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Checking in with children: Experts weigh in on children's mental health as school resumes during pandemic

Sierra Rains
srains@ardmoreite.com
Lone Grove High School Principal Chris Sudderth (far right) and Assistant Principal Derek Hallum speak to a masked student Tuesday morning. Temperature checks before building entry is one of the precautions taken at all Lone Grove campuses.

The school week looks quite different this year. Assigned seating, temperature checks, masked faces and for some, digital learning, have become the new normal in classrooms. 

Many local children began school last week, with Ardmore students returning to the classroom on Thursday. Excitement and anxiety accompany children as they return to these new learning environments and the no-longer certain structure could add even more stress to the already anxiety-inducing start of a new school year. 

However, there are ways to check-in with children and ensure that they are staying mentally healthy as they settle into the new academic year during a global pandemic. 

Kimberly Boren, the director of the Children’s Program at Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers in Ardmore, works closely with children of all ages to help prevent or treat any mental health problems or challenges they might face. In the program, care coordinators, therapists and family support providers advocate for children and help them obtain the support or services they need. 

Younger children appear to be very excited to return to school, Boren said. For the majority of children in the area, this has been the case. However, Boren said she has observed some increased anxiety in older age groups. 

“From what I’ve seen it is mostly in older kids, just because they’re a little bit more aware of what is happening,” Boren said. “I think it’s just the unknown that they’re worried about because they watch the news, they read the stories, and so with that comes a lot of uncertainty. That can definitely invoke a lot of anxiety, not only with the kids, but also with the parents and families as a whole.” 

As the school year progresses, Boren said anxiety could become more common if changes occur with the COVID-19 virus and protocols at schools. Some schools have already experienced changes due to the virus, as students and teachers at Mannsville Schools moved to distance learning last week after a faculty member tested positive for COVID-19. 

“Most of the kids that have returned to school are feeling okay about it, but that definitely could change, especially as they’re getting farther into the school year,” Boren said. As school districts navigate social distancing protocols and some children learn from home, it is important to ensure children do not feel isolated.

“The younger kiddos just know that they haven’t been able to see their friends for a very long time and it’s also very important for kids to be able to socialize with people their own age,” Boren said. 

According to a press release from the Wichita Mountains Prevention Network, a local nonprofit organization funded by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, CDC, and others, drastic changes in environment can lead to higher amounts of anxiety, and isolation can cause detrimental results to one’s mental health. 

Socialization teaches children a lot of different skills, Boren said. “Which then in turn improves their mental health if they’re able to play with other kids their age and have that structured learning environment— so I think it’s kind of a mix of emotions from what I’ve seen,” she said.

There are several different ways for children learning from home or children feeling isolated at school to get in a healthy amount of socialization during the COVID-19 pandemic. Boren suggested taking children to church groups if the family participates in church and places like Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers have groups that children can be a part of. 

“They can come in and we take safety precautions, we wear masks, we take temperatures, we do screenings, and that way they can still be a part of doing things with kids their own age but in a smaller environment,” Boren said. 

Signs of anxiety can appear in a few different ways for different age groups. Children who may seem to be a little more withdrawn may be experiencing anxiety, Boren said. For younger children, acting out can also be a sign of anxiety. This often manifests as children becoming more emotional or getting upset easier. 

“Typically we say that every behavior is trying to get a need met,” Boren said. “So if it’s a behavior that’s out of the norm for this kid then it might be time to ask more questions.” 

According to the Wichita Mountains Prevention Network, in some cases, children may choose to cope with stressful events through use of substances like marijuana, nicotine and alcohol. 

To help children cope in healthy ways, parents should try to maintain a daily routine and chores, encourage socialization with friends and participation in hobbies and exercise, and be honest with children about what is happening in the world. WMPN encourages parents to make sure their children feel comfortable coming to them to express any fear or anxiety they may be experiencing. 

Parents also need to be able to engage with their children about the facts and harmful effects of drugs and alcohol, according to the Wichita Mountains Prevention Network. Teachers can also help recognize and address signs of anxiety or mental health problems in children. 

Consistently checking in with kids in the classroom can be beneficial, Boren said. Teachers should make sure to visit with children one-on-one, rather than in front of other students. 

“Just ask where they’re at, what they’re feeling,” Boren said. “I do that with my kids every time I see them. I say ‘Describe how you’re feeling right now, give me a feelings word’. That kind of leads into what we then talk about.”

Teachers who are concerned about a child’s mental health should also communicate this to parents, Boren said. Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers can help support children experiencing mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and ADHD, and their families, as well. 

“If the teachers find that they are having continued issues with a certain kid and they notice certain things with them they can absolutely give us a call and make that referral," Boren said. "We can always reach out to the family and see if that’s something that they’re interested in."

Boren said Lighthouse Behavioral Wellness Centers is accepting new clients and anyone who is struggling or who needs support is encouraged to reach out. The Ardmore clinic is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and until 7 p.m. on Tuesdays. The clinic can be reached at (580) 223-5070 or online at http://www.lighthouseoklahoma.com/.