Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series addressing student mental health as they continue to experience distance learning.

Students have been distance learning since March 30, and with two weeks of experience, the reality of what is happening is beginning to set in with them. As this new normal continues into the future, the stressors may begin to compound.

Jackie Ourada, a social worker for the Redwood Area School District, thinks that the biggest of those stressors are fear of the unknown, as well as the feelings of loss and grief, and those stressors can lead to responses that are re-leased in more negative ways.

“Our brain fears anything uncertain and new and has a natural negative bias,” Ourada explained, adding the brain holds on to danger and fear.

According to Ourada, “this puts our brain on guard often creating more negativity, uneasiness and anxiety.”

Ourada expressed words of appreciation to the school administration, teachers, support staff and others for the hard work they’ve been doing. 

“Everyone has rallied together to make the best of a not great and scary situation and are working together to make it the best that we can,” explained Ourada. “The stressors that children and teens react with is in part from what they see from the adults around them. When parents and caregivers deal with situations calmly and confidently they can provide the best support for their children.”

What things should parents be looking for?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says to look out for these common signs of distress:

• Feelings of numbness, disbelief, anxiety or fear

• Excessive worries or sadness

• Irritability and “acting out” behaviors

• Changes in appetite, energy and activity levels

• Difficulty concentrating

• Difficulty sleeping or nightmares and upsetting thoughts and images

• Physical reactions may include headaches, body pains, stomach problems and skin rashes

• Worsening of chronic health problems

• Anger or being short tempered What can parents do to help their children overcome the challenges they are facing? The CDC encourages parents to:

• Be aware of what information kids are seeing on TV, radio or online. Too much information can lead to anxiety.

• Make time to talk. Be sure kids know if they have questions they know they can come to a parent to ask.

• Be calm and reassuring. It’s amazing how in tune to emotions kids can be, even without us knowing it.

• Be aware of what you say and how you say things around your kids.

“Give yourself and your children grace,” explained Heather Vranicar, RASD school social worker. “This is a time that is new for all of us and we need to give ourselves permission to fail. As long as we get back up and keep trying, everything will be okay. We are currently going through a huge learning curve, and we are all doing our best. Take that into consideration as you think about the job you are doing as a parent, a child, a sibling, a learner, a co-worker, etc.”

What techniques can kids use to address the issues they are facing?

According to Cindy Wittwer Swierenga, school mental health professional, “the big thing for all of us and especially for children is to instill hope. Despite whatever is going on around us, we can look to nature to always be our constant. The sun will always come up in the east and it will always set in the west every day. The moon and stars will always come out at night, every night. The birds will continue to sing in the spring morning and the grass will turn green as spring rains fall. These are signs of hope that life goes on. So go out into nature and breathe in the fresh air deeply.”

What role are you and your fellow mental health professionals in the school facing? How are you making yourselves available to students?

As mental health professionals one major part of the job is to work with students, often face to face. This new way of interacting means a steep learning curve for staff and students. The staff is using video chats, e-mail and phone calls to connect and check-in with students and families. In addition, at the middle and high school level, staff have started sending out a weekly check in to students. It’s a quick survey for kids to let them know if they need a call, chat or anything else.

That has been great to see who needs something but also to see what kids are doing with their time away from school. Contact information is on the school Web site. Students and families are encouraged to reach out.

According to Ourada, “distance learning and social distancing have been a challenge in my role as an elementary school social worker, and, for those who know me, I miss the kids smiling faces, high fives and hugs each and every day, but our ultimate goal continues to be to help, support, care and guide our students and families a little different and more creatively through distance learning."

At the elementary level, Ourada said she will be making “guest appearances” in some of the live Reede Gray classrooms. She will also be posting videos of herself reading.

Jenn Otto, school social worker added “the one key saying that has been a constant throughout this entire epidemic is ‘we are all in this together,’ and this is how many of us are living. As a school social worker you tend to live in the moment and meet the need, whatever that may be. Currently in this situation many of my student contacts are being made through e-mails or Google meets to see each other face to face, but there has also been an opportunity for me to help with packing lunches for our families. Our food service providers are doing an incredible job and working extra hours to meet this need.”

Learn more at redwoodareaschools.com.

- Image courtesy of the Internet Public Domain