There are a lot of irrefutable symptoms of the COVID-19 pandemic: Coughing fits, the death of over 30,000 small U.S. businesses, a shocking jump in the creation of masks, and maybe a bit too much family time. But there are also threats facing our community that are less detectable than a deadly virus wiping out thousands or a drastic change in market trends.
Agitation, change in sleep pattern, confusion, mood swings, withdrawal from others, anxiety, loss of interest, social isolation … sound familiar? What could also serve as a tagline for the past nine months also happens to be the laundry list of symptoms associated with depression and trauma
Before you roll your eyes, though, consider the impacts of this abrupt, prolonged isolation on our youth. Without the emotional skills or access to crucial resources that adults may have, our children are struggling with the constant teeter-totter between in-person, remote and hybrid learning.
In discussion with St. Michael-Albertville Schools superintendent Ann-Marie Foucault and manager of special services Dr. Amy Larkin, we drill down how to best support our future generations while also handling our own financial, emotional and other pandemic-time stress.
A BRAVE NEW, PANDEMIC WORLD
Flashback to March of last year. If you’re an STMA parent, you may have been gearing up for your non-Spring Break spring break, or otherwise looking forward to the gradual warming of the air and awakening of spring. High school seniors begin making college decisions, purchasing prom dresses, and generally living in the springtime bliss that occupies Minnesota for a brief period of time each yea
But then, COVID-19 hit. You may have thought the shutdowns would last a week or two, or maybe a month if you were particularly cautious, but this is not what we expected. Ricocheting between virtual and in-person models for months on end is not only an inconvenience for parents or nannies — it is tremendously harmful to the mental health of students.
“Because they (students) don’t have the skills and the strategies that some of our adult staff members have, that isolation and not being connected to a building and those relationships with each other and with adults really, really concerns me,” said superintendent Foucault.
“You know, the academics are important, but kids can’t learn if they’re dealing with all this other stuff,” she said. “And we know that we can’t take that away, but at least we can give them some strategies and some ways to support them during this pandemic time.”
In addition to the slew of local and county-wide resources mentioned below, Foucault and the larger STMA community are thinking long and hard about how to best support students while also doing their jobs. Dodging mandates and genuine concerns about the virus, while also recognizing the importance of in-person socialization is not an easy task.
Socialization during the key developmental stages of a child’s life are crucial. Through communicating with others and analyzing interpersonal dynamics, children learn how to be part of a team, solve problems, develop their own personal boundaries and preferences and so much more.
But as important as socialization is on children’s development, it can’t come at the price of filling up hospital beds. Encouraging students to meet with one another via Zoom or other virtual means is one way STMA coaches and teachers have been staying involved, but regardless of how much screen time we have, there will be lots of reconciliation to be done as we emerge from social distancing measures.
“I think what makes this pandemic in particular different is this is a disruption to routines, and it disrupts connections,” said Dr. Larkin, who is now at helm of STMA’s special services department. “And those are integral for mental health.”
“It’s not only happening in the school … it’s happening in the family dynamic as well. So family routines, family connections are also disrupted at the same time as school is, so what we’re trying to manage and offer for families is not only what this looks like school-wide, but also to keep you connected and to keep a routine for you,” she said.
The duality of this situation has exacerbated mental health problems in a series of ways for school-age children and teens — canceled sports and clubs, learning how to use a computer while also learning to read or write, uncertainty about the future.
Luckily, there is a team of professionals that have been, and will continue to be, ready to step in as an advocate within the STMA system.
MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT IN STMA SCHOOLS
STMA has always tried to be in tune with their students’ overall wellbeing, according to Foucault, but this prioritization of mental health and social emotional learning became most evident with the hiring of Dr. Larkin.
Brought on in 2017 with a past life in school psychology under her belt, the STMA district has been putting forward more and more mental health initiatives since Dr. Larkin joined the staff. She has helped spearhead a number of initiatives and projects to increase the conversation surrounding emotional health, while also working to advocate for the district’s homeless population and other students who may need additional support.
“Prior to the pandemic, as a district we were starting to do a lot of really great work in terms of trauma-informed practices and having a responsive classroom that really is more alert and aware and understanding of the impacts not just of trauma, but mental health in general,” said Larkin.
Counselors and social workers at the middle school level have put together a curriculum of social emotional learning lessons and resources, and these students even have an assigned SEL time twice a week with a professional. As this middle level moves to full distance learning for the second trimester, an additional third SEL day will also be added to the schedule.
Similarly, the high school mental health professionals have put together a monthly resource newsletter for STMA parents about paying attention to their child and providing a safe and welcoming environment as life continues to be disrupted.
“I think this helped us a little bit, with something like this public health crisis, in understanding as a climate and as an environment how we can respond and come together and prepare for student needs in terms of mental health,” she said. “Because what we’re dealing with is a sort of trauma, right?”
Many of the resources currently available to STMA students will continue to be available if and when schools move back to in-person classes, including the virtual calming room on the STMA website. This room is built to give students a space to calm their “mind and body” by using provided stress relief tools like journaling, coloring, mindfulness and mind games.
By arming parents and educators with these resources — both informative and activity-based — the district hopes to keep an eye on our youth with the help of the community in more ways than one.
“Because this is so foreign to all families right now, and to teachers it’s weird teaching this way, as educators, we’re trying to say ‘create routines, create routines,’” said Larkin. “It’ll feel better for kids to build a rhythm to their day. It’ll make some predictability in their day, which has a great effect on mental health in general, and it also helps parents at the same time.”
Predictability isn’t really a word that has been in the 2020 vocabulary, so fabricating some sense of normalcy or regimen through family dinners or walks, providing a space for your child to talk about their feelings, or even just being present really can make a difference.
“It’ll help all of us, because our own lives have been disrupted at home too, but it takes work,” said Larkin. “I would stress to parents — compassion, connections, routine.”
YOU AND YOUR STUDENT
Part of establishing a healthy routine with your child or teen includes listening to their frustrations and stressors just as much as their needs and desires.
“I can’t encourage parents enough to have those (deep) conversations on a very, very regular basis with their kids,” said Larkin. “Check in, and don’t just take those ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answers. Dive in … don’t just ask, ‘How was your day?’ but, ‘Tell me something about your day.’”
This is especially the case when many workers’ schedules are changing as pandemic conditions do, leaving parents in a stay-or-go dilemma.
“In the spring it was different, because most people were home. But now, some have that ability to stay home and work from home, but some don’t,” said Foucault. “Many are working, and their kids are trying to work. There might be frustrations with their technology, with their hotspots, they’re not seeing their friends … So I think it’s really important to pay attention. Sitting in a bedroom all day long and all evening is not a good thing.”
Even if you don’t suspect your child needs professional help, per se, emotional health is still tremendously important and takes effort. And while the stigma associated with mental illness or seeking emotional support generally speaking has been decreasing in recent years, this isn’t to say that everyone and their mother is skipping along to therapy.
But hopefully, among all of the loss and grief that this pandemic has brought, we can find a silver lining and support children and peers more effectively moving forward.
“Before when you targeted mental health support, it was for the students who self-identified as having that need. Now, everybody is assumed to have this need right now, because we’re in the middle of a pandemic,” Larkin said. “So you see this broader and bigger response, because everyone is being touched by this now, which I think is actually going to have a positive effect on stigma and on general understanding that we all have to take care of our mental health.”
General STMA mental health page: stma.k12.mn.us/Page/5470
STMA Virtual Calming Room: sites.google.com/mystma.org/stma-virtual-calming-room/home
STMA COVID-19 specific resource page: docs.google.com/document/d/1h6wnSuEMufTNGDrMvaGCiL3ibkPldvqWQGHA_xwJE50/edit
Wright County mental health page: co.wright.mn.us/456/Mental-Health