Feelings First: A New Path to Student Mental Health :SEL - Ready4K®
Feelings First: A New Path to Student Mental Health

By Rebecca Honig, director of content and curriculum

Student mental health is on everyone’s minds. This is especially true for parents and educators. We are all scrambling to make sure that social emotional learning continues through the summer.

When online learning started winding down, my 9-year-old daughter asked me, “How many days till I can hug my friends again?” This longing was echoed by my 13-year old who would frequently probe, “When will sleepovers be a thing again?” and worry aloud, “What if I forgot how to talk to people in person? On Zoom I can just stare at my friends all day long. If I accidentally do that in person, they’ll think I’m really creepy.”

And then there’s my 7-year-old, who developed a new fear of being alone. And who recently wrote a one-line poem about feelings of sadness that simply read “Sigh your life out.” 

When I read it, I thought to myself, I know EXACTLY what he means.

Because as parents and caregivers, we have a front row seat when it comes to the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on our children’s (and our own) physical health and social and emotional well-being. Parents can see how their kids respond to changes in routine, in safety protocols, in time spent with loved ones and beloved community members. We are the first ones to spot mental health concerns.  In short, families have essential insights we’ll all need to help buffer the impact of the mental health crisis caused by the collective trauma on students.

Learning About Student Mental Health from Families

For educational leaders gearing up for a post-COVID environment, family insights are invaluable. Knowing what your families need is the first step toward addressing those needs. And as family engagement specialists, the Ready4K team has been uniquely privileged to hear directly from parents about what their kids – your students – are feeling and experiencing.

So this week we’re going to share what we’ve learned from parents. And then we’ll provide some recommendations for providing the support your families need right now.

Parents Report: The Impact of COVID on Student Mental Health

Every quarter we survey parents to check in and ensure they’re getting what they need. In our March 2021 survey, we asked Ready4K recipients about the effect that the pandemic has had on their child’s learning.

We received thousands of responses, with some common themes. And overwhelmingly, they mentioned social-emotional learning as a primary concern.

They were concerned about socialization

“The isolation is taking its toll on student mental health” (Michigan)

“We have not seen friends, so lack of building relationships, lack of having family see us, being part of organized events, socializing, learning, etc.” (California)

“He has been affected because of not being able to socialize. He loves being with his friends at school. This has caused some anger issues.” (Ohio)

“Socially, she has not been able to play with kiddos closely. She’s not able to experience social situations as she once was – library playgroups, play dates, etc.” (Wisconsin)

“He has been shutting down.” (California)

student mental health and isolation

They were concerned about mental health and anxiety

“Not being around peers, not being able to play with her friends has greatly impacted her mental health. Her anxiety has risen quite a bit in the thoughts of going back to school or going into new situations.” (Virginia)

“It has affected her social skills… and she’s developed anxiety when leaving the house.” (Michigan)

“Covid has caused my children to have depression, anxiety, it has made it hard for them to learn, and impacted social skills.” (Tennessee)

“He is getting anxiety and eating more than usual, gaining weight and sleeping less.” (California)

They were concerned about focus and attention span

“I’m a single mother of 7 and 5… It’s challenging each day to get them to stay focused.” (Ohio)

“Covid affected my child’s attention span with learning from a computer. Keeping him away from his peers.”  (Tennessee)

“[My child is having] difficulty staying on task and socializing.” (California)

They were concerned about the mental health impact of kids growing too reliant on screens

student mental health and screen time

“He has learned to like the computer too much.” (Ohio)

“It’s affected his social emotional growth and screen time is out of control since I’m working at home while trying to teach him.” (Hawaii)

“Too much screen time!!!” (California)

They were concerned about a loss of connection to the community at large 

“It has stripped him of a huge connection with our community. Human interactions, hugs, visits with friends and family.” (California)

“I think the biggest impact has been on mental health and social development – mainly learning to interact with people outside home and school, like at parties, playgrounds, outings, etc.” (Minnesota)

“I do think he has suffered on a lot of social learning- we haven’t been to restaurants or other social situations as a family so we have missed out on learning how to interact in public. We haven’t gone to the zoo or the aquarium and I hate he hasn’t been able to experience places like that.” (Tennessee)

They were concerned about motivation

“They have no desire to go anywhere.” (Kentucky)

“Covid has affected my child’s learning, because they are in the house more, and they don’t want to go out and do things, cause they are used to being in the house all the time.” (Michigan)

“My child is very unfocused and unmotivated to do distance-learning. They also seem a little depressed from the isolation. I worry about their mental health. My whole family has gained weight.” (California)

“Lost interest from not being in a structured environment with other children his age!” (Tennessee)

student mental health and motivation

And parents and caregivers reported being concerned about their own mental health too. One parent simply wrote:

“We are drowning.” (North Carolina)

These concerns are echoed each month during the Q&A session that follows our monthly Ready4K LIVE virtual Family Fun Hour. The most frequently asked questions are about challenging behaviors and how to help kids focus and stay on task – challenges which social emotional learning skills help mitigate. 

And these are the foundational challenges educational leaders are facing as they shift their focus to the summer and a post-COVID school environment.

Education Starts with Social Emotional Learning

We all know that the essential work of addressing pandemic-related learning losses in literacy, math and science can’t happen without FIRST addressing the profound impact the pandemic has had on the social and emotional development and well-being of children and their caregivers. 

Social Emotional Learning must be in the forefront of our work as we journey forward. And parents and caregivers will be such powerful partners in this work. 

As family engagement specialists we have witnessed, first hand, just how activated families are. In the past 12 months the families of 400,000 children have started receiving our curriculum. Thousands of families have joined us for our virtual Family Family Fun Hours. 

94% of families report doing a ParentPowered activity at least once a week with their child. And so many of the activities they call out as being helpful during these times are those that focus on social emotional learning. 

“Our favorite activity is positive self talk! It makes them feel so proud of themselves and they say positive things about others too.”

“Ready4K gives me ideas about how to help my child learn and I’ve found that it has helped me connect more emotionally with them on their level. It’s been exactly what we needed.”

“I like the reminders about being calm and things related to emotion. These times are hard and a reminder when you aren’t expecting it helps.”

“It helps me think about how to make sure she feels safe, loved, and like we are curious about her and alongside her, learning together.”

student mental health and positive talk

As you partner with families to make sure that both children and grownups get the social emotional learning support they need, here are some things you might consider. And some resources you might find helpful.

1. Bring in parent voice to understand student mental health

Parents have so many insights to share. Insights about how their child is doing, about how their child is feeling. About their hopes and dreams for the year to come, and about their fears.

To access those insights, look for opportunities to hear parent voices. For example, you might bring families together virtually to learn together, share insights and share strategies. 

student mental health and family engagement

Check out this webinar where we detail how to host a Can’t Miss Virtual Family Engagement event specifically designed to maximize parental participation. 

student mental health and family feedback

Or this webinar where we dive into strategies for getting helpful parent feedback

2. Connect families with the essentials in supportive ways

We all know that it’s extremely difficult to manage stress and anxiety when we are in need of basic essentials. Yet, even when we know a number to call or a place to go to get what we need, there can be so many barriers to reaching out. These strategies for connecting families with basic needs and assistance programs, based on our own experience, are a great place to start.

3. Focus on family strengths

You set parents and caregivers up for success when you leverage their strengths. You want parents to read any social emotional learning tips or activities and think, “I CAN DO THAT!”

To achieve this:

  • Layer activities onto things you know families are already doing and resources you know they already have. 
  • Use accessible terms and language. 
  • Make sure your supports and suggestions reflect the lived experiences of your families.
  • Offer ideas that celebrate your families’ cultures and unique identities. 

On this webinar we dive into strategies for reaching families in strength based ways.

Or check out this blog post where we  highlight SEL supports that we think are ESPECIALLY USER FRIENDLY.

4. Prioritize KEY skills

It’s quite easy to get overwhelmed by just how much there is to be done when it comes to closing gaps created by the pandemic. When it comes to family engagement, prioritize the skills you know families need and want most. 

You might look to the family feedback above as you start building your roadmap of support. 

Or check out this webinar we gave on reaching families with SEL supports.

5. Bring A Trauma Informed Lens TO EVERYTHING

The pandemic, in and of itself was a trauma we all endured. It also exacerbated so many of the traumas and inequities that families ALREADY experienced.  

For actionable ideas you can use, read about the process we followed in building a trauma-informed family engagement program.

6. Celebrate Self Care for ALL the grownups

student mental health and adult self-care

That means you too! The more we grownups take care of ourselves, the better we’ll be able to support the social and emotional needs of children.

Finally, here are some simple self care tricks you might try (the ones you won’t read about in magazines). 

7. Reach out for Support

The Ready4K team has been providing trauma-informed support to families for years. If you’d like a little help giving families practical insights, actions, and resources to buffer the impact of trauma, reach out to us. We’re currently accepting applications for the Equity Grant, which makes the program accessible to every community.

Grant for organizations serving economically disadvantaged families. Covers up to 100% of year one Ready4K costs.

Looking for more resources to bolster student mental health? Explore this research round-up for stories and inspirations from the field.

If there’s one thing we’ve all learned this year, it’s that to serve kids well, families and educators need to support one another. Yes, kids need more SEL support than ever. But with the collaborative power of families and educators, we can shift from surviving to thriving.

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