Class During Covid: Adapting to the mental health needs of middle school students

NBC15′s Amy Pflugshaupt checks in with Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie to see the changes they are making to make sure students’ needs are met during virtual learning.
Published: Dec. 23, 2020 at 2:04 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -“I miss my friends.”

It’s the most common feedback teachers and staff are getting from students in the Sun Prairie School District after four months of virtual learning. Social isolation is having an impact on their mental health, but to what extent?

Lorelie Gauger is a seventh grader at Patrick Marsh Middle School. When asked to sum up her experience of a “COVID-era” education, she thought long and hard and came up with suspenseful.

“Because I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” said Gauger. “I don’t know if I’ll get to go back to school this year or the beginning of next year. It’s kind of a big question of what is going to happen.”

At a time when there are more questions than answers, teachers, staff and administrators in Sun Prairie are working overtime to meet the needs of students.

“As teachers, we’re in the people business,” said Doug Maughan, a seventh-grade science and social studies teacher at Patrick Marsh Middle School. “The better connections we make with kids, the more we’re willing to listen and understand them and respect them the more we’re going to get out of them when it comes to learning.”

Once a week, teachers and staff have team meetings to review students needs. It’s not just academic needs, but behaviorally, socially and emotionally. Dr. Lauren Meyer is the school’s psychologist and said these meetings are vital so they can keep on top of any concerns that may arise with students and families. She works closely with the school counselors, social workers and administration to make sure mental health is always at the forefront – especially now since students are learning from home.

“We’ve been very thoughtful on our universal supports,” said Dr. Meyer. “We’re implementing a social emotional curriculum this year where we are choosing a theme each month based on what we are seeing with students and then building lessons around that theme.”

In November, the theme was resiliency. Dr. Meyer said teachers and staff are working hard to make these social emotion learning lessons (SELs) part of the curriculum and not just an isolated lesson.

In addition to the expanded curriculum, the district is also doing:

  • A rolling log into zoom, meaning teachers join the meeting early to have those touch base moments with students. This is similar to what they would do when they stand in the hallway outside of their doors and talk with students as they walked into the classroom. For example, “How was your weekend?”
  • Virtual shout-outs, called Panther Paws, are sent out to students and parents recognizing a job well done.
  • Reminding students to unplug. Teachers are encouraging students to try something new, get outside and more.
  • Regular surveys and check-ins with students and parents. Teachers and staff want to know, “Do you need a check-in with a student service member?” “Do you feel connected at school?”
This is an example of the virtual shout outs teachers send to parents and students after a job...
This is an example of the virtual shout outs teachers send to parents and students after a job well done. It's called "Panther Paws."(Dr. Lauren Meyer)

Dr. Meyer said this feedback allows them to keep a pulse on the situation with students and their families. The feedback is also giving Dr. Meyer and the rest of the staff a sign of hope that these students are resilient.

“Students are really showing they are capable of responding to all the demands placed on them in this COVID world,” said Dr. Meyer. “There’s more autonomy expected. Middle School students are showing they are capable of doing this.”

Even though students are showing positive signs of balancing all the changes during COVID, Dr. Meyer said, “We can’t be sure of the long-term effects of virtual learning on students’ mental health.” This is why staff are offering several options and continuing to brainstorm new ideas to reach every students where they are.

Now more than ever, teachers are encouraging parents to keep an open dialogue with their children. Maughan, a father of three, suggests checking in daily. While you may only get one or two word answers, he believes that check-in, now more than ever, is so important.

“They might act like they don’t want you involved, but deep down inside they do,” said Maughan. “If can give them a chance to open up and just let them be themselves, I think you are doing your kid a big positive.”

If you’re looking for a great place to have a conversation with your your kids, he recommends jumping in the car and going for a car ride. It’s a good “phone-free” space and allows both the parent and child to be present in the conversation.

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