Shifting focus to students’ mental health in unusual back to school season

Returning to the classroom

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) As kids head back to school this year, only one thing is certain: uncertainty. For many students, this is causing stress and anxiety as they navigate the new way of learning.

Whether attending school online or in person, experts say checking in daily on your kids is more important now than ever.

“The great thing that’s come out of all of this is that more emphasis now is placed on mental health,” said Dr. Annette Nunez, a children’s psychotherapist who also founded Breakthrough Interventions.

In a school year with more changes than most, Nunez says it’s a crucial time in teaching important lessons.

“What we are learning is teaching our kids to be flexible and resilient and that’s really important right now is teaching life skills,” said Nunez.

Experts agree that for children of all ages, routine is key. Learning from home should still look like a structured “school-day.”

“It’s really important to keep a child on a schedule. And to allow for breaks, schedule in things like snack and going to the bathroom. Within a school schedule those things are embedded in and I think adults forget that,” said Nunez.

This can also look like physical breaks, “recess” time, and trips outside. Nunez also recommends planning a fun activity evry Friday for the whole family, that everyone can look forward to all week.

For Johnson City Schools, online learning is being used for all students until further notice.

Science Hill High School counselor Holly English says because of the change, mental health is a huge focus of theirs.

“One of my fears when we first got out was the isolation piece. Of course, the lack of student engagement with each other, lack of peer interaction. But just that being isolated, not having as much engagement,” said English.

At Johnson City schools, English says they are ramping up mental health services this school year so kids feel heard and supported.

“Unfortunately we do have a section of the student group that right now without teachers being able to see them every single day, I do worry. I worry a lot about them falling through the cracks and not having that advocate to see them every single day and check in on them,” said English.

That’s why teachers at Science Hill are calling, “zooming” and making sure to reach out to every single student consistently to check in on them while they learn from home.

It’s a program similar to “home room” that students would have under a normal school year, but this is called “home base.”

“Any kind of red flags they may see, and I talk with teachers, sometimes it’s a gut feeling. Maybe you just feel like something is not right and you don’t know, so go ahead and refer that to counselors,” said English.

Dr. Nunez says that right now, whether learning in-person or virtually, the emphasis does not only have to be on academics.

“We really need to start mind-shifting and not having this victim mentality. Like, okay, this is a new way of living. Let’s be creative, let’s find the pros about going back to school. Maybe we won’t socialize with our friends but we get to meet new friends. Maybe we are not going to live as we normally do but here’re the positives of the new way of living,” said Nunez.

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