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Peoria's mental health professionals help prepare students for a year back in the classroom

We're a few weeks into a new school year. Even with time, an adjustment like coming back to fully in-person learning can be difficult for kids.

Kristin Joseph is a social worker at primary schools in the Peoria Public Schools District 150. She said the first weeks have been, overall, an exciting and positive experience.

However, while there was a time and place for hybrid or remote learning during the pandemic, it did engrain some behaviors students will have to readjust.

“I think some families and students got used to having that and not having to be around people all day,” Joseph said. “So I think the adjustment has been coming back and being around 25 other students throughout the day, rather than having that time to yourself.”

More time around other students means more time socializing. Joseph said social skills, like any skill, are something you have to practice.

“I’m looking more at some self-regulation, being aware of your own body and being aware of other people’s bodies,” she said. “Reading other people’s cues, knowing how you feel, knowing how they feel, to be able to present yourself and have a conversation and have that back and forth time.”

The ways students express being behind on socialization can vary. They can include acting out, falling behind in class work, and experiencing separation anxiety while on campus. Some students may be shy and reserved, while others become pushy or excitable.

While there are behaviors students will have to unlearn, high school counselor Sherri Lamie said some pandemic-related changes could be useful moving forward.

“One thing that’s come out of COVID is we now have streams,” she said. “So all of our students are using the online system of learning and they’re incorporating that in the classroom all the time as well, which is neat.”

Different students have different learning styles, and those that benefited from distance learning will continue to benefit from classrooms familiar with digital learning methods.

However, in general, Lamie and Joseph said children are excited to be back in the classroom and spending time with their peers. Lamie added, while issues from the pandemic may be lingering below the surface, it's far from the first thing on any student's mind.

“I think kids are pretty resilient. I feel like they come back faster than anyone,” she said. “I don’t think that, really we don’t talk about COVID all that much anymore. You don’t hear that word: ‘the pandemic.’ So I think they’re thriving.”

Joseph said the mental health challenges most present in the kids she speaks with are the same ones they were dealing with before the pandemic.

"Really what they’re looking for is acceptance. What everybody’s looking for is acceptance,” she said. “As a public school, we welcome anyone into our building. Our training and what we do is to meet the student and the family where they’re at. So, since we’ve always been doing that, it’s not been a shift to do it after COVID.”

Lamie said mental health professionals play an important role in helping cultivate feelings of acceptance and belonging, so students can focus on their studies.

“Everyone wants to belong and have a place,” she said. “I know at our school we do a really good job of having something available for everyone. So that everyone can have a person in the building, but also have a place they feel totally welcomed and they can be who they are.”

Anecdotally, there is one change Lamie has noticed. She said she's seen more high school students at the cusp of a college decision choose to hold off.

“They’re really kind of waiting it out, so that has happened,” Lamie said. “Then we’ve had students take gap years, so that’s happened too. That wasn’t the norm back when, you know, way back when.”

Of course, not all mental health upkeep for students happens in the schools. Some of it has to happen at home. Experts recommend maintaining schedule and structure during the summer months as a way to keep kids sharp and engaged. Lamie said this advice holds true for the school year.

“Having that structure every day, having a routine can be very important,” she said. “Eating healthy, so very healthy habits can be important for the student and for the family as well. We do provide a lot of outside services, if needed, to families. So we definitely do want them to reach out if they need assistance or need help with anything.”

Lamie is referencing the Wraparound Center, found inside Trewyn School, which helps parents get the resources they need, or helps connect them with the right outside agency.

Joseph said having needs accounted for and a set routine in place literally changes what's happening inside a student's brain.

“When we have a set routine and we know what’s expected and what’s coming next, it lowers our levels of anxiety. It takes us out of fight or flight,” she said. “It allows us to know what the plan is. That frees us up, and frees up our brain for other parts of learning. We’re able to be more in tune to ourselves and to other people.”

Additionally, at the high school level, Lamie recommends having a cut off time for phones and social media.

Many things in education changed over the last few years, but now Joseph said, they're returning to a form students recognize.

“Kids just want to be kids,” she said. “And as adults in a society, we just need to help that happen and allow them to have this time.”

Dr. Ann Bond, the director of special education and school-based social emotional learning, said the Peoria Public School district started the year with more mental health professionals, staffing at least one at every district school.

Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.