LAS CRUCES — Children and adults have had a tumultuous classroom experience throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, being at the mercy of state and district guidelines and policies.
The past two years have been stressful for everyone involved. April, which is Stress Awareness Month, focuses on what causes stress and how to relieve it.
Like other school districts, Las Cruces Public Schools strives to help students cope with stress through social-emotional learning strategies.
“It’s really how we live everyday life,” said Soña Saiz, school counseling and behavioral health coordinator at LCPS, who typically focuses on SEL. “It’s just about being social and emotionally well, which really opens up our students specifically to an optimal learning space. The brain is really ready to learn when you’ve taken care of those parts of yourself.”
SEL is a framework of five skills: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building, and positive decision-making.
At LCPS, Saiz and the team of Mental Health and School Board Director Amy Himelright are working with teachers to seamlessly inject SEL into daily classroom activities, but there is also more direct curriculum and activities. related to SEL.
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SEL is not a new concept. Saiz said she first heard about it in the early 90s – back then under a different name, now known as SEL. However, there has been more emphasis on SEL throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
“During the pandemic, all of a sudden, social-emotional learning exploded in different ways,” Saiz said.
SEL and post-pandemic stress
A recent article published by Searchlight New Mexico highlighted an increase in violent outbursts and risky behavior when returning to in-person schooling. The article highlighted findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that revealed an alarming increase in mental health crises in children as young as 5 years old due to the pandemic.
Himelright said children in New Mexico may experience more seizures than in other states.
“Our children who live in New Mexico are facing real obstacles,” Himelright said. “We have high levels of poverty, a lot of housing challenges and sustainable parenting earnings. All of those kinds of challenges that we faced before the pandemic. Then came the pandemic, with all the family stressors, there was an increase in substance use in homes, there was precariousness and unemployment.”
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Himelright said all of these factors not only add to the pressures on adults, but also on children. Many young teenagers had to find part-time jobs and children as young as 10 were pushed to care for younger siblings.
School is often a source of stability for students, but this routine has been thrown out of balance due to the pandemic.
“Loneliness is a form of stress,” Himelright said. “We had isolated kids and families, (it was) especially impactful for our middle school going high school, because developmentally at that age there’s this real shift, where they become dependent… on their peers for their very survival.
“It was this tremendous stress added to the pre-existing risk factors for our children.”
Coming back to school after adjusting somewhat to the “new normal” of online learning was a big change.
“They’re being asked to wear masks, they’re being asked to social distance,” Himelright said. “Yet we’re still seeing a lot of really challenging behaviors. Our kids are experiencing high rates of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts – higher than before the pandemic. So that’s where social-emotional learning comes in. stake.
“We want social-emotional learning to somehow determine how we present ourselves in school and interact with each other, so that we are ready to learn.”
How staff have been affected
SEL is not just for students, Saiz and Himelright pointed out that there are also opportunities for staff, who have also been affected by the pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, staff members and our buildings, whatever their role, knew their role,” Saiz said. “The adults were very situated and knew that routine. They knew what they were teaching. They knew how they were teaching. They knew how to support students who were struggling with their content…It’s gone, almost knocked down, I think. Adults are unstable.
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LCPS has a staff wellness program, some of which involve community events like mountain bike rides, hikes and lunches and learnings. Himelright said the biggest key is to build relationships.
Recovery from the pandemic will take time
LCPS has an SEL program at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. In elementary school, it’s called Second Step Program; in colleges and high schools, it’s Suite360.
Lessons are coordinated with social workers, counselors and some teachers and focus on how to identify emotions, develop decision-making skills, build and maintain relationships and manage stress.
There is also a district-wide meditation app, “zen dens” for staff and student use, and different play props for young students to help them express their emotions. Himelright said LCPS works closely with Families and Youth Innovations Plus, particularly the La Vida Project. The district is also looking to start including yoga in physical education or counseling.
Even with the curriculum and other resources in schools, developing and repairing social skills and empathy can take time.
Himelright explained that during her work in the adoption and foster care field, she learned that children need at least twice as long to adjust to an environment. previous to a new one. She said that would likely apply to students in a school setting with the ever-changing classroom space with the pandemic.
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“We all want to get to a place of normality and success, but we also have to be prepared to sit with the discomfort of what is, and what is right now is unprecedented,” Himelright said. “It’s been a trauma on top of all this social and environmental change. 140,000 children in the United States have lost a primary caregiver to COVID. So we’re also dealing with collective grief. For now, back to (normal), we can expect it to take at least as long – probably longer – as we were in this chronic trauma to recover.”
Many community members have spoken up, asking for more focus on core courses rather than programs like SEL.
Saiz said students have an academic side to their brains, but also emotional and social sides.
“It’s really about caring for the whole child,” Saiz said. “We’re just not our thinking brain, we’re also our emotional brain… You can’t have one without the other, or deal with one without the other.”
Report for America staff member Miranda Cyr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @mirandacyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at https://bit.ly/LCSNRFA.