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By Laura Keys, Vice President of Social Work & Programs -November 3, 2020-

Well, here we are – still in the midst of a pandemic, mostly back in school, mostly back at work, but not quite back to normal.

Most Hoosier children returned to school by Labor Day. Some schools have had to close intermittently because of staff and students testing positive for COVID-19, but all of them are trying very hard to stay open.

It’s no question that students benefit from in-person learning. Schools also recognize that some students do not have the support and consistency in food, nurturing, and shelter at home. Youth First partners with over 90 schools across the state of Indiana, and I am here to tell you, educators are focusing on two things right now: 1) making the most of the days school buildings are open, and 2) engaging with and checking on the students who aren’t showing up.

Educators are teaching at a rapid pace, and the worry over potential school building closures is taking its toll on teachers, students, and parents. It’s also affecting student achievement. School personnel know only too well about the “summer slide,” that time when students are out for a couple months and not being challenged with the rigor of steady schoolwork.

Well, the pandemic has essentially doubled the “summer slide.” From March to August 2020, there was not a structured rigor of academics that kept our students fresh and ready to learn. I’ve heard from countless parents and teachers that students who were making A’s and B’s are now making C’s and sometimes D’s. Most students did not return to school ready to learn.

One may assume I’m mentioning this decline to recommend applying extra pressure on students in order to meet the academic standards that were lost over the past few months. Shouldn’t we push them to do just a little more so that they don’t continue to lose language arts and math skills?

No, quite the opposite! At the beginning of the school closures in March, we stressed that parents should give themselves some grace while trying to juggle at-home learning along with many other stressors. We need to extend the same grace to students right now.

The toll that this pandemic has taken on children’s mental health has been well-documented. Separation from friends and family, disruption in routine, and the fact that there is no clear end in sight all impact the mental wellness of students.

Those pressures, combined with the doubled “summer slide,” should give us a pretty clear indication of why students may be behind. Take it from a mother and a mental health professional, your kids will catch up. Students will gain ground once the ground beneath them is steadier.

Although schoolwork is important, it is not the most important thing. Caring, nurturing environments for kids are the most important thing right now. In my opinion, children need to be allowed to skip some beats on schoolwork and teachers need to be allowed to let them. We really need to take care of everyone right now, not put more pressure on them.

Kids are resilient and capable, and as long as they feel loved at the end of the day, especially with some extra grace sprinkled in there, they will turn out just fine.

By Laura Keys – Courier & Press – December 19, 2017 –

Have you ever noticed that no matter what happens in some people’s lives, they are able to maintain a relatively positive attitude and see the silver lining in each situation?

They see the opportunity in a challenging dilemma, and they appreciate what they have, even in the face of loss. That doesn’t happen by accident.

Fortunately, a positive attitude can be developed with a little practice. The brain is a muscle, and you can strengthen your mind’s natural tendency toward optimism if you work at it.

This is not just good practice for our mental health but for our spiritual health as well. Many different faiths emphasize the importance of thankfulness, especially as a form of prayer. Eckhart Toelle said, “If the only prayer you ever say is ‘Thank You,’ that will be enough.”

Thankfulness doesn’t always come easily, but it is at those times that we need to seek out gratitude the most.

One of the ways we can train our brain in thankfulness is keeping a gratitude journal. In one study, psychologist Jeffrey Froh at Hofstra University asked students to write in gratitude journals each day for two weeks.

Students were asked to write down things they felt thankful for on a daily basis. Three weeks later, the students who counted their blessings reported feeling more optimistic, more satisfied with their lives and had more school satisfaction.

Froh explained the results this way: “It’s beyond feeling good, and beyond happiness… we found that grateful kids tend to report less physical complaints; but also in the adult literature they found that grateful people who counted blessings were more likely to exercise, more likely to report better sleep, less likely to report these physical complaints.”

 Researchers Robert Emmons and Michael McCollough also found many positive effects of keeping gratitude journals. Among the benefits were:
  • Being more likely to make progress on personal goals
  • Higher levels of alertness, enthusiasm and energy
  • Reporting having helped someone else or offered emotional support
  • Children reporting more positive attitudes toward school and their families
  • Adults with neuromuscular disease felt more optimistic about life and slept better

Twenty-one days is the time it takes to form a new habit. Now is an ideal time, as we prepare for the coming year and celebrate the holidays. It is a time to take stock of how we want our new year to unfold, and it’s a time to make promises to ourselves about improvement and renewal.

A different new year challenge than working on our outsides (gym memberships, new diets) would be to start with our insides (our hearts and minds). A gratitude journal could be just the thing to increase our compassion, optimism and humility.

Make this a part of your new year’s renewal. Select a special logbook that can be written in each day. At the beginning or end of the day, write down five things that make you feel grateful and thankful. You may feel like drawing a picture or attaching photos that mean something special to you. In any case, write down five items each day for three weeks.

If you have trouble getting started, think about simple or even obvious things like running water, your favorite song, coffee, that it snowed (or didn’t) today or experiencing another sunrise.

Once the list gets started, it’s easy to add items. At the end of three weeks, spend some time reflecting on the material you gathered. Meet a friend for lunch or coffee, and share your gratitude.

For more information on the benefits of gratitude see   happierhuman.com/benefits-of-gratitude/.

By Laura Keys, LCSW, Courier & Press, Sept. 19, 2017 –

If you are the parent or caregiver of a young child, you have most likely experienced the dreaded meltdown or temper tantrum.  You also know it is  not  a  delightful experience  for you or your child.

Children do not like to feel out of control or unsafe, which is often what is occurring during a meltdown.  If you are new to the game of parenting or caregiving, these meltdowns or tantrums do not magically end when kids leave the “terrible twos” and turn three.  In some cases, they can continue through a child’s early elementary years.

However, for most kids and their parents or caregivers there is relief.  There are a few things you can do to help speed or at least ease the process and build your child’s self-esteem at the same time.

One of my favorite books to recommend to parents is  “No More Meltdowns,”  by Jed Baker, Ph.D.   I like this book because he uses examples where he, as both a therapist and parent, has sometimes struggled or had to try different approaches before finding the right one for his client or his own child.   In both cases, he keeps trying until he finds success.

 This is a reminder that no one is perfect.  Each child is different, and what works for one child may not work for the next child.  He also gives practical, common-sense advice.

For example, see if there is a time pattern or specific trigger before a meltdown occurs.  Is your child hungry or tired because of a missed snack or nap?  Are they off their normal routine for some reason?  Does your child always have a tantrum when you buy a birthday present for another child?

Once you identify the problem you can avoid the trigger in the future.  As your child becomes older and more communicative these will become teachable moments.  Not only will you be trying to avoid uncomfortable tantrums for you and your child, you will be teaching them the beginning steps of self-problem solving.

If a slightly older child has issues with homework such as math, always start with a few problems they can work successfully.  This will give them confidence before moving on to problems they are struggling with.  Always praise their efforts.

Yes, you want them to develop their skills, but if they feel they are mentally or emotionally defeated before they even get started on a task, it increases the likelihood they will get frustrated, give up, shut down or turn the situation into a power struggle.  Power struggles can cause a meltdown for both you and your child.

Trying to reason with a child during a meltdown does not usually work.  The child’s reasoning capabilities are most likely not engaged at this point.  The goal at this point is to soothe and comfort.   This does not mean giving in; it means keeping the child from hurting himself or others.  Remember that children with certain conditions will be more difficult to help through tantrums than others.

In emergency situations, Dr. Baker recommends distraction.  However, he cautions not to use this all the time as the child will learn this as their primary coping skill.  As they get older they may learn that distraction is a way to avoid doing what they don’t want to do, (i.e. math problems).

Hopefully, this article is a reminder to parents that you are not alone; there are resources available if you are interested or feel you need assistance.  Dr. Baker’s book is just the tip of the iceberg.

Also, remember, throwing a good tantrum is part of a toddler’s job and a parent’s rite-of-passage.  And yes, despite everyone’s best efforts, sometimes you buy the toy and leave the store or exit the restaurant as quickly as possible.