In Part 2 of this series, we heard about some of the strategies LPS is applying to support students socioemotionally and academically. In the final installment of this series, three professionals with different areas of expertise in learning and child development offer some advice for families and educators on moving forward.
What are some recommendations from experts for parents and educators about supporting students?
Identify and assess different kids’ needs: In terms of how schools can best support individual students, similar to Montgomery, Dr. Nathan Lambright, director of the Boston Child Study Center, stressed that every child’s needs are different – with some who struggle more with the readaption, some who struggled during remote learning but thrive once they return, and some who have learned relatively uninterrupted.
“The most effective thing that schools can probably do is… identify and account for individuals who are struggling from a mental-health-based perspective,” Lambright said.
LPS administered the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey to students grades 7-12 in February and March of this year; the survey is designed to identify such issues, but is anonymous. The district also changed this year’s calendar to provide time for screening kindergarten students after half-days of school during the first few days of the year (a practice which has been standard in Lexington during previous years, but was not originally included in this year’s calendar). In a summer School Committee meeting, LPS kindergarten teachers had advocated for three half-days of school for such screenings, as well as to allow the youngest students to ease back into the school day; the School Committee settled on two days in a July 27 3-2 vote to balance the burden of last-minute calendar changes on parents with this accommodation.While kindergarteners can have unique issues learning to be in school buildings around groups of kids for the first time, it’s important to pay attention to issues at all ages, Lambright said. “I personally don’t think that we can identify a particular age range [that] is the most at risk… it’s not that [mental health issues] are more or less present in different age groups, they just present differently.”
As a result, “it’s going to be important to make sure that we’re looking across ages, whether it’s a young child who was just entering school in a weird time, in the face of a pandemic— or an individual who has years of experiences, heading into their junior, senior year of high school one way, and then all of a sudden the world completely changes,” he said. “The way that they experience school is completely different. Those might present incredibly differently in terms of the kind of mental health challenges they can have. And they’re equally likely to experience mental health challenges.”
Pay attention to mental health: During the past 18 months, “[mental health] was also something that, understandably, kind of fell to the wayside a little bit over the course of the pandemic.” For his clinic, for instance, “there was a significant drop in school consultation… that was actually the biggest drop in services that we had was districts reaching out to ask for support. And I don’t think it’s because [schools] stopped caring. I think it’s because in the case of the crisis, they were entering a new realm where they had no idea how to support kids virtually from an academic perspective, which was taking all of their time — And as a result, thinking about things from mental health perspectives wasn’t as much on the forefront as it is.”
A parent survey of students’ mental health could be useful, Lambright said, because it could set teachers up to address even small issues proactively “There’s some very straightforward, standardized measures that the district could give out to parents to be able to get some information to just understand who the kids that are vulnerable are,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to have those teachers look out for specific behaviors of concern, to see early on as we’re getting into the beginning of the school year, what the implications may end up being — and address issues proactively as opposed to once kids are having more significant issues.”
Be curious about your kids: For parents, “the most important thing is honestly, no matter how old the kid is, being curious around what their experience is and not taking their behavior on face value to mean that …you understand what a kid’s going through…whether it’s a kindergartner or a senior in high school.”
This can mean measures as simple as asking about their days and their feelings. “I think it is equally important [for parents] to be curious around how their day was…asking about the individual’s emotions, trying to get the normalized communication of emotions,” he said, “because one of the biggest vulnerabilities for issues from a mental health perspective is an individual not having the skills to describe their emotion, or an environment that talks about emotions, and therefore it leads them to not understand it and/or bottle it up. And then it ends up coming out and looking like it’s coming out of nowhere.”
Offering many access points: “Multiple modes and points of access to every single instructional period are going to be essential…which I know teachers are already trying to do,” said Beverley Montgomery, a local speech language pathologist. Montgomery founded the clinic Lex Communicate after almost a decade of experience working at LPS. “You suddenly have learners that have done a lot on their own, and are right on track…in their academic career; you have students that are a year or more behind; and then you’ve got everybody in the middle, along with a huge variety in readiness to learn”— a far greater variety “than you would typically have,” she said. “With classes of 24+ kids, that’s the monumental task for a teacher to undertake.”
Joe Blatt is the faculty director for the Technology, Innovation and Education Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and a Lexington resident. For students to be best supported this year, Blatt stressed two ideas.
Social readjustment requires support: “It’s really important that school systems and parents …do recognize that …reintroducing kids to groups and face-to-face contact is something that needs support and needs scaffolding, if you will — it isn’t just a return to before without any need to adjust,” Blatt said.
Not everybody is going to want to return to the way things were: This year also “poses the risk that everybody is equally happy to return to what we used to think of as normal. And I suspect that’s not true,” he said, citing the students who benefited from remote learning or preferred interacting virtually with peers. “So there’s probably going to be more demand for the skills of the counselors, the therapists and so on … and I hope the system is willing to support that, and to provide the resources to make that possible.“
“In other words, we shouldn’t just assume that everybody gets back to baseline easily. And we should recognize that some kids don’t want to do that 100%, and they need special support,” Blatt said.