Mental health: the new top priority

Mental health: the new top priority

Kai Humphrey, 9, has been learning from home for more than a year. He badly misses his Washington, D.C., elementary school, along with his friends and the bustle of the classroom.

“I will be the first person ever to have every single person in the world as my friend,” he said on a recent Zoom call, his sandy-brown hair hanging down to his shoulder blades. From Kai, this kind of proclamation doesn’t feel like bragging, more like exuberant kindness.

But when Kai’s school recently invited him back, he refused. That’s because his worry list is long, topped by his fear of getting COVID-19 and giving it to his 2-year-old sister, Alaina. She was born with a heart condition, Down syndrome and a fragile immune system. To her, the disease poses a mortal threat, and he is her protector, the only one who can make her giggle breathlessly.

Kai also worries about being separated from his mom, Rashida Humphrey-Wall. His biological father died in 2014, and she remains his rock, his mama bear and occasional taekwondo partner. He sometimes visits her bedside in the middle of the night just to check on her.

This pandemic has been stressful for millions of children like Kai. Some have lost a loved one to COVID-19, and many families have lost jobs, their homes and even reliable access to food. If that stress isn’t buffered by caring adults, it can have lifelong consequences.

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

But there’s some good news for children like Kai: Educators across the country said their top priority right now isn’t doubling down on math or reading — it’s helping students manage pandemic-driven stress.

“If kids don’t return to school and get a lot of attention paid to security, safety, predictability and reestablishing of strong, secure relationships, (they) are not gonna be able to make up ground academically,” Biel said.

To reestablish relationships in the classroom — and help children cope with the stress and trauma of the past year — mental health experts say educators can start by building in time every day, for every student, in every classroom to share their feelings and learn the basics of naming and managing their emotions. Think morning circle time or, for older students, homeroom.

At Irene C. Hernandez Middle School in Chicago, teacher Lilian Sackett starts off each day by checking in with students, then diving into a short lesson on mindfulness and other social-emotional skills.

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

What’s more, she said, children can benefit a lot from just a few minutes each day of classwide calm. When she found out her students love Bob Ross and his tranquil, televised painting lessons from the 1980s and ’90s, Sackett decided to work him into their morning routine.

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