By Ashley Underwood, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

How does one describe a traumatic event? Traumatic is defined as “emotionally disturbing or distressing,” which can vary from person to person, so that question has many answers.

“Adverse Childhood Experience” is a term that refers to various forms of trauma individuals may experience in childhood. This includes experiencing violence, abuse or neglect, witnessing violence in the home or community, having a family member attempt or die by suicide, growing up in a household with substance use problems or mental health problems, or instability due to parental separation or incarcerated family members.

According to the CDC, about 61% of adults surveyed across 25 states reported they had experienced at least one type of ACE before age 18, and nearly 1 in 6 reported they had experienced four or more types of ACEs.

There is a direct link between ACEs and physical health. Unfortunately, for each adverse child experience, there is an increased risk of chronic health issues. Center for Youth Wellness shares that those individuals experiencing 4 or more ACEs are associated with significantly increased risk for 7 out of 10 leading adult causes of death, including heart disease, stroke, cancer, COPD, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and suicide.

There is also significant detriment that can occur to a child’s brain when experiencing that amount of stress. Experiencing ACEs can impact attention span, memory, stress response, immune system, emotion regulation, decision making skills, and overall learning. We see many of these issues in the school setting on a daily basis, and sadly, it is related to the amount of trauma our children have experienced.

What can we do to help? Prevention is key. The CDC recommends the following six strategies for helping to prevent ACEs:

  • Strengthen economic support for families. This includes churches, community organizations, and non-profits helping with financial distress as well as employers providing adequate pay, time off, and benefits for employees.
  • Promote social norms that protect against violence and adversity. Work to create safe spaces for children and adults to talk about mental health challenges and reinforce the motto, “See something, say something” for children in regards to acts of violence, bullying, abuse, etc.
  • Ensure a strong start for children. This can include funding early education programs for families with affordable options, as well as increasing in-home learning options for parents.
  • Teach skills. Allow programs in schools that promote and teach emotional regulation, conflict resolution, social skills, and boundaries.
  • Connect youth to caring adults and activities. “Every kid is one caring adult away from being a success story.” -Josh Shipp

Get kids involved in mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters, encourage teachers to put them in leadership roles at school, have them join after school activities like choir, intramurals, or scouting.

  • Intervene to lessen immediate and long-term harms. Educate the public on ACEs, the risk factors, and the support available including treatment options, resource assistance, and organizations that promote these things.

Let’s do our part! For more information about the ACEs, check out https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/index.html

By Brandi McCord, Youth First, Inc.

As parents, we always strive to provide for our kids and guide them to become successful adults. During adolescence, the brain grows at a rapid rate and continues to mature until the age of 25. In that time, there are factors that can help brain growth and others that can hinder development.

Let’s dive into some steps we can take as parents to support our teens’ healthy brain development.

  1. Build a balanced home life. Just like outside environmental factors, the home environment can highly affect a teen’s well-being. As parents, we should be loving and supportive to our kids. This includes providing rules and instilling moral behaviors.
  1. Provide healthy experiences. Getting teens involved with a range of activities, hobbies, and experiences can also positively impact brain development. This could include suggesting your teen try out a new sport, having them create some artwork, or even encouraging them to join a club at school.
  1. Establish good sleep habits. Did you know that teens need more sleep than children and adults? Yes, you heard that right. Melatonin levels increase later in the night and drop early in the morning for teens. This explains why teens want to stay up late and then struggle to get up out of bed the next morning. Teens need an average of 9-10 hours of sleep a night. Try and stick with a routine to help unwind from the day. Taking electronics, such as the cell phone, out of their room can also help your teen get more sleep. They may not be happy about it, but just remember it is to help them grow!
  1. Encourage an active lifestyle.  Most of us know that exercise provides many benefits and additional energy! You can use physical activity to bond with your teen by taking a family walk or helping them find physical hobbies they enjoy.
  1. Offer healthy options. Brains need nourishment from a healthy, balanced diet. Try to help your teen avoid junk food and increase their intake of healthy foods like fruits and veggies. These nutrients help the brain thrive and develop.
  1. Develop a plan to manage stress. When your brain gets stressed, it does not develop appropriately. Work with your teen on developing a stress plan to keep the stress levels at a minimum. It’s helpful to find a plan that works for you too! Relaxation techniques such as yoga and mindfulness, along with healthy outlets like reading and writing can help reduce stress levels.
  1. Protect the brain from injury. Safety and protection are key for a brain to grow and mature. Encourage helmet safety and the use of seatbelt, along with discouraging use of harmful substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.). Teens are always looking for guidance and will look to you to help them. This is a great opportunity to model healthy behaviors.

Giving Tuesday is a day of global generosity. Whether it is time, money, or advocacy, Giving Tuesday inspires us to give back to the causes close to our hearts.

What a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Youth First’s programs and services and the positive impact they have on over 50,000 students across Indiana!

Learn more about Giving Tuesday at givingtuesday.org. You can make a donation to Youth First at our Donate Page at youthfirstinc.org/donate.

By Jennifer Kramer, MSW, LCSW, Youth First, Inc.

I once had a student say to me, “I thought death only happens to people when they get old.” What a world that would be, where everyone got to live long, happy lives.

The reality is that loss is very much part of life. Grief is an experience all people will have, and it is something we all must learn. 

I think about my own life before the age of 18. I lost a great-grandmother at age six as well as our next-door neighbor. In middle school, my grandmother passed from cancer in my home. A friend my age passed away in high school in a car accident. As a school social worker, I realize these experiences shaped so much of how I help students handle loss. As much as we would like to shield kids from the heartbreak of grief, our goal should be to help them move through it.

Sometimes we forget that our children are exposed to the concept of death at a very young age. Many Disney movies center on the loss of an important family member: Coco, Encanto, Frozen, The Lion King, and Moana, just to name a few.

These movies all show different ways individuals and families heal after a loss. Watching these movies and starting conversations with your children about loss (even if your family hasn’t experienced this) can help them understand loss and be empathetic to others who may be experiencing feelings of grief.

We hear a lot about the stages of grief, but what are they? The stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is no order in which a person should grieve. In fact, it is not uncommon for a person to be in one stage for a moment, move to another, and back again. Children go through the same stages of grief that adults do, but it may look different. It is not uncommon for a child to go from crying to playing in a matter of minutes. 

Where children move through the same stages as adults, they will most likely express themselves in very different ways. The website verywellfamily.com discusses different ways a child may grieve, including new academic problems, anxiety, behavioral reactions, changes in play, clinginess, developmental regression, difficulty concentrating, feelings of abandonment, guilt, or sleeping problems.

Changes in play may look like action figures, dolls or stuffed animals dying during play and then coming back to life. Your child may also blame themselves for the death of the loved one. Young children can sense the feelings of their parents and may become more irritable, and slightly older elementary age children may revert to crawling or baby talk. 

It is important to talk to children on their level. Answer the questions they ask, but don’t divulge too much information.   

Be understanding that these behaviors are normal. Be supportive of your children. Show them love and give them the space and time to feel their feelings. It is also a good idea to ask for help if you feel you need it yourself.

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Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation is investing in mental health support for Indiana youth. The organization has awarded a gift of $100,000 per year for three years to Youth First, Inc. to strengthen the mental health and well-being of Indiana students.

The award was celebrated with a check presentation on Monday, October 24, during the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation’s School Board meeting. Representatives from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation and Youth First were in attendance, as well as EVSC Superintendent Dr. David Smith and the EVSC School Board.

This significant gift from Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation, along with funding from other sources, will enable Youth First to provide school-based social work services and prevention programs in their 12-county footprint, which includes Daviess, Dubois, Gibson, Lawrence, Martin, Morgan, Orange, Perry, Pike, Posey, Vanderburgh, and Warrick counties.

“The Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation strives to improve the health of humanity by addressing health inequalities and strengthening communities across Indiana. We continue to work with our local community partners across Indiana, including Youth First, to provide meaningful solutions to achieve better health and to advance health equity,” said Ginny France, Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield’s Community Relations Representative. “We are grateful to have worked with Youth First for many years supporting local youth through a variety of programs, and once again we are honored to come together to expand resources to support the mental health and well-being of Indiana students.”

Youth First President & CEO Parri Black stated, “Our kids and families are dealing with greater stress and more challenges than ever. That’s why it’s so important to have easily accessed, skilled mental health support in school buildings, where students, parents and teachers can take full advantage of it. We are grateful for the multi-year partnership with Anthem to prevent addiction and strengthen lives.”

Youth First partners with 110 schools across 12 Indiana counties to embed skilled social workers, where they become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers. Youth First Social Workers build caring relationships, promote healthy choices, foster readiness for positive change, and boost resiliency along with other valuable life skills. There are 32 Youth First Social Workers serving 32 schools in the EVSC.

By Amy Steele, MSW, LCSW, LAC, RPT

Telling children “no” can be a difficult task for parents and caregivers. Many parents shy away from saying no, and some will do anything to keep a child from becoming upset. When adults fail to set consistent limits, children miss out on developing the important mental health and life skills they need to succeed.

Children who don’t have rules tend to feel out of control and experience anxiety.  Kids are comforted knowing adults are taking care of things and helping them stay in control. Boundaries and limits help children feel more secure, and following rules makes their lives more predictable, especially when they know what the outcome will be when they follow the rules.

Experiencing consequences when rules are broken lets kids know that the adults in their lives are not going to allow certain behaviors. This can build trust and shows children that you are reliable, you mean what you say, and you will follow through on your word. Using consistency when limit setting indicates you will also be consistent in other areas where they depend on you, lessening their anxieties.

Avoiding limits to prevent a tantrum or an argument sets our kids up for failure in the long run. If children don’t learn how to feel and cope with feelings at a young age, they will spend their life trying to avoid these feelings. If they learn at an early age that feelings are okay, even ones we don’t like, then they learn coping skills that help them make choices that result in more positive outcomes.

Children need parents to set limits on what is appropriate to keep them safe, healthy, and rested. This allows them to be prepared to achieve their goals in life and become happy, healthy, contributing members of their community. Parents must decide to teach and model positive and healthy ways to handle negative feelings, otherwise life (society, social media, video games, peers) will teach them instead.

What a gift it is to teach a child that life is full of choices. If they make a choice that isn’t the right one there are consequences, but with love and guidance, life goes on and they can do better next time.

By Abby Betz, LSW, Youth First Inc.

“I hear congratulations are in order!” If you are currently expecting or recently had a baby, you are most likely still experiencing the joys of welcoming a new child to your life.

Although bringing home a new baby is a joyous time, it can also be a challenge for parents. Adding another child to the family is a big transition. The dynamic of the entire family changes when a new baby arrives, which can cause stress and be traumatic for some kids. 

For some children, the integration of a new baby into the family can trigger some big feelings and emotional crises. A child’s transition to becoming an older sibling must be handled with compassion and empathy to preserve the child’s sense of security and self-worth. It is key for parents to provide reassurance and love to all of their children.

It is completely normal for children to feel jealous toward a new baby. Children are being asked to adjust to the shift in the amount of attention they receive from parents, and this may also trigger feelings of grief or loss. That child is no longer the center of mom or dad’s attention and affection, and these feelings can be difficult for some children to navigate.

It is important to address any feelings of abandonment a child may feel by letting them be part of the process. For example, it would be beneficial to explain to young children when and why Mommy will be away at the hospital so it is easier for them to accept when it is time for the baby to come home.  

It is best to start preparing children for the new arrival of a baby before the arrival. The goal is to help children feel a sense of connection with the baby and to become enthusiastic about its arrival. Some strategies that may be helpful include validating your child’s feelings, whether the feelings are happy or unhappy, about a new baby. If you acknowledge their frustration, children will not feel the need to suppress their feelings, which can cause problematic behaviors.

Offering children one-on-one time with each parent is vital for helping them feel special and valued. Enlisting help from other family members or friends your children have a special bond with can also be helpful. Focus on things that have not changed within the family and maintain traditions that have already been established to help strengthen your child’s sense of belonging.

Moreover, if your child does not automatically bond with a new baby, it is important not to pressure the child into a relationship and let this happen organically. By doing so, the relationship which is fostered between your child and the new sibling will be one of genuine love. 

CenterPoint Energy Foundation is investing in Indiana youth. The organization has awarded $100,000 to Youth First, Inc. to strengthen the mental health and well-being of students at Delaware Elementary School and Glenwood Leadership Academy in the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation (EVSC).

This significant gift from CenterPoint Energy Foundation, along with funding from other sources, will enable Youth First to provide school-based social work services and prevention programs at Delaware and Glenwood.

Speaking at a check presentation at Glenwood on October 6, Amanda Schmitt, CenterPoint Foundation President, stated: “This gift is part of our commitment to seeing communities thrive and seeing students reach their potential. As you all know, the last two years have been really difficult and I am so honored to partner with organizations like Youth First to ensure the last two years don’t define the next ten years. We want to make sure our students at Delaware and Glenwood continue to succeed and learn.”

Dr. David Smith, Superintendent of the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, remarked, “CenterPoint is investing in the communities they serve so we can write our own future, rather than being defined by the past. There’s nothing more noble or worthy than investing in our youth to help them have a better life.”

Glenwood Principal Angela Oliver said, “Here at Glenwood, we believe in growing the whole child. We’re very committed to making sure our students are socially, emotionally and mentally healthy. We know our students can’t learn on the academic front until all of those other needs are met, so it’s a high priority for us. Youth First Social Worker Tiffany Austin has been here for 10 years and has created relationships and trust with our families. When they need something, they know our school is the hub of the community and they can call the office and ask to speak to Mrs. Austin to help meet some of those extra needs beyond academics. She is the face of GLA (Glenwood Leadership Academy).”

Youth First is addressing the growing need for mental health support in school buildings, partnering with 110 schools across 12 Indiana counties to embed skilled social workers, where they become specialized mentors for students and prevention coaches for parents and teachers. Youth First Social Workers build caring relationships, promote healthy choices, foster readiness for positive change, and boost resiliency along with other valuable life skills.

By Kelsey Weber, LCSW

The 2022-2023 school year is in session and many teachers are witnessing the effects the COVID-19 pandemic had on learning. With students returning to in-person learning, teachers are noticing a large learning gap.

According to the Horace Mann Educators Corporation, teachers are reporting significant learning loss for many students, both academically, socially, and emotionally. Data from the CDC is also showing that virtual learning presents more risks than in-person learning related to parent and child mental and emotional health. Teachers have estimated their students are behind by more than three months. 

A separate study by McKinsey & Company found similar results that revealed virtual learning was a poor substitute for in-person learning. Some teachers reported the overall effectiveness of virtual learning only slightly better than skipping school completely. Educators in schools with higher percentages of low-income families found that virtual learning was ineffective and students struggled more. This is particularly true among black and Hispanic students, as well as students with disabilities.

One of the biggest obstacles teachers faced when they returned to teaching in-person was the gap between high-performing students and those who struggle academically. So, where do we go from here? As teachers, what can we do to help our students succeed?

1.)   Listen to your students’ concerns. It is essential as educators to demonstrate understanding as well as empathy. Offer one-on-one conversations with your students to show you care, want to listen, and help.

2.)   Check in with your students often. Some may need more time to complete a task or to understand an assignment. When working in the classroom, provide students with opportunities to take breaks, move around, and talk with their peers.

3.)   Watch for changes in behaviors. If you notice changes, check in with that student and seek additional support from your school counselor or social worker. For example, if a student is coming to class each day crying, have a conversation about why they are upset. Providing extra support and watching for these signs can help bridge the gap.

4.)   Offer after school support for students. Offering an afterschool program or meeting time can be beneficial for students who are falling behind. This will allow one-on-one time with your student and time to ask questions, catch up on work, and work at their own pace.

5.)   Stay connected with your students and families. If you notice a student is struggling, reach out to the student and their family. More than likely, if they are showing signs of stress at school they are showing signs at home as well.

6.)   Take care of yourself. Working in education has its own challenges, but more so post-pandemic. Be sure to know your limits, maintain healthy eating and sleeping habits, rest, exercise, connect with friends and family, and seek support when you need it.

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