the shoulders of the educators.

Programs like the one at Kai School in Washington, DC, could play a critical role in helping change that dynamic. Cortez Masto hopes the flood of federal dollars in aid will help other districts build similar partnerships with child mental health providers or find other solutions.

Meanwhile, Kai and his mother try to find out when Kai will return to face-to-face school. Humphrey-Wall said it would be nice for her son to leave home, but Kai is still afraid to bring covid home. He is talking to his therapist at school, doing his best to give these concerns a shot:

“We must all get rid of this quarantine. I’m going crazy. I want to be free! ”Kai shouted. He wants to get back into the business of making friends with everyone.

If you or someone you know may consider suicide, please contact National suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (Spanish: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711 and then 1-800-273-8255) or Crisis text line by sending an SMS to HOME at 741741.

This story is part of a reporting partnership that includes NPR, Illinois Public Media and Kaiser Health News.

This article was republished since with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an independently editorial news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health policy research organization not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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