Maconaquah Middle School's daily Social Emotional Learning course, taught by Theresa Duke to help students with social skills. Jaxon Stith answers a question posed by his teacher recently. Staff photo by Tim Bath
Maconaquah Middle School's daily Social Emotional Learning course, taught by Theresa Duke to help students with social skills. Jaxon Stith answers a question posed by his teacher recently. Staff photo by Tim Bath
Most school-aged children returned to their classrooms this fall — to the joy of parents and teachers alike.

Students with backpacks slung over their shoulders were greeted with smiles and cheers as they arrived for their first day of class.

Face-to-face instruction. Kids sitting in front of a teacher while they taught the day’s lesson. Group work. Lunch with their friends.

A welcome site after a trying school year. A little more normal. A relief.

But it’s been far from smooth. Masks, COVID infections and staff shortages aside, there’s something else that’s cause for concern among educators.

Students are struggling. They are struggling with reacclimating to a normal school day, classroom expectations, social interactions and navigating a very uncertain world where the threat of a deadly pandemic is all too real.

Returning to normal

“All time levels of anxiety, depression,” is how Leah Nellis, dean for Indiana University Kokomo’s School of Education, describes the state of mental health among students.

The pandemic isn’t the culprit — students struggled with anxiety and depression long before COVID — but the last two years hasn’t helped either.

Nellis, who has a background in psychology as well as K-12 education, said disruptions in routine can make anxiety, depression and other mental health ails worse for students.

“We need — we want — routine, it gives us a sense of comfort in knowing what’s coming next,” Nellis said.

And COVID has disrupted the routine of thousands of kids across the country.

School disruptions — online one week, in person the next, the latest rules on masks, contact tracing — it all takes a toll.

For students, they all add to the litany of things they have to think about, according to Janet McManus, a high school counselor at Maconaquah School Corporation in Miami County.

McManus said some students have had trouble going from being isolated every day with online learning to the constant social interactions of a normal school day.

Tori Shone, a middle school counselor also at Maconaquah, said the stresses of a school day — fixed schedule, assignments, higher expectations — can lead to outbursts. The biggest struggle she sees among students is an inability to control their actions, emotions and thoughts.

“When they’re frustrated about schoolwork, it presents itself in other ways,” she said.

A routine offers stability. McManus said students are aware of the uncertainty in the world so any sort of stability in their personal lives can ward off those feelings of anxiousness and depression.

“Those good old fashioned high school experiences,” like the Friday night basketball game, adds to that feeling of stability and normality, McManus said.

“I think that’s what everyone wants,” she said.

A fear of loss

The threat of COVID is very real to many students.

Gena Schultz, student services adviser at Tipton Middle School in Tipton County, said that while some kids are concerned about getting the virus themselves, more are scared of a family member catching COVID.

“I was shocked at how deep that fear and anxiety went,” she said.

Many students at Tipton are raised by their grandparents or just a grandparent. Schultz said a grandparent might be a student’s only family.

McManus at Maconaquah said she’s heard the same from students.

“I have had students in the past that didn’t want to come to school because of that specifically,” she said.

Job loss and the change in home dynamics that come from parental loss of income can be overwhelming for kids, too.

Then there are kids whose only safe space is school.

“There’s all kinds of stress and uncertainty in those things,” Nellis said.

Some kids have parents in the hospital and are thrust into being the adult at home. Food, money, bills can certainly add to the stress of a normal teenager.

“They’re worried about that responsibility,” McManus said.

Maconaquah tries to bridge that gap by connecting families to outside resources. For example, the school corporation will provide food to students who are struggling. It’s not an end all be all, but satisfying one need can alleviate some stress.

“We do a lot of things people don’t realize behind the scenes,” McManus said.

Teaching healthy coping skills

If there’s a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that there is more awareness on the mental health needs of students.

Counselors at Maconaquah said the pandemic has further highlighted the importance of a healthy mental health lifestyle.

Shone said there’s less of a stigma about mental health among the middle schoolers she works with, crediting the social media that students consume. However, while students are more open to talking about mental health, coping skills don’t seem to have permeated through the general discourse.

Maconaquah Middle School is working on cultivating those healthy skills.

Students who need additional social and emotional support are placed into small groups where they learn a number of coping strategies.

Students learn to recognize when they have a negative thought, such as calling themselves stupid if they don’t understand a concept. Group work helps these students overcome that kneejerk negative thought about themselves.

Students also learn to identify what triggers strong emotions and how to overcome a potential outburst. For example, instead of yelling, a student learns to walk away.

Breathing, counting, coloring and meditation are some of the various ways students learn how to gather themselves if they are feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Shone said they practice a wide-variety of skills so students learn what works best for them.

“It makes it concrete for them,” she said. “It gives them something to hold on to.”

Groups have been well-received by students. Shone said she will pass students in the hall who will tell her excitedly about a new skill they used.

“They’re really receptive,” she said. “They’re appreciating we’re offering those skills.”

A daily social-emotional study course has students learn about empathy, compassion and social awareness (how they impact the space around them).

Maconaquah also offers mediation where students can hash out their issues and work out a resolution. Shone said students are beginning to reach out on their own, asking her to help lead conversations.

“That’s made a big difference in giving kids another option,” she said.

Tipton Middle School installed a calming room in the fall. A quiet place to destress, the room is helping students self-regulate, learn when they need a few minutes to collect themselves as well as keeping them in school.

Schultz said Tipton is sending less students home than in years past since they built the calming room.

Healthy coping skills help students navigate stress and periods of overstimulation, but it also helps reduce disciplinary actions. If students can work out disagreements and better manage their emotions, they aren’t pulled out of class as often.

“Instead of putting out fires all the time, we’d rather teach skills to prevent them,” Shone said.

Acknowledge reality

Mental health is a topic professors at IUK cover with their education students, as both future teachers and how they can help students in their own classroom.

Nellis said acknowledging the lived experience of students is an easy but important way to provide grounding. Just telling a student it's okay to be scared or worried can be very validating.

“To let kids know, certainly, it’s okay to be worried, I think that can be a great help,” Nellis said. “That in and of itself is powerful.”

While a student might not be able to control what is causing them stress, they can control how they respond to it.

Nellis said that if adults ignore or refuse to acknowledge the stressors kids experience, kids’ imaginations take over, leading them to think of worst-case scenarios. Acting like everything is normal can be one of the worse things for a child, she said.

Future teachers are encouraged to create a classroom culture where those sorts of conversations can take place. Nellis said a sense of community can go a long way.

But stress, anxiety and depression aren’t reserved for young children. College students are facing the same issues. For those going into education, self-care is vital.

Nellis said that at IUK's School of Education, students practice healthy strategies such as breathing, tai-chi, yoga and even line dancing, which can be passed along to their kids.
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