Are the Kids Alright? (Part 3)

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Some educators believe that unstructured play, pictured here in Beacon, is what children need to recover from anxiety brought on by the pandemic. (Photo by Valerie Shively)

Could movement bring anxiety under control?

The text at the top of the company’s website declares, in all capital letters: “Teachers need tools to bring balance into their classrooms.”

Teachers and students in the Highlands may all be seeking balance. They returned to classrooms last month for a school year free from restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, but, as we’ve reported over the past two weeks, the effects of the pandemic shutdown and the monkey wrench it threw into society, and education in particular, have not been easy to shake.

Counselors and school officials say anxiety among children and teenagers is higher than anytime in recent memory. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy last year issued an advisory highlighting the “urgent need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis” — a problem that Murthy said existed long before the pandemic, but grew far worse after the arrival of COVID in early 2020. But that doesn’t mean that nothing can be done.

According to several agencies, including the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and a national alliance of health and physical education teachers, one of the keys to establishing the balance that educators and students seek is movement.

SHAPE America — the Society of Health and Physical Educators — in 2019 created a “crosswalk” — a framework for aligning national physical education standards with the strategies of social and emotional learning, a holistic educational approach that has grown in popularity. Integrating physical exercise, in which the onus is often on children to problem-solve, the teachers say, can help students develop the skills to “deal effectively and ethically with daily tasks and challenges.”

In the crosswalk, a document that’s available on its website, SHAPE America matches its K-12 physical education standards with social and emotional skills that the exercises reinforce.

The connections are more conceptual than literal. In other words, the group doesn’t make specific recommendations, such as playing volleyball, for example, to support team-building skills. Instead, it walks you through its core goals for students, one of which is to exhibit “responsible personal and social behavior that respects self and others.”

That’s in one column. Beneath it, desired outcomes, such as students learning to accept the differences between their bodies and the idealized images they see portrayed by elite athletes or through various media, are explained further.

In another column, the organization identifies social and emotional goals — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness — which can be realized through meeting the physical education standard.

The CDC agrees, noting that schools are in a unique position to help children attain a recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. The agency encourages school leaders to incorporate physical activity in the classroom, to “reinforce what is taught in physical education and give students a chance to practice their new knowledge and skills.”

Ways to help

The website quoted at the beginning of this article belongs to Fit & Fun Playscapes, a business founded in 2011 by Nelsonville resident Pamela Gunther. The firm, which Gunther moved to Poughkeepsie last year, creates paint kits, “sensory pathways” made with stencils or stickers, and indoor and outdoor games to enhance tactile learning.

A multicolored, nature-themed sensory pathway encourages younger students to step, march, jump or “crab crawl” to get their bodies moving. Stickers that teachers can place on students’ desks help children learn to verbalize how they’re feeling, what they may need and how to support peers.

Pamela Gunther

Pamela Gunther, who lives in Nelsonville, at the headquarters of her company, Fit & Fun Playscapes (Photo provided)

Gunther, a former co-president of the Haldane PTA, believes that something as simple as a greater emphasis on physical activity could help students bounce back from the effects of the pandemic.

“What happens at recess is a microcosm for the rest of their lives,” she said. “It’s not just running around; they’re learning so much more. They’re learning how to negotiate, how to compromise, how to deal with bullies. This is the place where they can figure this stuff out.”

While those skills are taught in the classroom, “handouts are not going to replace recess,” Gunther said. “The kids have to work these things out on their own.”

Some high school athletics were postponed in 2020, and others frequently interrupted in the years since, when COVID infections forced student-athletes into quarantine. Despite the stoppages, the Haldane school district in Cold Spring kept its extracurricular and athletics programs going during the pandemic.

“Even when teams may not have been competing, we still had the coaches meeting with kids in some capacity, because we knew that was important to the kids’ experience and their connectedness to school,” said Superintendent Philip Benante. “We were still paying our coaches and encouraging them to have some sort of engagement, even if it was a Zoom session where they were running drills.”

The district also hired more assistant coaches “to increase the number of adults who are working with our kids through athletics,” Benante said.

Cold Spring-based therapist Denise Angelo shared other tips, in addition to exercise, for helping children who are struggling with anxiety, especially if they experience panic attacks.

“I tell kids to start with 99 and count backward by threes,” Angelo said. “It needs to be something that’s not easy. Even telling them to count 1-2-3-4-5 and then again backward is fine for little kids. But if you have a teenager with a panic disorder, you need to stimulate the frontal lobe to quiet down the brain and stop the anxiety. Another thing I’ve told them to do is pick up a book, find a sentence and read the words backward.”

She also suggests asking a teen to recall their family’s phone number from a previous residence, or a friend’s mailing address. “Then they have to think, and once they start using that part of their brain, things quiet down,” Angelo said. “I use puppets and have little kids talk to them. I’ve given kids a stuffed animal to talk to or hug and that becomes what they use to cope. It’s their lifeline.”

Journaling or writing down recollections from dreams can also help. “Some of it is dark, but they’re getting it out,” she said. However, “you need to know the kid and get into their head to find out exactly where the anxiety is coming from and what would work best for them. There’s no cookie-cutter measure.”

Parents can help, too. Before the pandemic, Haldane held a series of Friends and Family Universities — joint sessions at which parents, guardians and staff came together to discuss an issue. The district typically paid to bring in an expert for the dialogue, which helped create shared understanding and strategies.

The sessions were paused during the pandemic but are being revived, with the first scheduled for Nov. 16. Katie Greer, a former intelligence analyst for the Massachusetts State Police and director of internet safety for the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, will speak about digital health and safety and meet with students from grades 3 through 10.

Benante said the district was talking about how to help students navigate social media and other online spaces even before the pandemic exacerbated the challenges. “We want to make sure that we’re doing what we can with our parents to support our kids in healthy online behaviors and healthy use of the technology that they now have in their hands,” he said.

tired teacher

Teacher Burnout

While this series has focused on the mental-health impacts of the pandemic on children, they haven’t been the only ones affected.

At Haldane, Superintendent Philip Benante called teacher burnout “under-explored right now,” but predicted it will grow in importance as schools realize “the long-term consequence for staff who are trying to balance the needs of kids, which come first and foremost, but against their own needs as adults, with their own families and their own kids, and trying to maintain some sense of balance with that.”

Andrea McCue, a special education teacher who is the president of the Haldane teachers’ union, said that a handful of teachers in the district retired sooner than they might have if the pandemic hadn’t happened. “The past two-and-a-half years have been extremely stressful” for educators, she said.

Philip Benante

Philip Benante

Benante noted that toward the end of the 2021-22 academic year, as New York State ended its mask mandate for schools, a sense of normalcy began to return for students, “but the staff burnout started becoming more of a factor.”

“It was exhausting,” he said. “It certainly took its toll on me. And I know if it was taking its toll on me, it was taking its toll on everybody.”

This year there’s been an increased emphasis on staff wellness, “because we realize that if the individual in front of the classroom is not in a good place, that has an impact on our kids,” Benante said. “I need to make sure that I’m eating right, exercising and doing all those things that we know are important to our own well-being, so that we can be in a position to do our work for our communities, and the school has a responsibility to its employees” to encourage a healthy work-life balance.

The superintendent said that wellness has been supported through state legislation that increased opportunities for paid time off for educators. In addition, Haldane elected not to furlough any part-time employees in 2020 during the shutdown.

“Our transportation workers, maintenance and custodial — we made sure we kept everybody employed,” Benante said. “We felt we needed to make sure that we could maintain a level of financial stability for our employees, so they could take care of themselves and their families.”

This year, the faculty break room has been stocked with fruits and vegetables and staff are encouraged to get outdoors for a hike or a walk when possible. “We live in a beautiful area, so we’ve organized times that allow our staff to connect with each other, while also engaging in healthy activity throughout the year,” he said.

Schools as ‘fixers’

The mental health services available in schools have increased many times over in the last two decades. Today, the Beacon school district has 23 psychologists, social workers and other mental-health staff in its six schools. Haldane has six full-time mental-health staff members and a part-time psychologist, while Garrison, by far the smallest public school district in the Highlands with 215 K-8 students, has a psychologist and a guidance counselor.

The staffing levels “reflect an increased societal awareness around mental health over the last decade or two,” said Beacon Superintendent Matt Landahl, noting that “it’s a complicated time to be a young person.”

Many feel that mental-health staffing levels still aren’t enough. In 2021, Beacon school officials conducted a social and emotional learning study that included interviews and surveys of hundreds of students, parents, community members and teachers. Among its findings were to consider new ways to support existing staff as it relates to mental health, and the need to hire more mental-health support for students.

When the district hired two additional social workers that year “their caseloads were filled within weeks,” Landahl said. “If we hired more, their caseloads would probably fill quickly, too.”

The need is especially glaring when schools are already asked to do so much, said Sagrario Rudecindo-O’Neill, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and student support. “The thing about education is that we are required to fix all the woes of society,” she said. “If you look at trends, anytime something happens within our society, it always goes back to schools to fix it. But trying to do this with a lack of resources is very, very challenging.

Sagrario Rudecindo-O'Neill

Sagrario Rudecindo-O’Neill, the Beacon district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and student support, in her office (Photo by Valerie Shively)

“There was a struggle at the elementary level when I was a principal [in Orange County, before coming to Beacon]. We had a lot of students who struggled and there was a one-year waiting list to see someone that would work with children,” said Rudecindo-O’Neill. “We’re not trained for that. I don’t have a degree in psychology. We have one person in each building [in Beacon] who does, and we’re a district with almost 3,000 kids.”

Rudecindo-O’Neill cited the U.S. civil rights movement of the 1960s as the time when schools began pivoting from “just being a place of academics” to “using education as a way to remedy some of the inequities within society, to a place where we could provide support to the entire family.”

She agrees that schools should be “places of innovation, where we look at some of the issues in society and start teaching our students how to fix these issues that are affecting our everyday life.” But if so, they should be funded as such, she argued.

Looking ahead

That could become an issue in budget deliberations, especially in Beacon, where two of the district’s recently added mental-health staff were hired using federal American Rescue Plan funds.

Landahl conceded that the federal funding, part of a pandemic relief bill enacted in March 2021, allowed the district to hire the staff members — an elementary teacher focused on social and emotional learning and another at Beacon High School focused on restorative practices — “that we probably wouldn’t have done in a normal budget year.”

He and other administrators are meeting regularly with the teachers and studying data to determine whether the positions will be retained longer-term. “We’re not saying flat-out that this is a one-year thing,” Landahl said, adding that future budget talks are likely to become more complex, as school districts address the need not just for educational staff, but for mental health, as well. “It’s going to be of continued importance,” he said.

How long will the “mental health crisis” among young people last? Nick DeMarco, a psychologist at Beacon High School, said earlier this month that he’s still seeing ripple effects from the isolation caused by the pandemic in 2020 and 2021. “Anxiety is still on the rise, and I’m still seeing issues with the amount of services that are available out in the community,” he said.

Carl Albano, the superintendent of the Garrison school district, said that students this year “are exhibiting a bit of a delay as far as social skills” after missing out on normal social interaction for much of the last two years. “Nobody misses remote learning,” he said.

“I haven’t been able to stop because of the need,” Angelo, the private therapist, said. “I don’t have any spots available. But I take kids who I know I can help.”

Gunther, the Nelsonville resident who founded Fit & Fun Playscapes, sees a light at the end of the tunnel. “These are fixable things, and daily movement is one of the best tools that can help,” she said. “We need to go back to the basics of kids being kids again.”

This series was funded by contributions from readers to our Special Projects Fund.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

2 thoughts on “Are the Kids Alright? (Part 3)

  1. As a teacher for 15 years, I was dismayed by your characterization of the solution for teacher burnout as resting upon individual teachers and their habits, rather than systemic educational issues and administrative oversight.

    When Haldane Superintendent Philip Benante states that teachers need to eat right and exercise to support work-life balance, he is ignoring the greater issues that place stress upon teachers. Teachers need more prep and planning time, not extra fruit in the staff lounge. Teachers need increased autonomy to teach the way they know children know best and reduced focus on high-stakes testing.

    Teachers need space to let children engage in free play indoors and outdoors, which studies show increase children’s focus, improve mood and reduce behavior issues in class — not new curricular initiatives designed to make up for “lost time” during the pandemic.

    Wellness is not a day off here or there, but long-term, wraparound supports that address the daily struggles teachers face, which have only increased since the pandemic. Schools and school districts need to engage teachers in conversations about what kind of support would benefit them and their students.

    Please stop perpetuating the idea that teacher burnout is a personal issue and discuss the larger institutional issues causing teachers to feel this way.

  2. I agree with Katie’s comment. Burnout is not a work-life balance issue, it is a crisis of efficacy. The emotional depletion and cynicism resulting from the gap between effort and reward is rarely mitigated by extra days off. Burnout is exhaustion from never feeling that your work is done, or done well. It is a failure to ever reach the finish line, or to even know where that line is. An aggravating factor for teachers and mental-health workers (and parents, too) is that their jobs include emotional labor and it is difficult to measure our success in supporting students’ emotional needs when grades and standardized tests are the primary tools for tracking how well a student is “functioning” and often kids can’t tell us how they feel or what they need.

    There is an abundance of research on this topic. Proven solutions are multi-faceted and require a thoughtful recalibration of priorities and reassessment of goals. If you are interested in digging into this topic, a great place to start is to read Christina Maslach, the pioneer of research on job burnout who created the gold standard assessment tool, the Maslach Burnout Inventory (MBI) in 1981. A March 2021 article in the Harvard Business Review discusses the pandemic’s impact on the syndrome of burnout and raises concerns regarding the increasing overuse of this term as a catch-all for any stress related suffering.

    If students are struggling in other aspects of their lives then their failures at school can have a profound effect on how effective teachers feel in their jobs. As Katie noted in her comment as a teacher herself, burnout is not a personal problem, rather it is a person’s response to institutional and social expectations that are becoming increasingly difficult to meet.

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