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Focus put on students’ mental health

The new school year is approaching, but there’s no denying this year will look different for students across the country. Some students will be back in the classroom, some will be learning from home and many will be doing both.

Lisa Hardesty, a psychologist with Mayo Clinic said, “I think everyone has anxiety no matter what the plan is. We all need predictability and controllability. Which is why the uncertainty of today is so challenging.”

Hardesty is based in Mankato, but sees a lot of patients from southern Minnesota, including the Fairmont area. She generally sees patients ages 16 and older. She recognizes that no matter what setting students are in this year, it will be challenging.

“If you start the year with distance learning, you miss out on the people part, but if you start in person, you’re wearing masks and miss out on some of the regular rituals,” she said.

She said that especially for younger children, it’s hard for them to grasp the “why” of these changes.

She suggested it’s best to get them talking about how they’re feeling and what they’re worried or anxious about.

Hardesty also shared a thought for parents who feel bad about the experiences children may be missing.

“We know what they should be experiencing, but they have no clue. We feel bad for them, but they don’t know what they don’t know, either. So managing our anxiety as parents and teachers is going to be pretty vital for their success,” she said.

“Right now we should probably be getting kids back into a routine and thinking about school in the coming weeks,” she said.

She said this could include setting a more regular sleep/wake schedule and doing some preparation work such as getting school supplies.

“Even though a lot is uncertain, there’s still some things we can control,” Hardesty said.

Hardesty pointed out that you can’t research and see how to get a kid back to school during COVID-19 because a pandemic like this hasn’t happened in decades.

“I was doing research to find out how to help kids adapt to going back after a transition and the only thing I can find that’s been studied is how to prepare for kids to go back after the holidays. That’s how new this is,” she said.

She suggested if you have a kid that you know is more anxiety prone, organizing a time to go to the school and walk to their classes could be helpful. She said it’s also a good idea to prepare kids for the chance that circumstances can change and what school looks like can change.

“I would prepare them and say here’s what school will look like. Number one, you’re in school. Number two, you’re at home and school. Number three, you’re all online. And this is all about your safety,” she said.

She encouraged parents to talk to their kids about the things that they can control, which includes wearing a mask, washing hands and staying distant.

Hardesty said to look at the five Bs: be flexible, be optimistic, be supportive, be kind and be honest.

“I would really put the emphasis on those cornerstones of wellness. Nutrition, exercise and sleep,” she said.

Hardesty said she hopes there will be extra support available to children at school and pointed out the fact that teachers may be overwhelmed with changes, too.

Fairmont superintendent Joe Brown pointed out that both the high school and elementary school buildings have two full-time principals. The elementary has two full-time social workers and one full-time dean of students and a full-time nurse.

At the high school, there are two guidance counselors and two social workers. This year one of the social worker’s actual title is student support advocate.

“We eliminated the role of dean of students at the high school because we really want to focus on the social, emotional learning of our children, not so much the discipline,” Brown said.

He said they plan to spend the first week really getting to know the students before they delve heavy into curriculum.

“We want the principals to spend time visiting classrooms and if any of our 120 staff members observe that some child may be anxious or have issues, we certainly want them to talk to one of our social workers or guidance counselors,” Brown said.

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