Elementary students still struggling with pandemic stress | SteamboatToday.com

Elementary students still struggling with pandemic stress

Counselors, therapists, teachers working together to support students

Therapists, from left, Tiana Schneider, Beth Wendler, Sophie Berkley and Brooke Lightner use play therapy to work with children and have been very busy in the wake of the COVID-19 andemic. The group gets together each week to support one another in helping clients.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Academic delays and learning hurdles have been common for school children due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, but local counselors and therapists say some younger school children are still experiencing delays and struggles in normal emotional and social growth.

Students in elementary school not only learn academic subjects, they learn skills about friendships, relationships and social interactions. The pressures related to the pandemic made learning some social and emotional skills more difficult, said Cheryl Fullerton, school counselor at Strawberry Park Elementary.

“This whole school year has been about recovery and crisis management. It’s been emotionally really difficult on lots of people,” Fullerton said.

Because of this, local teachers, counselors and child therapists are working together to support students through the lingering pandemic-related stress, Fullerton said.

“There are a lot of kids who haven’t had the same social interactions, and when problems come up, they don’t know how to respond,” Fullerton said. “For example, when kids feel really strong emotions, they don’t have the skill set to say ‘I’m feeling really anxious.’ We help them a lot with naming of emotions and feelings and with providing them with skills to manage their emotions and express their feelings.”

Fullerton said school counselors teach weekly lessons in classrooms on topics such as problem solving, mindfulness, naming and expressing emotions, and empathy and understanding for others. Many classrooms also have a “calming corner” for students to utilize to recharge, relax or refocus, Fullerton said.

“This pandemic has exacerbated already existing conditions, be it anxiety or disregulated behaviors,” Fullerton said. “Because there was such an intensity, it made things bubble to the surface because kids don’t know how to cope.”

Exercises parents can do with children to help with stress

Circles of Control – Draw two concentric circles representing control. Show what children can control inside the smaller, inner circle, such as their own emotions and actions. Show in the larger, outer circle the issues that kids can’t control such as other people’s words or actions.

Positive Thoughts – Talk about how initial emotions last 90 seconds but negative thoughts can keep those emotions going longer. Children can be taught how to frame issues in a positive light, such as, “I’m a good learner; it’s just taking me a little longer,” or, “I need to slow down and breathe. This is uncomfortable, but it’s not dangerous. I’m safe.”

Naming Emotions – Parents can pay attention in order to help their kids name what’s going on by saying open-ended sentences such as, “I see you seem upset today,” or, “I notice you stomped through the house when you got home.”

After working with a school counselor for four to six weeks, students who still need help may be referred to local therapists. The pandemic increased those referral numbers, Fullerton said.

One local resource is children’s psychotherapist and certified play therapist Beth Wendler, who has an office in downtown Steamboat Springs. Wendler and three colleagues working in play therapy are staying very busy now, with an average wait time of one month for new appointments. Wendler meets weekly with colleagues Tiana Schneider, Brooke Lightner and Sophie Berkley to support each other in helping clients.

“The overall issues I see are kids missed two years — for sure one and a half years — of school time where they learned developmental processes, interactions, how to cope and lots of skills that kids learn at school,” Wendler said.

The play therapy room in psychotherapist Beth Wendler's office.
John F. Russell/Steamboat Piliot & Today

The child therapists often utilize play therapy where kids’ playful activities can provide insights into their anxious thoughts.

“It’s just really helpful for kids to understand how much their thoughts and emotions can drive their behaviors,” Wendler said.

The psychotherapist said children who realize they are behind their peers in academic or normal social learning may develop increased levels of anxiety. Kids can feel frustrated, sad or embarrassed, and that may lead to generalized anxiety.

“Kids who are behind academically, that impacts them emotionally. They feel like they are not as smart as their peers,” Wendler said.

Younger children still honing their social skills were heavily impacted by pandemic stresses, but older school students also were impacted, as they did not have as many healthy outlets.

“Because kids had so much down time, and down time spent on social media, that can be pretty toxic,” Fullerton noted.

The professionals said some signs that a student may benefit from seeing a therapist include a child’s inability to calm down, uncharacteristically strong reactions to small things, difficulty with relationships and friendships, withdrawal or self-isolation, and being stuck in a sad emotion when the child is sad more of the time than happy.

“If a kid is so emotionally unregulated, they are not going to learn,” Fullerton said.

UCHealth created an online, educational video series titled Coping with COVID Stress to help kids and parents weather ongoing mental impact of the pandemic. The first video helps parents and kids identify anxiety, anger and cognitive issues related to stress. The second video helps kids understand it is normal for stress to evoke many feelings at once, and that sudden riptide of emotions can be eased by using a number of coping skills. The third video focuses on helping children feel safe and comfortable asking for help.

The series features interviews with experts, children, parents and teachers as well as animation. The six- to 10-minute videos are available at bit.ly/CopingWithCovidStress.

“Everything that was normal and expected was sort of stripped, and now it’s slowly coming back to normal. Some things, even in healthy families, can be hard for kids,” Fullerton explained. “Even with attentive parents, it’s still very hard, because kids emotionally are not mature enough to handle what is happening.”

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