Montclair’s kids will need emotional support — in and out of schools
The pandemic has forced consideration of how children’s mental and emotional health has been affected by prolonged absences from school.
By ERIN ROLL
How children are being affected by being out of school, and how they will readjust when it comes time for them to return, is a concern for parents and teachers alike.
A critical part of students’ well-being, experts say, is the ability to deal with stress and anxiety, to talk about stressors they may have gone through at home during the pandemic, and to focus on learning in person.
All of that might have been made more difficult because, for the third time this school year, a planned reopening of Montclair’s schools was delayed.
Over the last few months, parents reported at BOE meetings that their children were struggling with virtual learning and experiencing anxiety, stress and tantrums over not being able to see their teachers and friends in person. Parents of special-needs children said their children were especially challenged learning outside of the classroom.
Board member Allison Silverstein, whose son has special learning needs, said it was important to remember children have lost a year of social and emotional development.
At the Jan. 6 Board of Education meeting, several board members agreed that social and emotional needs will be a bigger issue when schools reopen.
“I’m much more concerned. I don’t think we’re going to go back to anything looking like what we’ve had before,” said board member Eve Robinson.
The district website’s Counseling Corner contains a list of resources specific to the pandemic, including links to Child Mind, which includes resources aimed at parents and at educators, and to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
“There are very few silver linings about COVID-19,” said Gerard Costa, the director of Montclair State University’s Center for Autism and Early Childhood Studies, but he added that the pandemic has helped make clearer how critical mental health and social well-being are to education.
If a student is in a heightened state of stress or anxiety, or on “survival brain,” it affects the student’s ability to learn in the classroom, Costa said.
In addition to the disruption caused by schools closing, many children may have experienced illness or death of family members, friends, neighbors or teachers. That trauma needs to be addressed as well, he said.
In order for teachers to be able to help students, Costa said, support systems and resources should be in place for teachers. District officials did not respond to an inquiry on what training teachers have received.
During the summer, the district convened a group of parents, teachers and administrators, called the Healthy Minds Committee, to talk about how to maintain student engagement and mental health. The district partnered with the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, the YMCA and the Montclair Public Library as well as mental health organizations to create short videos to aid parents and guardians in helping their children during the pandemic. They also formed online book clubs and organized volunteers to lead remote social groups.
In December, the district offered some workshops for parents on addressing mental health issues through the Parent University portal.
Parents should be aware of whether their children are completing homework assignments and other tasks, or if they seem to be having headaches, stomachaches or other health problems and to talk through the anxiety with the child. Costa advised parents to speak to teachers and administration if their child has become withdrawn or anxious.
Michael Koffman, a family psychologist with a practice in Montclair, said some children may take longer to rebound, such as students who have social anxiety issues. Koffman said he was hopeful that all students would eventually do so.
“I think there are certainly kids who will be very resilient,” he said. “I think the large majority of kids will be just fine.”
Costa agreed: “It’s the nature of who we are as humans, that we have these disruptions and interferences, and we recover.”
The district has offered access to mental health resources, informational pieces and counseling services to assist students and families, Superintendent Jonathan Ponds wrote in a Jan. 8 letter to families.
“This pandemic has been an emotional roller coaster, and we want you to know that we are here for you and want to support you,” Ponds said. He urged families to reach out to him or to their children’s teachers, principal or counselors if anyone in the family is struggling.