By Kelly McClarnon, LCSW – December 29, 2021 –

Christmas break is underway! As a Youth First Social Worker, I have met with several students who have difficulty transitioning back to the classroom after weekends and school breaks. My observation is that many of these kids also struggle with feelings of anxiety.

The pandemic has caused many children to complete schoolwork from home due to school closures, quarantines, and parental choice to avoid exposure to the virus. Spending long periods of time at home in a more relaxed environment is much different than a structured school setting with increased rules and expectations. At school, increased peer interaction can amplify these feelings of anxiousness in some children. 

Below is a list of things parents can do when their child is having difficulty transitioning back to school:

  1. Have a consistent routine at home. Children thrive on routine. Making sure they know what’s coming next can help kids feel more secure and make transitions smoother.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest. When children feel tired, transitions can become more difficult. Being rested is essential to optimal school functioning and improved mood and mental health.
  • Talk with them in the car on the way to school or before they leave. Ask them how they are feeling. Try to avoid leading questions like, “Are you anxious about going to school today?” Instead, try saying, “How are you feeling today?” This gives them the opportunity to identify how they are feeling and process those feelings prior to arriving.
  • Try listening to uplifting music, talking, or praying to distract them from negative thoughts. If your child rides the bus, allow them to take a journal with positive messages they can read on the way to school. 
  • Reassure your child that it’s not actually the situation (school) that’s causing them to feel scared, nervous, or anxious – it’s the thoughts they have about it. 
  • Sometimes kids have legitimate reasons to want to avoid going to school such as problems with other peers, mental health concerns, and learning disabilities/academic struggles that make it difficult for them to keep up in school. Addressing these issues can lessen a child’s fears by knowing they have the necessary supports to help them succeed.
  • Do not allow them to stay home from school even if they are having a difficult morning. This will only reinforce that avoiding school is acceptable when feeling upset and will make it even more difficult for them to go the next time school is in session.
  • Praise your child when they transition to school successfully. Encourage them that facing their fears will actually reduce their anxiety in the long run. Teach them that uncomfortable feelings and emotions will pass.

Some difficulty with transitions is completely normal. It’s even hard for adults to go back to work after some time off. However, if you are having continual issues with your student transitioning to school, contact the school social worker. They are there to help identify why your child is struggling and will help you address this difficulty.

By Sarah Audu, LSW – December 22, 2021 –

Grief is often viewed as a sensitive subject, for obvious reasons. It is something we tend to maneuver around with caution. This is likely because each person experiences some form of grief in their lifetime, and we as humans are empathetic towards each other.

We want to handle each other’s struggles and emotions with care. An even more fragile subject to consider is the grief of a child. It is our human nature to want to be gentle and cautious when helping a child who is experiencing something difficult in their life. This can lead to us being hesitant for fear of saying the wrong thing as we try to support them.

Losing a loved one is not the only form of grief a child may experience. Grief can be the emotional result of many scenarios, such as a child’s parents getting a divorce or a best friend moving away. These difficult situations produce hard emotions for the child, because they are experiencing change, pain, and loss. When a child experiences these changes, he/she must learn to cope in the the best ways they know how.

The holiday season is supposed to be a joyous time for all. However, many people dread this time of year due to the pain and grief they are feeling inside. One child may be struggling this holiday season because this is the first year her family will be celebrating Christmas without her father, who suddenly passed away. Another child may be trying to cope with their mother living across the country, confused and unsure when they will get to see mom again.

Every person deals with grief, pain, and loss differently. Experiencing depression, anxiety, and sadness is often viewed as the “normal” emotional reaction to grief. However, some people may state they feel alright most of the time. It may be more healing and beneficial for them to go through their daily routine as they did before, and deal with the painful stings of grief as they arise.

Children are very resilient. They are commonly much stronger than we imagine them to be, especially while facing a challenging situation that has caused them emotional pain. Something we can do to ease the pain of grieving children during the holidays is to follow their lead in conversation and pay close attention to how they are handling their emotions. They may surprise you and show exactly what they need from you in that moment.

Some children may want to deal with their grief in this season by continuing with past traditions and including their loved ones in a new way. Children may also want to start different traditions and create new memories.

What we know for sure is that children have big hearts, and this season gives us a wonderful opportunity to hold them a little closer and give them the support they need during challenging times.

By Julie Hoon, Vice President of Philanthropy – December 16, 2021 –

The busy holiday season brings many priorities, and our mental health does not always earn a spot at the top of the list. However, gratitude and giving can have a direct link to improved health, increased happiness, and infinite joy…especially this time of year.

As a fundraiser for Youth First, I hear story after story about the joy that comes from giving. Our donors experience feelings of connectedness, wellness, and life satisfaction when they make a donation to Youth First, because they are giving to a cause they care about. They are helping kids thrive and positively impacting the future of their community.

In fact, gratitude and giving are contagious, as I was recently reminded by Youth First donors James and Diane VanCleave. James and Diane have a heartfelt Christmas gift for one another that impacts kids and avoids the hectic hustle and bustle of the holiday rush: they each make a donation to Youth First in honor of their spouse.

“There was nothing material we could give each other that we didn’t have,” says Diane about their Christmas ritual, “so one year, James said he was making a donation to Youth First for Christmas on my behalf. I immediately said that I would like to do the same.” Years later, their gifts to Youth First have become a holiday tradition. James makes the first donation in honor of Diane, and then Diane makes her donation in honor of James.

James, an Evansville Police Department officer who worked as a school liaison officer for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation after retirement, says he saw firsthand the value of Youth First Social Workers as an intervention for students to talk to rather than a police officer getting involved. Diane, a social worker who worked with Youth First founder Dr. Bill Wooten at the Mulberry Center early in her career, says social workers and teachers are making a change for kids and influencing lives. She says, “It just makes sense to support this work.”

Gratitude and giving can cause delightful spillover effects. When donating to a cause you love, you might see the ripple effect in your life from family, to friends, to work, and to yourself. Giving brings about a sense of gratitude for what we’ve been blessed with, along with happiness and joy in knowing you are helping others. Studies highlight an association with well-being and gratitude, resulting in fewer doctor’s visits, taking better care of self, and improved relationships. With giving, many people experience greater satisfaction in life, reduced stress, and a healthier outlook in general, both physically and mentally. 

Perhaps this season your holiday list may include giving to a charity you love? If so, I can assure you that joy and happiness will follow. Our community thrives and so does your mental health. James and Diane certainly agree that their Christmas gifts of giving to Youth First are a natural extension from their hearts to give back to their community. “Plus, it’s the perfect gift,” adds James. “It always fits and you will never have to return it!” 

A $10,000 grant award was presented to Youth First, Inc. by The Community Foundation of Morgan County on Tuesday, December 7. The grant will allow continued support for students at Bell Intermediate Academy in Martinsville and Paul Hadley Middle School in Mooresville. Youth First partners with 105 schools across 12 Indiana counties to embed skilled social workers in school buildings, where they become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers. Youth First Social Workers build caring relationships, foster readiness for positive change, and boost resiliency along with other valuable life skills.

Research shows these protective factors are the keys to preventing addiction, suicide, violence, and similar outcomes for young people. The organization’s positive outcomes are driving growth, with more schools seeking Youth First’s help to address the mental health needs of students and best equip them for success.

Ryan Setterlof, Principal of Bell Intermediate Academy says, “Our Youth First Social Worker has really made connections with our students and their families to meet their needs. It’s a huge support system, for not only our students, but for the families and our staff as well. We’re very thankful to have Youth First in our building.” 


By Kelsey Hagemeier, LSW – December 8, 2021 –

The focus of the last year has been about the many ways that COVID-19 is continuously affecting our daily lives. At some points this year, it started to feel like we were getting closer to the sense of normalcy we’ve craved since the pandemic started.

But here we are, with the holiday season quickly approaching and new COVID cases and variants threatening many of our holiday plans and schedules.

It’s easy to feel disappointed by this. It’s another holiday season COVID is “taking from us” in many ways. I’d like to invite you to look at the situation from a different perspective. This ongoing pandemic is giving us another unique opportunity to bring ourselves back to the basics and examine what truly makes the holidays meaningful.

The reality is, this year probably isn’t going to be the same as pre-COVID times. It’s frustrating, and I get it. We are all tired. Instead of letting these feelings consume us, we can take the opportunity for a little rest and reset and make the best of the cards we’ve been dealt.

Last year, gathering with vulnerable loved ones was not an option for many families. This year, more families have the opportunity to gather safely with the aid of vaccines and boosters. This is the perfect opportunity to create new family traditions and reflect on what is really important to each of us this time of the year.

We can teach our children the importance of helping and supporting those who might be going without again this year. This holiday season is an opportunity to make a positive impact on those we know who are struggling.

Your family can write letters (like old school, “put a stamp on it” letters) to people you care about wishing them a happy holiday season. Letting people know you are there for them during these difficult times is more important than ever.  

Maybe you can start a new tradition like baking cookies, playing a family board game, or making gratitude lists. With our families, chosen and given, we can embrace this change. We can demonstrate the importance of resiliency, creativity, and connections with others to our children and communities this winter.

There is so much about 2021 that has been difficult for us – as a community, a nation, and a world. This holiday season does not have to be one of them.

Kelsey Hagemeier , LSW, is a Youth First Social Worker at Bosse High School in Vanderburgh County. Youth First, Inc. is a nonprofit dedicated to strengthening youth and families. Youth First provides 78 Master’s level social workers to 105 schools in 12 Indiana counties. Over 60,000 youth and families per year are served by Youth First’s school social work and after school programs that prevent substance abuse, promote healthy behaviors, and maximize student success. To learn more about Youth First, visit or call 812-421-8336.

By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, LCSW – December 1, 2021-

With the holidays quickly approaching, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement and drain yourself financially. Often, we center our ideas about holidays around gifts, especially at Christmas time. I know this is something I have been guilty of in the past.

Every year I make a pledge to myself to cut back, but then the time comes and I feel like I’m not giving my family enough. The truth is, when we look back on gifts we’ve received, those aren’t the memories we hold dear. Our traditions are what make the holidays special.

Giving up the notion that our children need the latest toys, the coolest tech, and the trendiest new fashions isn’t easy. This can happen because we want to make our kids happy, but mostly because marketers and advertisers do a really good job training our psyche to believe we need material items.

When shopping for gifts, make a point to ask yourself, “Does this fit in with my holiday goals?” or “Does my child need this?” before purchasing an item. Asking yourself these questions can open an inner dialog and help prevent overspending.

The first step in creating a simpler holiday season is to discuss your goals with your partner or family. Decide what is important to you and what the holidays mean to you as a unit. Write down your main goal, whether it is to spend less, give more, or create new traditions. Do this early and hold each other accountable as you get closer to the season.

Another idea is to center your gifts on experiences, not items. Our happiest memories are almost always about things we’ve done, not items we’ve received. Memberships to places in or around your community are always great, and as a bonus, they’re gifts the whole family can experience together.

Lastly, don’t forget about your favorite childhood traditions. Take this opportunity to share with your children some of your fondest holiday traditions. For me, it’s cookie baking day and making gingerbread houses. These are two separate family traditions we continue to this day. I have loved introducing them to my own kids.

These traditions don’t have to be expensive. It can be reading your favorite book together, making cookies, or watching a holiday movie. Holidays can be full of joy and magic without having an excessive number of gifts under the tree. The magic comes in the memories you make together.

Talk to your family about ways you can make your holidays even more meaningful by cutting out some of the excess. The memories you make will be worth the changes.