Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

See how Las Cruces schools plan to remedy COVID-19 stress in students

LAS CRUCES – Both children and adults have had a tumultuous experience in the classroom throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, being at the mercy of state and district guidelines and policies.

The past two years have been stressful for all involved. The month of April, which is Stress Awareness Month, there is a highlight on what causes stress and how to relieve it.

Like other school districts, Las Cruces Public Schools is working to help students cope with stress with strategies involving social-emotional learning.

“It’s really just how we live daily life,” said Soña Saiz, the coordinator for academic counseling and behavioral health at LCPS who generally focuses on SEL. “It’s just really about being social and emotionally well, which then really opens our students up specifically to optimal learning space. The brain is really ready to learn when you’ve attended to those parts of yourself.”

SEL is a framework of five competencies: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship building and positive decision making.

At LCPS, Saiz and Director of Mental Health and Academic Counseling Amy Himelright’s team works with teachers to seamlessly inject SEL into daily classroom activities, but there is also a more direct curriculum and activities connected with SEL.

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SEL is not a new concept. Saiz said she first learned about it in the early 90s — at the time under a different name, now known as SEL. However, there has been more emphasis on SEL throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

“In the pandemic, all of a sudden, social-emotional learning has blown up in a lot of 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 behaviors during the return to in-person schooling. The article pointed to findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found an alarming rise in mental health crises among children as young as 5 years old due to the pandemic.

Himelright said that children in New Mexico may find more crises than in other states.

“Our kiddos that live in New Mexico are up against some real barriers,” Himelright said. “We have high levels of poverty, lots of challenges related to housing and sustainable wages for parents. All of these kinds of challenges we were faced with before the pandemic. Then the pandemic came, with all of the family stressors, there was an increase in substance use in homes, there was the insecurity and unemployment.”

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Himelright said that all of these factors were not only added to the pressures on adults, but also to children. Many young teens 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 that routine was knocked off balance due to the pandemic.

“Loneliness is a form of stress,” Himelright said. “We had kids and families isolated, (this was) especially impactful for our middle school going into high school-aged kiddos, 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 on top of pre-existing risk factors for our kids.”

Coming back to school after adjusting somewhat to the “new normal” of online learning was a big change.

“They’re asked to wear masks, they’re asked to socially distance,” Himelright said. “Still, we are still seeing a lot of really difficult behaviors. Our kids are experiencing high rates of anxiety, depression and thoughts of suicide — higher than pre-pandemic. So that’s where social-emotional learning comes in.

“We want social-emotional learning to kind of drive how we show up to school and interact with one another, so that we’re ready to learn.”

How staff have been affected

SEL is not only for students, Saiz and Himelright stressed that there are opportunities for staff as well, who have been equally impacted by the pandemic.

“Pre-pandemic, the staff members and our buildings, no matter their role, knew their role,” Saiz said. “The adults were very situated and knew that routine. They what they were teaching. They knew how they were teaching. They knew how to support students who are struggling with their content … That has gone, almost flipped, I feel. The adults are unsettled.”

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LCPS has a staff wellness program, some of which involve community events like mountain bike rides, hikes and lunch and learns. Himelright said the biggest key is building relationships.

Healing from pandemic will take time

LCPS has SEL curriculum at the elementary, middle and high school levels. In elementary, it’s called Second Step Program; in middle and high schools, it’s Suite360.

The lessons are coordinated with social workers, counselors and some teachers and focus on how to identify emotion, how to build decision-making skills, how to build and maintain relationships and stress management.

There’s also a districtwide meditation app, “zen dens” for staff and student use and different play props for young students to help express their emotions. Himelright said that LCPS works closely with Families and Youth Innovations Plus, especially 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, building up and repairing social skills and empathy can take time.

Himelright explained that in her time working in adoption and foster care, she learned that children need at least twice the amount of time to adjust from a previous environment to a new one. She said this will 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 normalcy and success, but we also have to be willing to sit with the discomfort of what is, and what is right now is unprecedented,” Himelright said. “It has been a trauma on top of all of this social and environmental change. 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary caregiver to COVID. So we’re also dealing with a collective grief. For now, going back to (normal) , we can expect it to take at least as long — probably longer — as we were in this chronic trauma for us to recover.”

Many people in the community have spoken up, asking for more focus on core classes rather than programs like SEL.

Saiz said that students have an academic side of their brains, but also emotional and social sides as well.

“It’s really about attending to 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 attend to one without the other.”

Miranda Cyr, a Report for America corps member, can be reached at [email protected] or @mirandacyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at https://bit.ly/LCSNRFA.

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