In episode 9 of the Academically Speaking podcast, Laura Perillo — Oak Knoll's Marketing Content Strategist — sat down with Melissa Nelson, Oak Knoll's Lower School Guidance Counselor, who talks about the pandemic's impact on the mental health of our youngest learners and how parents can support their child during this time. This is the first in Oak Knoll's special four-part parenting series, Parenting During the Pandemic.
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Laura Perillo: [00:00:00] Welcome everyone to our special four-part parenting series of Oak Knoll’s Academically Speaking Podcast. My name is Laura Perillo, and it's great to be here today as your host. Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of our daily lives, including parenting. Today's children have adapted to pivoting between learning remotely via a hybrid schedule or learning in-person with many safety precautions in place. While some children and teenagers have had a smooth transition with changes that pandemic has brought, others are struggling.
[00:00:38] This parenting podcast will cover all of your burning questions about how to best protect and support your child's mental health, their social life and development, and the ins and outs of virtual learning during the pandemic. We will also hear how one family spent their time during quarantine and the lessons they've learned in the process.
[00:00:58] Welcome to this special podcast edition: Parenting During the Pandemic. In today's episode, we will be speaking with Melissa Nelson, Oak Knoll’s Lower School counselor about today's kids under pressure, and about the impact the pandemic has had on children's mental health. Melissa earned her undergraduate degree at Middlebury college and then her master's in clinical and counseling psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University.
[00:01:29] Melissa Nelson: [00:01:29] Thank you. Happy to be here.
[00:01:31] Laura Perillo: [00:01:31] Thank you for coming back to our podcast. We really appreciate it. So today we are talking about the mental health of kids and in kids under pressure during this pandemic. And my first question would be how has the pandemic impacted the mental health of our children?
[00:01:48] Melissa Nelson: Well, I think we can all agree that it definitely has. I've been reading a lot of research because there's more and more research coming out as the pandemic continues. And three main factors really stand out in terms of the most impact on mental health of our children. Those are uncertainty, social isolation, and increased rates of parental mental illness.
[00:02:09] So, it should be noted that you know, children from marginalized communities, including homeless children, children in detention, they've been hit the hardest, especially if those children are from communities of color who generally receive fewer resources and support systemically. But in general, children are often more aware of the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic than they get credit for.
[00:02:31] And they feel the stress associated with that uncertainty. So, they're aware that family members may get sick at any moment. And there are new rules about social distancing and the testing and the traveling and what is or is not safe. And the fact that nobody knows quite when this will end or what rule will change.
[00:02:50] So, in addition to all that uncertainty, some kids are facing economic hardships due to COVID and their families need to change lifestyles or actually move. All this uncertainty directly impacts them and their social lives and their ability to gain a sense of control over their own daily routine. So, this uncertainty makes it, you know, that much more difficult for the kids, but also for the parents, because they're having such a hard time trying to secure their children, tell them it's going to be okay when they in fact feel uncertain as well, and don't really have solid answers for them. So, the uncertainty is the first main factor.
[00:03:26] And then social isolation is another critical factor. Impacting children's mental health because the children's growth and development requires socialization. The absence of play dates, playground time connecting with peers can lead to loneliness. Some of the research shows psychological issues such as anxiety and depression, increasing and rates, and long-term negative impacts on healthy brain development.
[00:03:48] Because socialization is such a huge part of that. In fact, some of the most frequently reported changes in children's cognitive health has been difficulty concentrating, boredom, irritability, restlessness, and nervousness, which we all see at the school. And the last main factor is the parental wellbeing. It's a critical variable when assessing children's mental health in a pandemic, because understandably the pandemic has caused a rise in parental anxiety and depression. Along with exacerbating any pre-existing psychological conditions that parents have. And research shows that an increase in parental distress is directly associated with maladaptive emotional and behavioral symptoms in children.
[00:04:28] So, not to put pressure, but you know, the more stressed we are at home, the more that the kids feel it and that impacts them directly.
[00:04:38] Laura Perillo: Right. Are there are particular ages and grades of children impacted more than others and which ones and why, or why not?
[00:04:47] Melissa Nelson: [00:04:47] Yeah, I think it's important to remember that, all children are impacted by the pandemic.
[00:04:52] There are children in grades K through 12, who are suffering significantly, right alongside those who barely register a reaction from the changes due to COVID. They're babies, delayed adults, you know, all struggling to achieve their specific developmental tasks in the context of this bizarre and stressful pandemic.
[00:05:10] I could make a case for each agent stage to be considered the ones who are suffering the most. But with that said, within our Lower School community, I see the primary grades pre-K through second, really dealing with some of the more concrete, detrimental impacts, um, because you know, they're young and they can't transition to, or benefit from the online learning, with the same ease as the older students.
[00:05:31] And their education and developmental objectives are largely socially based. So that's essentially been shut down due to social distancing requirements. So that really limits the way they can learn. And again, because of social distancing, you know, schools have to revert to a more old-fashioned setup in which children are asked to sit at the same desk behind plexiglass, wearing a mask and work independently for much of the day.
[00:05:53] And as we know, that's not generally the way our primary teachers work, right? They're all very interactive and group oriented. So, the lack of movement and the reduced to creative approaches available to the teachers and their students are all very big challenges for the little people. Because they're still learning how to, you know, pay attention and take turns and follow the rules and controlling your bodies.
[00:06:13] Right? But I will say also for the older school leaders, like fifth and sixth, they're really struggling too, but more with the social and psychological effects of COVID, you know, being stuck at home the times when we're remote, is a real downside for tweens as any parent knows.
[00:06:30] They are not really happy to be stuck at home. And, their friends is, is developmentally appropriately, their highest priority. And in the context of the pandemic that essential out of school socializing has essentially been deleted. So we're lucky at Oak Knoll to be able to teach in-person and provide this socialization, and the opportunities for all the kids to give them at least some sense of connectedness and community even within these socially restricted times.
[00:07:01] Laura Perillo: [00:07:01] We're now more than a year in, since the pandemic started. Have the mental outlooks of children improved or worsened as time has gone on? How do you feel about that?
[00:07:13] Melissa Nelson: [00:07:13] Well, you know, I, I want to say that in general, the children's mental health is worsening as the pandemic continues.
[00:07:21] That's what all the research shows. That's what we see at school. I mean, it's hard, it's hard on everyone, but that being said, I'm also amazed and impressed by the resiliency that I see everyday within the Oak Knoll community and students. But, you know, the longer-term impact of the pandemic on children's mental health isn't pretty. It states that, you know, the longer the pandemic remains the stronger, the negative impacts on children's mental health to include increased psychological disorders like anxiety and depression, social isolation, and, um, a new thing that's coming out about fatigue due to monotony. Um, which I think we can all feel we kind of feel like we're in Groundhog day now, right? And then, you know, other depressive symptoms like anhedonia, you know, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, all these things are happening and we're seeing that get stronger as the pandemic progresses, but on a more positive note, you know, spring's around the corner and with that will come an increase of outdoor activity and more ease to facilitate socially distance gatherings.
[00:08:21] And, you know, those things can greatly improve everyone's mental health, but particularly children.
[00:08:29] Laura Perillo: [00:08:29] What is, in your opinion, the number one struggle,
not really in your opinion, but maybe in your research. What's the number one struggle you hear from parents and students?
[00:08:40] Melissa Nelson: [00:08:40] What, what we come across the most is, is, um, congruent with the research.
[00:08:44] It's basically difficulty concentrating and heightened anxiety. Those are the two things that we're seeing the most. Difficulty concentrating, and both are obviously very understandable. You see difficulty concentrating, especially in the remote learning environment. A lot of children really struggle to stay focused throughout the day on the screen, which is again, all understandable.
[00:09:05] Also even in school, you know, sitting behind a plexiglass and again, with a restricted movement, it's hard to focus for long periods of a time. We do try to have movement incorporated into every class, but, you know, even with the snow, not being able to go outside, get the fresh air move the same way.
[00:09:25] Those things, all impact concentration. And then the heightened anxiety, you know, we see that manifesting in a variety of ways: from perfectionistic tendencies, in a sense to try to get some more control, social anxiety, separation, anxiety. That really is evident with the younger ones, with the inconsistency.
[00:09:44] You know, if we have remote days and we're home for five days in a row, and then we come back, that transition is really hard for the little ones who really thrive on routine. So, some of those things we're definitely seeing, but again, at the same time, I'm, I'm seeing the teachers work amazingly hard to support these kids and give them a sense of, self-efficacy of control over their environment and routine and, and a sense of safety.
[00:10:08] And I'm seeing the kids work so hard to adapt and overcome. So, I'm, I'm just so impressed with everybody. Really.
[00:10:14] Laura Perillo: [00:10:14] And you mentioned movement. Are you going into some of the classes a lot to get them up and moving to kind of combat some of this monotony of sitting at a desk all day?
[00:10:28] Melissa Nelson: Yes, definitely. I am. As one of the teachers, you know, I go into the classes anywhere between two to three times a month, but the teachers themselves are incorporating it into all of their classes as well. So, at any given day, you can walk down the hall and you're going to see kids moving as they're learning their verbs or kids, you know, having a five-minute brain break or whatever it might be. They're really, the teachers are really aware of that.
[00:10:52]Laura Perillo: [00:10:52] Yeah. It's so important. What can parents do to support their child's mental health during this time?
[00:10:57] Melissa Nelson: [00:10:57] Yeah, I thought about this a lot. And I think the first thing is just to step back and pat yourself on the back for all that you are already doing.
[00:11:04] Because as a parent, I feel the struggle. It's hard. And, it's a lot of work and parents are as exhausted if not more than the kids, right? Because they're trying to take care of everybody and themselves. So just to step back and remember that you are already doing a lot and take a breath. But if you want to work on anything, the more I would say is like, reframe, everything to the positive.
[00:11:28] I think one of the things that happens is we forget how much the kids absorb everything that we're saying. And instead of like, grumbling about all the rules and precautions and mourning the loss of all the things that we can't do, you know, here comes break, “Oh, we're not going on vacation. This is such a bummer.”
[00:11:44] Instead of, instead of going there, right. You're trying to reframe it all. And say like, “Well, social distancing. You know, this is what we do to keep our family and others safe. Right. This is a way that we can have some control over our life. We're making these choices because we agree with them and we want to, right.
[00:12:00] And when you do that, then you're reframing it for the child is not only giving them some sense of control, but also making it not as scary, not as terrible. So, all that positive work just to reframe and then, beyond that, obviously limiting exposure to social media and news. That's huge.
[00:12:18] Regardless of a pandemic that is always going to be a mental health game-changer to limit that. And self-care because, you know, you can't pour from an empty cup. So these, the parents are the ones who are keeping the family together. You've got to make sure that you're doing OK. So take care of yourself.
[00:12:35] And then lastly, just, you know, as a counselor, I'm always going to advocate talking. So anytime you're having feelings, share with your kids, in an appropriate way and always be ready to ask them, you know, “tell me more about what's going on.”
[00:12:48] Laura Perillo: [00:12:48] Right. Those are great points. How is Oak Knoll supporting our students' mental health?
[00:12:52] Melissa Nelson: [00:12:52] I think the question is how are we not supporting the students' mental health? I am so impressed with all of the efforts in the Lower School. So, you know, I do as much as I can that I think is important. I'll tell you a little bit about what I do, but then also what everybody else is doing, because I'm just one part of a huge, amazing team.
[00:13:13] I'm teaching multiple lessons each month to all the classes about social, emotional topics, to build the tools necessary to maintain mental health. Such as empathy, resiliency, emotional awareness, social and coping skills. I meet individually with students and I check in proactively to stay connected, communicate with their families, as does Mrs. Spies, the head of the Lower School and Miss. Watkins, the assistant head of the Lower School. They have both performed student and parent needs assessments in effort to better understand and meet the needs of the students and families. And all teachers are just going above and beyond, you know, making themselves available for extra help outside of school hours, remaining accessible to students and families for any consultation support.
[00:13:56] Not to mention all their tireless work to create these engaging curriculum lessons, both in-person and remote, and being able to switch back and forth seamlessly. And then in addition to all of that, as a faculty and staff, we're participating in continuing education and training constantly to stay, you know, on top of any latest knowledge or, um, training that's gonna make us more effective to help the kids. So for instance, right now, I'm part of the Lifelines training program that we're working on to increase our preemptive efforts to reduce school crises and better respond to them. I'm also part of a group attending the SEEDS training, which is seeking educational equity and diversity.
[00:14:40] That's like a five-month training. Again, working to support all students, particularly students of color. So, there's just so many different things that we're doing, trying to stay on top of how to best support these kids and make sure that they feel like school is a place that's happy and fun, and they want to come here every morning.
[00:14:59] Laura Perillo: [00:14:59] Right. Well, it's certainly a journey and I really appreciate you talking to us. I don't have any more questions, but, you know, I'm just curious, has your role as counselor really helped with your own children's struggles? I'm sure it has.
[00:15:18] Melissa Nelson: [00:15:18] That's a great question. Um, yeah, I think it has definitely because I can apply everything that I'm doing at school at home, you know. What I think any counselor therapist would say, like, you try not to make your children, your, your patients, your clients, um, and oftentimes as other, any professional will say, right, you have your, your game face on for work, and then you come home and everything falls apart.
[00:15:42] So I would love to say that I am following all of these suggestions and I do try my very hardest. I am just another parent, like anybody else, making mistakes, having impatient moments, doing the best we can. But I am happy to report that my boys are doing really well. And I feel like we're talking, we're getting through it together.
[00:16:04] We're trying to come up with fun plans for our canceled vacation at home things we can do to still have fun together as a family.
[00:16:11] Laura Perillo: [00:16:11] Right. Right. Every day is a journey. So I guess this is the first time that every parent has been through this, I mean that in our lifetime, I should say. So, we're really kind of all struggling alongside together.
[00:16:25] So I liked that you said that we should kind of give self-care and reflection and just kind of take it as we come. Um, so that's - all of this is great advice. Thank you.
[00:16:37] Melissa Nelson: [00:16:37] Actually, you know what, there's one last thing that I would like to say about the parenting piece. I just heard about this in the training that I did yesterday, and it was something I hadn't really considered before, especially for the parents of tweens. Maybe even third and fourth, depending on how comfortable parents are with their kids, with technology.
[00:16:56] But for those kids who are really socializing through video games and through their phones, which is most everybody now. Sometimes parents’ first reaction when they want to punish a child is to take that away. They're not concentrating in school. Um, and one of the things that was brought up in this training is that's really, maybe not the best and most effective way to do that right now, because essentially you are cutting off their social lifeline.
[00:17:22] It's the only thing they have right now, since they're not going out and seeing each other in person. So, doing that can actually be sort of counterproductive in that it might heighten your children's anxiety and or depression. So, it's something to think about because I know it's tricky. You know, you want to try to get them to concentrate on school and prioritize responsibilities, but in this new context of the pandemic, maybe taking away devices is not the first step.
[00:17:50] Laura Perillo: I think we kind of learned that through the hard way. We realized that this was how a lot of them are socializing and, I think you're right. I think that for us, that was trial and error and maybe other parents as well.
[00:18:03] Laura Perillo: [00:18:03] Well, listen, thank you so much. A special thank you. once again to our guest today, Melissa Nelson, for her time and expertise.
[00:18:10] For more information about Oak Knoll School of the Holy Child, please visit our website at oakknoll.org.