Monadnock Perspectives: Schools work to address student struggles

  • ConVal student Kayla Sandquist took this photo for her high school photography class. Photo by Kayla Sandquist—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 3/29/2022 9:53:44 AM
Modified: 3/29/2022 9:52:48 AM

When schools shut down in March 2020, the impact on children was unknown. Now, well into the third school year disrupted by the pandemic, schools are grappling with mental health effects and looking toward the future of social and emotional learning.

“We’ve had significant disruption to commonplace social experiences for children, that they need in order to develop their social emotional capacities,” said Emily Daniels, a licensed counselor who works to provide trauma-informed support to students.

Daniels said that the pandemic has negatively impacted children’s brain development, making it difficult for kids to learn. 

“The lower parts of the brain need to be functioning so children can access the higher parts of the brain,” Daniels said.

Lower parts of the brain deal with issues of basic survival, while higher brain functions are associated with learning and rational thought. With students feeling unsafe due to the pandemic, Daniels said, the ability to use higher brain function can be stunted in many children. 

“People are thinking that kids were just allowed to be wild at home, but it’s because they’re not feeling safe at school,” she said.

“They don’t know how to process what’s happening for them,” said Carol Lunen, who works with children and families at The Grapevine Family & Community Resource Center in Antrim. “We’ve had two years of being in limbo and not being able to get to the point of processing what’s happened.”

Lunen cited a number of factors: long periods of social isolation, the removal of natural daily routines and being faced with family or caregiver situations that may have been strained due to other impacts of the pandemic.

What it looks like

The regression in psychological development is leading to children showing up in schools who are very different from the students from pre-pandemic times, Daniels said.

“The kids are showing up and they’re, for lack of a better term, acting like animals,” she said. “Acting very immature, developmentally inappropriate or a lot more aggressive. That’s directly related to the loss of the social fabric in their lives.”

These are all impacts that have been seen in local schools, according to administrators.

“As a result of many things, we’ve seen students coming back and we’ve seen kids crying, disruptive behavior, increased violence, there’s bullying,” said Cari Christian-Coates, director of social services at ConVal.

Concerns about disruptive behavior at ConVal have been widespread throughout the school year, with discussions on Facebook and parents reaching out to administrators to express concerns. Hancock resident Lee Bruder said he heard stories on a later-deleted Facebook post claiming that bullying at ConVal High School was becoming untenable.

“She was concerned that the freshman class was ‘terrorizing’ the upperclassmen,” he said.

Superintendent Kimberly Rizzo Saunders shared an email with the community, stating that “conjecture” about violence and fighting was unfounded in some instances and that the issues had been dealt with. But there were instances of fighting in the fall, and behavioral issues that have persisted during the school year at higher instances than previous years.

“Basically what we’ve seen with kids returning is they’ve had a difficult time getting back into the structure, following a plan, being in a structured day,” said Christian-Coates. “We’ve really seen a lot of this behavior.”

Other districts have experienced similar challenges, including Wilton-Lyndeborough.

“We have seen kids spending too much time alone, and when they come back to school, not really remembering how to interact socially,” said Sarah Edmunds, principal of WLC Middle High School.

There have been difficulties with attendance and the students motivating themselves to do work, she said.

Not every student is experiencing all of these issues, said Amanda Kovaliv, WLC’s school counseling coordi nator. Whether it’s because of an inequity in support systems at home or predispositions to mental health issues, some students are struggling more than others.

“The at-risk kids are really, really at-risk,” she said.

At Jaffrey-Rindge, Superintendent Reuben Duncan said that while the district is seeing more reports of mental health issues, he believes an increase in anxiety and depression was brewing prior to the pandemic.

“I think COVID sped a lot of that movement up, perhaps in a negative way,” he said.

Christian-Coates said attendance issues have been rampant in ConVal, along with reports of increased anxiety and depression and often not enough outside resources for many families.

Jacqueline Roland, the youth program coordinator at Avenue A in Antrim, said she has also seen these difficulties in the teens she sees. Friend groups have gotten smaller due to pandemic isolation, and results have included spikes in anxiety and stress.

“It seemed to me like everyone’s world just got a little bit smaller,” she said.

Taking control

Different districts are handling the crisis in different ways.

“We have districts that are hyper-focused on learning loss and wanting to double down on rigor in order to get kids caught up academically,” Daniels said. “But the absence of thinking there is an understanding of child development, and understanding how stress and trauma limits an ability to gain cognitive skills, gain academic skills.”

Kathleen Chenette, principal of Florence Rideout Elementary School, said that they instituted tiered supports for struggling students, starting with everyday classroom-level structures to help children find routine and comfort in school, such as having teachers greet students individually. If students are still having difficulties, the next tier is identifying a safe adult in the building to help ground them and guide them, before moving on to more-specialized one-on-one help.

“It’s going pretty well right now,” Chenette said. “Every day is up and down, but every opportunity is a teachable moment as well, and our job is to teach and we are going to teach them the coping skills.”

At the upper levels of WLC schools, advisory groups are doing themed activities to promote social and emotional wellness.

“We talk a lot about self-care, we talk a lot about advocating for yourself and what you need, and they are hearing us,” said Edmunds.

In Jaffrey-Rindge, Duncan said a large number of supports have been in place since before the pandemic, leading to less “intense experiences” on the behavioral level.

The district’s director of guidance, Kim Baker, agreed, stating that knowledge of mental health struggles is also leading to having more resources available.

“In general, the numbers look higher, but it’s also because we’re talking about it more,” she said. “We have more tools to help people feel grounded.”

At Jaffrey-Rindge, she said administrators are trying to support students through counseling and other conventional methods, but are also working on rebuilding community through whole-school activities and making more extracurriculars available.

At ConVal, counselors are present in each school, and Christian-Coates said she is trying to impress upon the staff how important social-emotional learning is.

“I think we’re really moving in that direction,” she said. “We need to continue to help people understand why it’s important.”

One of the methods of doing so, Christian-Coates said, is taking advantage of regulated classroom training -- a training put on by Daniels, based on her research.

The regulated classroom focuses on helping educators handle their stress, using body-focused science to help regulate physiological responses to anxiety and exhaustion. The goal, Daniels said, is to help teachers feel less burned-out, and thus help the students get themselves regulated.

“Children need to have healthy adults around them, they need to have adults around them that are making their environments feel safe and secure,” Daniels said. “If adults can get to a place where they’re actually regulated in their body state, their physiological state, then they’re sending those cues to the children.”

The state has contracted Daniels to do this kind of training, what she calls “training the trainer.” Districts have sent representatives to learn the regulated classroom method and help spread it in their schools.

Daniels said she has been working on this topic for years.

“It’s unfortunate that this crisis has created more relevancy for my work, but it’s also very hope-inspiring for me,” she said. “If you want education, you have to honor the mental health needs and realities of your student population and your staff.”

Beth Gibney, principal of Pierce Elementary School in Bennington, went to a recent training.

“To be able to have this just fall in our lap in terms of a training to be able to take was mind-blowing,” she said. “I think it’ll make a huge difference.”

Moving forward, some say that they’re already seeing a difference in students’ mental health and wellbeing,  as caseloads have decreased and some mitigation strategies have changed.

“I think there’s been some real points of  excitement for kids, we see them  moving in the right direction,” said Chenette.

“The hope is that we’ re  moving toward a good place, we’re seeing things settling down,” said Christian-Coates.

 Outside of school, Roland said she  had seen some positive outcomes, and is seeing more now as pandemic impacts ease.

“I’m so excited to see more teens getting reconnected just to the community,” she said. “That’s  what we all need.”


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