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Professionals rise to reach at-risk students

April 30, 2020 Digital Media Exclusive

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Going to school is about more than academics.

It's also about learning social skills, working through differences, establishing relationships and making connections.

With school temporarily moved to a virtual format and students learning from home, those nonacademic lessons may be at risk.

“What we're seeing the most right now is just a lot of kids being lonely,” said Andrea Anderson, coordinator of outpatient mental health for BHS Family Services.

Group work

Learning to work in groups is a big part of school. In academics, virtual tools such as Google Docs can make group work more manageable.

That's not necessarily true for group work conducted by Kathryn Eberle Cotter, clinical director of Butler YMCA's Reach and Rise program, which uses personal contact to build relationships between volunteer mentors and families.

“That has completely changed,” Cotter said.

Fortunately, Reach and Rise had a solid communication system before COVID-19 reached Pennsylvania, according to Cotter. The program is designed to support guardians as well as youths.

“My kids have made so many friends,” said Melanie Holzwarth, Cotter's administrative assistant who has two children in Reach and Rise.

Holzwarth's son, Noah, who is 16, and daughter, Emy, who is 13, are on the autism spectrum and have been in Reach and Rise for about a year. Being able to interact with other kids while in quarantine is helping them stay on track.

“It's wonderful being able to have this social aspect,” Holzwarth said. “It's a really good way for them to find other people who understand.”

Prior to social distancing regulations, Cotter met with families in-person once a month.

“We're trying to strengthen that whole unit,” Cotter said. “Now, we're just trying to do that without touching anyone.”

Holzwarth said she has helped Cotter develop two pages of online resources for Reach and Rise parents. The first is specific to learning. The second discusses teaching kids about COVID-19. For Holzwarth and her husband, Joe, open talks have worked best.

“We watch the news together,” Holzwarth said. “We discuss things.”

Staying in touch

Margaret Fike's 10-year-old daughter, Lyssa, enjoys being part of a virtual Reach and Rise program.

“This is something she can still do,” Fike said. “A lot of kids can't do that right now.”

Staying in touch with students is particularly important when youths are in isolation, according to Anderson. Having a strong adult mentor at a young age helps many children succeed, both socially and academically.

“The longer this goes on, I think the more issues we'll have with mental health,” Anderson said.

“Every single group, I have kids that are like, 'This is what I look forward to,' ” Cotter said.

Anderson said BHS Family Services is not having face-to-face contact now. Clients are being contacted by phone or video conference.

Pre-established group sessions — some of which help kids manage ADHD and ODD, self-esteem and social skills — have moved to Zoom. BHS Family Services works with about 50 school-aged children from various districts in group settings.

Anderson said while Zoom does not replace face-to-face interaction, it has helped many county students stay connected with services that help them focus.

“I think that's a challenge for parents,” Anderson said. “Now they're cooped up in the house.”

Holzwarth said Noah, who is homeschooled, is used to learning from home. But Emy attends public school. Her experience has been more challenging.

“It is really different for both,” Holzwarth said.

But the time off from school hasn't been troublesome for all students. Cotter said in some cases, being quarantined at home has helped kids get away from bullies or extra stress. It's also given them time to learn anxiety management exercises, such as yoga.

“They've slowed down,” Cotter said. “They have all this time.”

Anderson said while Zoom works for many of the youths she works with, there's a common complaint among the groups: Kids want to get back to school.

Role reversal

Reach and Rise has 33 youths actively enrolled in its spring cycle. Cotter said each of them has stayed in touch with mentors in one way or another. Some kids interact on Zoom. Others are pen pals with mentors.

“We have a really good in-depth conversation,” Cotter said. “There's definitely a trust there.”

Support isn't for children alone. Parents or guardians may also need help.

With schools closing for the rest of the semester, caretakers are now also teachers and counselors. Anderson said some kids need a “buffering factor” to find the support they need to learn. This factor can be anyone.

“Some of it depends on the support system,” Anderson said. “Kids take a lot of cues from their parents.”

Being able to connect parents with resources that help fill the gap is part of the services Reach and Rise provides. Mentors are supplementing traditional group settings with virtual activities, like guided meditations, exercise and sharing cooking recipes.

“To say, 'I can still hold a support group for your kid' is phenomenal,” Cotter said.

Fike said Lyssa uses Reach and Rise to cope with having to stay inside. The program helps children understand why they may be lonely and face pandemic life, according to Fike.

“Knowing that ... what they're feeling right now is not just them,” Fike said.

Adjusting

Anderson expects many students will need more time than normal to adjust when going back to school in the fall. The typical “summer slide” might be worse this year.

Anderson said the acclamation period may depend on the strength of student-teacher bonds: The more effort a teacher put into engaging with students outside of class, the better the chances students will quickly readapt to in-class instruction.

Anderson and Cotter look forward to getting back to in-person work.

“I definitely think the richness of therapy comes from face-to-face,” Anderson said. “I think it makes a big difference for these kids.”

Cotter and her colleagues are making the mentor program work virtually. But it's not better than direct contact. That contact is key for the development of some students.

“Most of us just need someone who's going to listen,” Cotter said. “We're all yearning for communication. Any communication is helpful.”

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Samantha Beal

Samantha Beal