middle and lower school students on campus with parentsAt Mounds Park Academy, our community is built upon shared values, strongly committed to freethinking and collaboration, diversity and connection. Right now, our shared commitment to each other is helping us collectively get through today’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion. Our whole-child approach that attends to the intellectual, social and emotional growth of our students is apparent now more than ever, even though we are not physically together.

MPA’s distance learning classes are continuing to challenge and engage our students intellectually (see example at Innovation & Student-led Learning Enhance Online Science at MPA). At the same time, our students are connected to each other and their teachers—and to our school counselors, a critical lifeline to both our students and parents who are guiding us on how to persevere during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our connected community, built on our small classes, means that our children are known and understood, which is critical given current levels of stress, fear and uncertainty, as is our collective creativity to meet the social, emotional, and intellectual needs of our students.

Ashley Cooper is the Middle and Upper School counselor, and is a licensed professional clinical counselor. In many schools a role like Cooper’s focuses at least in part on college counseling. But MPA has a dedicated director of college counseling, Lisa Pederson.

Consequently, Cooper focuses “purely on the social and emotional health of MPA students,” and feels “lucky” to dedicate her time to this critical role. Dr. Jules Nolan, a licensed, nationally certified school psychologist and president of Minnesota’s Association of School Psychologists, concentrates her support and guidance on parents and faculty, though she works directly with students as well. The expertise that Cooper and Nolan bring has been invaluable during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental Health Awareness Month Activities

Cooper took particular care designing this year’s programs for May’s Mental Health Awareness Month given the current reality.

“Overall, I have been so impressed with our students and their ability to adapt and stay engaged in an online learning environment and to be respectful with their technology,” says Cooper. “In many ways the kids have enjoyed the break from their highly involved and scheduled lives, as one of the benefits of MPA is that you can be a three-sport athlete, an accomplished musician and strong student.”

But as social distancing continues, Cooper sees the social isolation piece “kicking in,” given their developmental desire to be with their friends.

“Many students are struggling with how to connect and find time with their friends,” says Cooper. “We have to brace ourselves for how long-term isolation will impact them and do what we can to support them.”

For Cooper’s part, she initiated these efforts for Mental Health Awareness Month and recommends that students and parents pursue similar activities into the summer months, if possible.

  • A mental health lunch talk with Upper School students, a facilitated group Zoom chat over lunch to check in on how students are feeling and sharing self-care strategies.
  • The creation of a self-care plan that outlined ways students can take care of themselves.
  • Digital wellness tips for students to uncover ways to find balance in using technology and screen time.
  • Conversation cards to encourage students to talk to their parents and friends about their feelings and mental health, and to reflect on their day.
  • The introduction of the MPA Virtual Chill Room (a website that includes links to virtual calm-down activities.
  • Discussion and development of healthy routines and mood tracking.
  • Completion of daily gratitude journals and journaling prompts.
  • Story sharing of people who are living with mental health conditions.

 A Collective Push To The End

“We’re on mile 22 of a marathon,” says Nolan, “and to get to the end, we need to cheer for our kids and ourselves. We all perform better when we are coached in a positive way, not lectured or scolded. We don’t get to the finish line by being critiqued, but by being recognized for the huge undertaking.”

Dealing with COVID-19 and all that entails is a huge undertaking, and we’re all exhausted. But our neurocircuitry strengthens when we’re under stress, according to Nolan. So while the current situation is hard, we’re growing our brains. On January 2, 2020, we posted an article titled, “Bumpy Roads Build Skills” that prominently featured Nolan’s advice in this area. Little did we know at the time how high those bumps would be! Consider your skills built.

As she did at the start of the calendar year and the beginning of COVID-19, Nolan has some advice for us as we close out the academic year and transition to summer.

  • Manage the conflict, not the producing. If keeping the momentum to close out the school year causes too much conflict, let go of that need to produce and achieve and manage the conflict with compassion and a coaching mindset. Grades under the current situation do not necessarily measure what students learned, but rather how well they adapted to online learning.
  • Lower your expectations. Across MPA, we are high achievers with high expectations for ourselves and for our students and children. Nolan recommends that we lower them and focus on small victories. “We tend to beat ourselves up on the little things and not celebrate the big things,” says Nolan. “We need to catch ourselves when that negative self-talk starts, sit in that moment and keep our expectations in check.”
  • Practice a little self-care every day. “Self-care can feel like yet another thing we’re not doing right,” says Nolan. So she breaks “self-care” into four areas and encourages us to do one small thing in each of those areas every day. The four areas are: physical, emotional, cognitive and social or spiritual. Physical is the most obvious and familiar to most of us. Emotional self-care helps you become skillful with your emotions, and can be recognizing emotional upset and allowing yourself to feel that way. Cognitive self-care involves participating in activities that give you a feeling of flow, where time goes by really fast and you’re engaged in that activity such as a hobby, a craft or athletic pursuit. “Engaging in that moment of flow builds the part of the brain that manages emotion,” says Nolan. Social or spiritual self-care might be prayer or meditation or calling a friend.
  • Consider the legacy of this time. Nolan encourages us to think about what our children will say about this time when they’re grown and telling stories to their own kids. Let thoughts of those reflections guide you in how you approach this period of our lives. Ask your children how they will describe this time when they’re older? “Having kids reflect in this way helps them process what they’re feeling and gets them to look beyond what is crummy now,” says Nolan.
  • Protect their self-esteem by challenging them. We build self-esteem by achieving things when there is a struggle, when we work through frustration. According to Nolan, “Our kids will best get through this if they have some choice in what they do; if they work toward a greater good or on behalf of others; if they have fun and have social interactions, which can be with family; and if they learn to talk about their feelings and emotions.”
  • Embrace boredom—it sparks imagination. Research shows that over-lessoned children have lower self-esteem. There is value in boredom and downtime, as it sparks creativity and imagination. “We need to be less busy than we were prior to COVID-19,” says Nolan. “Unfortunately, parents today feel like we’re not doing a good job if our kids aren’t involved in multiple activities, like we’re not doing it right if not overscheduled.” We all need downtime.
  • Brainstorm ideas for the summer. Ask your child, “What would make you feel like you had a good summer?” and “What kinds of things would you like to learn about or do?” Then, together you can pare down the list into what is possible given state guidelines and what is acceptable given your family’s rules. The process will help build kids’ resiliency, as they need to deal with the world that is, and not the world we try to make for them.
  • Determine ways to reintegrate seeing friends. An Upper School parent had a “6-5-4 party” with the relaxing of social-distancing restrictions. The kids were six feet apart on blankets with masks on, there were five friends, and they shared four pizzas. The blankets helped the kids see the physical boundary of six feet, as their personal boundaries tend to be tight and small. “Kids are not great at body awareness and crave physical touch, which is why they’re always playfully touching and punching each other,” says Nolan. “If it’s possible, give more physical touches to your children if it’s not weird or off putting, as they’re craving that physical touch.”
  • Recognize that other parents will have different rules. All parents will have different rules and approaches to social distancing, and it’s important not to shame other parents, particularly during this stressful time. Explain it in a way that they’re used to hearing you talk about how your family rules related to technology or curfews may differ from those of other families, recommends Nolan.
  • Find the fun. Laughter, fun and strong family connections protect us during periods of chronic stress. Pursue or uncover things that you like to do together as a family. Think about what you liked to do as a child during the summer and share those experiences with your children. Create yard Olympics or camp in your backyard, explore a new park trail or try a new activity as a family.
  • Know it’s okay for kids to be sad. Parents often worry that when their child is sad and depressed it will lead to an anxiety disorder. “It is perfectly appropriate for our kids to be sad, and we should let them know that it’s okay not to be okay,” says Nolan. “Acknowledge the afraid and help them be brave, as enduring hard feelings helps with their emotional development.”
  • Embrace sibling connections. Our kids are learning about the importance of connectedness in families that is likely to carry them through their lives. Recently, Nolan’s daughter, now in her 20s, reflected on a time when the family lived in China, and she was walking down a street alongside her brother. It occurred to her at that moment that he was the only person in the entire country that she could talk to and that they needed to cooperate to keep each other safe. And cooperation was far from the norm for the two siblings, who were only 18 months apart and “fought a lot growing up,” according to Nolan

Cooper has three additional recommendations:

  • Recognize the benefit of discomfort. Controlled discomfort builds resiliency. Cooper encourages us to “be okay with who we are in the world right now” and at the same time “be open to new possibilities, even if it causes discomfort.” Learning to experience discomfort—and work through it—pushes us to grow and to gain new skills.
  • Do something different every day. Cooper is challenging students to ask themselves what’s one thing that they can do that’s different. Call one different friend. Pick up their instrument and learn one new song. “Doing just one different thing a day helps keep life novel and creative,” says Cooper. “Plus, it focuses on taking one day at a time.”
  • Fight the desire to make a plan. Uncertainty reigns right now, and it’s hard to plan for the future with constantly changing information. “What we know is what we have right in front of us today,” says Cooper. “We have to have something that we can predict and control to buffer against long-term stress, so focusing on the here and now is critical.” Cooper says that social connection and building mastery are two other critical ways to buffer stress, elements that mirror Nolan’s recommendations.

All In This Together

At MPA, our strong community is getting us through this challenging time, guided by the professional expertise and tremendous insight of Cooper and Nolan. We are so fortunate to have them on the MPA team, and appreciate all that they are doing for us right now. Together we are growing, learning and building resilience in our children—and in ourselves.

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