Protecting Kids' Mental Health Top Priority as VA Schools Reopen
Friday, August 20, 2021
HAMPTON ROADS, Va. -- With many Virginia schools starting up next week, experts say parents and teachers need to take extra steps to protect children's mental health, which may have suffered during pandemic isolation.
Eric Sparks, deputy executive director of the American School Counselor Association, said for a smooth transition into the new school year, counselors and teachers should prioritize addressing mental and behavioral health needs.
His group has a new guide to help support teachers and students, and he advised school counselors to get students used to learning in person again.
"They'll go into classrooms and talk to students as a whole about making this transition about being with groups of students, about making connections with other students in these larger group settings," Sparks explained. "But then, they'll also look at follow-up with students, who might demonstrate some needs that they're having difficulty."
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam issued a Public Health Emergency Order last week, requiring universal mask-wearing inside all K-12 public schools in the state.
Sparks suggested even this precaution might not reduce stress levels for some kids.
The centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported mental-health visits to the emergency room by children ages 12 to 17 increased by 31% during the pandemic.
To help alleviate the trend, Sparks recommended teachers and administrators create environments that are welcoming to students, some of whom have to relearn social skills.
"A lot of the advice in terms of helping students to socialize is to take things at your own speed; to not rush into things if you don't feel comfortable," Sparks stated. "There may be physical barriers, but really, looking for ways to help those students connect with other students, even though there may be some things in place that aren't typically there."
The American Heart Association also has tips for supporting students' emotional well-being as they return to in-person learning. The group emphasized stress and trauma can lead to unhealthy behavior and even increased risk for heart disease.
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