By Ashley Underwood, LCSW – September 16, 2020 –

Hi. Hello. Hola. Bonjour. Ciao. Oi.

Each one of these greetings, along with many others, is the gateway for social interaction. Social interaction with others helps create a culture of inclusion and acceptance.

According to Ferris State University, inclusion is involvement and empowerment, where the inherent worth and dignity of all people is recognized. 

Why is inclusion important in our schools and communities?

Heartland Community College has created the HEIP (Heartland Equity and Inclusion Project), which identified the following reasons that inclusion is important:

  1. Inclusion molds the values of the next generation of children.
    • Students see a person first and the person’s disability second.
    • Students learn to practice empathy and appreciate the value of diversity.
  2. Inclusion provides opportunities for friendships.
    • The development of friendships requires close proximity and a common experience. Keeping children together encourages both objectives.
    • Students develop a comfortable way to interact with students with disabilities.
    • Children with disabilities attend the same school as their neighborhood friends.
  3. Inclusion prepares individuals for adult life in the community.
    • Today’s classmates are tomorrow’s employers and co-workers.
    • Community life includes people of all abilities.
  4. Inclusion provides opportunities for friendships.
    • The development of friendships requires close proximity and a common experience. Keeping children together encourages both objectives.
    • Students develop a comfortable way to interact with students with disabilities.
    • Children with disabilities attend the same school as their neighborhood friends.
  5. Inclusion prepares individuals for adult life in the community.
    • Today’s classmates are tomorrow’s employers and co-workers.
    • Community life includes people of all abilities.

What is the opposite of inclusion and why is it important? Social isolation is a feeling or sense of not belonging. It is overwhelming and in many cases debilitating to a person’s functioning. When feeling isolated from others, loneliness and invisibility can consume a person’s thoughts and behaviors, causing a significant increase in self-harm or harm of others.

To decrease the negative impacts of social isolation, the Sandy Hook Promise has created a campaign to increase social interaction and inclusion among students. This campaign began after the Sandy Hook Elementary school shooting in December of 2012. Each fall, schools around the world are asked to participate in the campaign called “Start With Hello” Week. The scheduled date for this year’s “Start With Hello Week is September 21-25, 2020.

Start With Hello Week raises awareness about social isolation and educates students and the community on how to prevent it through various trainings, awareness, activities, public proclamations, media events, student contests and school awards – all provided by the Sandy Hook Promise campaign. You can find the “Start With Hello Week planning guide along with the registration submission for your school or agency to participate in this event at https://www.sandyhookpromise.org/startwithhelloweek.

Let’s all join together in this movement to show our children that everyone should be valued, to bring awareness to social isolation, and to increase empathy and inclusion all around! Just remember, it can be as simple as starting with “hello.”

By Holly Parod, LSCW – September 9, 2020 –

In the wake of an unprecedented worldwide pandemic, many of us have felt the weight of additional stress and uncertainty in our daily lives. These are feelings that we can unknowingly pass on to our children as they sense our fear and feelings of worry.

Rather than watching the national news or discussing headlines in the local paper, what if we all took time to be grateful for the new world we have discovered as a part of quarantine or working from home?  What if we paused to appreciate the opportunities we’ve been granted to re-establish old traditions and spend more time together?

Over the past few months, jigsaw puzzles, bikes, free weights, and board games have sold out of stores as people have taken time to work on personal fitness, create together, and explore together.  Rather than rushing off to baseball games and work meetings, we cooked dinner together, tried new dessert recipes, and enjoyed movie nights with our families.

In this time of quiet, we took walks down our streets, reconnected with our neighbors, and sat outside reading books or looking at stars. We taught grandparents and older family members how to Zoom or FaceTime so that we could maintain our close relationships while staying safely apart.

We were no longer too busy to color, paint, and mail birthday cards or handwritten notes to friends and family. Some of us explored new hobbies and talents, while others called long-distance friends on the phone instead of texting.

According to Harvard Health Publishing, gratitude is thankful appreciation for what an individual receives, whether tangible or intangible. With gratitude, people acknowledge the goodness in their lives. In the process, people usually recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside them.

As a result, gratitude also helps people connect to something larger than themselves as individuals – whether to other people, nature, or a higher power.

Instead of focusing on the negativity of this pandemic, perhaps we all need to take time to be grateful for what we have gained after being forced to slow down and spend time with those who are most important to us. 

We are hearing over and over again from students and educators about how happy kids are to be back in school for in-person learning.  We are seeing an increased appreciation for the work teachers do every day, most importantly from the children sitting in desks spaced six-feet apart.

Just as we have embraced the importance of family cookouts, birthday parties, graduation events, and weddings, we have a newfound appreciation for everything schools and teachers provide every day.

Tonight at dinner as you discuss the events of the day, challenge each person at the table to share one aspect of the day he or she is grateful for.  Then ask what COVID-19 has taught them to appreciate.  You will be surprised how much there is to be grateful for, even in the midst of a pandemic.   

Hoosier Uplands has awarded $15,000 to Youth First, Inc. to strengthen the social and emotional well-being of students in Orange County.

Youth First partners with school districts to embed 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 growing social and emotional needs of students.

“Hoosier Uplands recognizes the immense importance and need for mental health services for at-risk children in our schools,” said David Miller, CEO.  “In today’s world our schools, parents, and grandparents must work together to make sure children have the best resources available to them to handle the challenges they face on a daily basis. We are very pleased to be able to support Youth First in its work with Paoli, Orleans and Springs Valley Schools.”

Youth First President & CEO Parri O. Black stated, “Our children are growing up in a complex and challenging world that puts them at greater risk for substance use, suicide, violence and harmful behaviors. Hoosier Uplands’ investment is critical to achieving Youth First’s mission. Working together, we can protect and heal the hearts of more young people and their families in Orange County.”

To learn more about Youth First services and programs or to make a donation to Youth First, visit youthfirstinc.org.

Support Youth First by purchasing half pot raffle tickets now! Winner will be drawn on September 30, 2020. Raffle tickets can be purchased from Youth First staff and board members, at the Youth First office Monday through Friday 8am to 12pm, or by filling out the contact form here.

By Christine Weinzapfel-Hayden, LCSW -September 3, 2020-

As students start school after being out for a long layoff, they may need a “brush-up” on their organizational skills. Organizational skills are important in every phase of life, whether we are professionals in the work force, parents, teenagers or children. 

It is never too late to evaluate how your child is doing in mastering this skill and to help them develop the necessary strategies to be successful.  I firmly believe we all have good intentions. I haven’t met a student yet who wants to fail or forget to turn in their homework. Just like with adults, good intentions may not always yield good results.    

Parents can start with children as young as 2 or 3 years old.  Developing organizational skills is much like learning to ride a bike. We don’t just sit our children on the seat of a bike and let them go.  We hold the seat of their bike until they seem sturdy.  Even then, we don’t leave them to fall.  We often run beside them to catch them if they aren’t steady. 

The same strategy should be used in teaching our children organization.  In the beginning of the process a parent should be very involved.  As they are ready for more independence, children can be given more responsibility and the parent can be more of a monitor. 

The academic setting is the perfect place to begin teaching these life skills that can be carried over throughout our lifetime. A key component is allowing your child to develop an organizational system that makes sense to them.  What makes the most sense to you may not be what makes sense to your child.  Therefore, allow your child to have the ownership as you guide them by gently pointing out suggestions and potential pitfalls of their plan. 

Here are some tips to help begin teaching organizational skills:

  1. Begin with consistency at home. Having a set study time after school will provide a consistent routine that promotes good time management.
  2. Aid your child in organizing their backpack and binder to provide a system that prevents papers from being shoved into books, etc. 
  3. Strongly support your child using their agenda. Developing the habit of writing down assignments/tests in the agenda as soon as assigned in class will set them up for success.  This habit of using the agenda appropriately will set your child up for independent success in the academic years to follow.  This task is often overlooked by students as they get busy or distracted and forget to write things down. This step is extremely important, so you may consider a reward system that supports creating the habit in the initial phase of developing this strategy.
  4. Create a to-do list and break down big projects into smaller tasks. In a different color ink, fill in extra-curricular plans to help your child plan in advance for evenings that may not allow enough time to accomplish all necessary tasks. 

As Donna Goldberg from the NYU Child Study Center emphasizes the importance of these skills, she clarifies the need for students with special needs in particular. Children with attention difficulties often miss details and find organization difficult. Those with executive functioning issues often have trouble with prioritizing and sequencing.  Children with auditory processing difficulties often don’t take in everything that is being taught. 

Recognizing your child’s individual needs and teaching them how to compensate with organizational skills will be a lesson leading to success for a lifetime.

By Jessie Smith, MSW – September 2, 2020 –

Do you have a child who has just started kindergarten? Along with parents/guardians experiencing a range of emotions during this time, so do incoming students. Throughout my time working in an elementary school, I have had the privilege to observe this transition and guide students through this exciting time in their lives.

While a brand new classroom and making new friends can be exciting for a kindergartener, with these excitements come routines, workload, and rules. Expectations placed on students can be daunting and confusing at times. In the first few weeks of school, there are a few tips parents can utilize to help better transition their kindergartner.

  1. Routine. Try to create a routine that includes both a bedtime and a wakeup time. Many professionals stress the importance of scheduled sleep routines for kindergarten-aged children. Having a consistent wakeup time can help children adjust to beginning their day earlier than they may have in the past. Creating charts can be a useful visual and an interactive reference to aid families when trying to maintain a schedule with their child. Morning charts can include activities like getting dressed, eating breakfast, and brushing teeth. Afternoon charts can reflect tasks to complete such as eating a snack, completing certain chores, or working on homework.

  2. Expectations. A major part of being a student is learning to follow regulations and classroom rules. This aspect of schooling can be particularly difficult for incoming kindergartners. For some students, this may be the first time they must ask to use the restroom, walk in a line, or be required to remain quiet during appropriate times. Introducing standard “school rules” at home can help your child meet teacher expectations as well as reduce student stress. Practice rules like raising hands, staying in a designated seat, and keeping hands/feet to self. Obviously you can’t always implement these rules in your home life, but having conversations about these expectations and engaging in role playing can strengthen your child’s ability to adapt to similar rules in the classroom.

  3. Exploring Emotions. Along with getting used to new routines and regulations, your child may experience new emotions that they need time to process. Talk with your child. Ask what part of their day made them the happiest. Were there any times they felt upset or overwhelmed? Helping children identify their emotions can also promote conversations that can help you monitor and regulate the feelings your child is experiencing.

  4. Discipline. All of these new changes can be overwhelming for little brains. It’s important to remember that your child is learning. I speak to many parents who are concerned because they have received a note or a phone call from an educator to address a concern about their child’s progress or behavior. When this occurs, it is often because teachers are trying to be proactive and communicate with parents to eliminate more issues in the future. It is a good idea to collaborate and set expectations in the home that are the same as expectations in the classroom. Keep in mind how different their day-to-day environment has become while they try to familiarize their surroundings and find their place in the classroom.  

The start of kindergarten for your child is a bittersweet moment in a parent’s life and Youth First is here to help with any questions you might have. Please reach out to your school’s Youth First Social Worker or communicate with your teacher if you need assistance navigating the transition. It really is a team effort.

By Abby Betz, LSW – August 20, 2020 –

It’s the time of year (again) that most of us look forward to and some of us dread—back-to-school!  It can be difficult for children to make the transition from the carefree, fun days of summer to the everyday grind of school life, especially when students have not been in school buildings for many months due to a worldwide pandemic. 

Transition is a common occurrence for young people, and most do adjust well—but there are some who find themselves unable to appropriately adapt to seasonal and other life changes. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 1 in 8 children. When anxiety begins to cause physical and emotional distress, parents and guardians can respond by employing some simple yet effective coping strategies to help alleviate fears and create a framework for a successful start to the school year.

Here are some general tips:

  • Develop a routine or schedule. Even just a few repeated actions, like going to bed at a regular time, can have a calming effect.
  • Make sure your child is getting plenty of rest and maintains a well-balanced diet.
  • Encourage your child to express their fears or worries with you; continue to remind your child that it is normal to have concerns.
  • Avoid giving your child reassurance (i.e., “Don’t worry about it so much! Everything will be just fine!”); instead, encourage your child to problem-solve and make a plan to act on specific fears.
  • Role-play different scenarios with your child so he/she will know how to respond when placed in uncomfortable situations.
  • Model appropriate responses and focus on developing healthy coping skills for yourself.
  • Focus on the positive rather than dwelling on negative thoughts/feelings; try to replace negative emotions with something positive.
  • Praise your child and reward them for efforts at positive behavior.

There may be times when your child is in need of more extensive services to help them cope with anxiety. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America reports that 80% of children with diagnosable anxiety disorders do not seek out or receive treatment. 

Moreover, research has shown that untreated children are at higher risk of performing poorly in school, engaging in substance abuse, and isolating themselves from peers and other social situations.  As a parent or guardian, it is important to heed the warning signs of anxiety that may cause abnormal physical and emotional distress and seek out the proper treatment for your child.

By Jillian Moon, LCSW – August 12, 2020 –

My first day of high school was intimidating. I knew almost no one and my role in the school felt undefined. Would the teachers think I was good enough? Would the students like me? Would I be involved enough, or visible enough? Would I be too involved, too visible?

In the hallway stampedes between classes, everyone seemed to know exactly where they were going except me. And where were Molly Ringwald and Zac Ephron to start up the choreographed dances in the lunch room?

I suppose I should point out this was my first day as a high school social worker. At the ripe age of 31, I’d finished high school, college, and graduate school. Yet walking in those big school doors, I still felt overwhelmed by change and the very human need to find where I fit in a new social system.

As a parent, you can do a lot to ease these kinds of fears and help your kids enjoy the amazing opportunities high school has to offer them. Here are a few ideas from familyeducation.com:

  • Encourage your child to follow their own interests as opposed to following a clique. Focus first on finding the activity or sport that gives them genuine fulfillment—friends with whom they can have supportive and lasting relationships are then much more likely to be found.

  • Avoid sarcastic remarks about your child’s appearance. If you feel tempted to make those comments, keep a stack of your own high school pictures handy to share with your child! Not only will it take you back to a place of understanding the need to fit in, it will help you build an even stronger relationship when they see you were in their shoes once, too. (Literally, their shoes. The 90’s are back.)

  • Help your teenager understand that no one thing in their life is the “end-all-be-all” for their future. College and post-secondary program acceptance, for example, is based on many factors. Encourage personal challenges over easy grades while they capitalize on their strengths, whether they be academic, athletic, or community involvement. Praise their effort and improvement over one-time highs and lows.

Last but not least: make time to listen. Teenagers face the difficult task of finding their place with peers outside of family and setting the stage for their lives as adults. Non-critical listening tells them you can be trusted and you are an ally on their team. Always remember that while your child may not remember the advice you give, they will always remember how you made them feel in moments of need.

By Staci Chambers, MSW – August 4, 2020 –

“Why are we moving to a new house?” “Why did one of my parents move away?” “Why are things so different at school?” “When can I see Grandma?” “How will I make new friends?” “What happens after we die?”

Change happens in every life. Whether it’s a change we can anticipate—like entering middle school or starting a job we’ve been hired for, or a change we didn’t see coming—like a death in the family or COVID-19, change is always a challenge. As adults, we have learned how to rationalize and process those major life-changing events. But children have a less-developed mindset, and they need help navigating change.

You may have heard the saying, “You can’t control the winds, but you can adjust the sails.” As more experienced sailors in the sea changes of life, parents and other adults can offer instruction, attention and care to our kids as they to cope with change.

Here are some specific coping strategies:

  • Talk with your child and acknowledge that it is normal for them to be experiencing a variety of emotions regarding the recent changes. Car rides, meal times, and bedtime are often good moments to initiate conversation.

  • Allow them to participate in some small decision-making within the family. This allows them to feel they have some control over things in their life. You may even encourage them to choose new rituals or traditions for your family to practice together.

  • Be consistent in new daily routines. (If you don’t have a daily routine, create one!) Structure throughout their day allows a child to feel more secure and safe. Even just a few set elements of routine can create calm and trust.

  • Stay positive regarding the recent changes. Even though change is sometimes initiated by negative circumstances, it is important to try to focus on the positive aspects. In the morning over breakfast and at night before bed, help your child think of three positive things they are grateful for.
  • Be patient with them. Allow them the time they need to adjust to the changes.

There are a lot of benefits that can come with navigating change. It is just a matter of finding an appropriate way of coping with the stressors that accompany the transition. Being a loving, attentive source of support for your child is the best thing you can do to help them successfully “adjust the sails”—and you may even find that it strengthens your family as a whole.

By Youth First, Inc. – Aug. 3, 2020 –

Back-to-school shopping is underway, with face masks and hand sanitizer added to the list of supplies this year. Youth First wants to ensure that kids are also socially and emotionally ready to begin the school year. Here are our top 10 tips for mental health success.

  1. Model calmness. Children will take on stress and anxiety from adults around, them so make sure to work on your own feelings and fears about a return to school. Parents are the original co-regulators, the first teachers of how to manage emotions. Whether we are in school buildings or not, there are fears about returning. If the parent sets a positive tone the child will follow.
  2. Talk to your child about safety in a way they can understand. Keep it simple and appropriate for each child’s age. Let them know this isn’t going to last forever but for now there are rules we have to follow. As is often said, “This too shall pass.”
  3. Set a structured daily schedule, especially in the weeks leading up to school. Have a wake-up time and bedtime that are age appropriate for your child. (Most experts recommend 8-10 hours of sleep each night.) Part of the reason teens need more sleep is because of rapid development of body and brain.
  4. Limit screen time and social media exposure, especially in the weeks leading up to school. If screen time has been high, this may initially cause behavioral issues and withdrawal. Hang in there with the limits and your child will make the adjustment. Always have your child’s phone charging in your bedroom overnight to prevent late night access.
  5. Plan family meal time without any electronics, whether it’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch or a more formal meal for dinner.
  6. Stay up-to-date with your child’s school on changes and precautions they will be taking. Discuss those procedures with your child and help them practice if new rules are introduced. Let your child know that these changes are the school’s way of being proactive to keep everyone healthy.
  7. Discuss clear expectations you have for your child when they return to school (behavior, safety compliance, and academics).
  8. Model and discuss positive ways for your child to express his or her feelings. If they are younger, videos and books are a great way to explain complex feelings. Give your child life examples of when you have been scared, frustrated, or excited and how you dealt with those feelings.
  9. Practice calming techniques with your child in the weeks leading up to school (breathing techniques, mindfulness, taking a time out). Make sure they are helpful and age appropriate.  Check out bubble breathing, finger breathing and other techniques on Youth First’s website at youthfirstinc.org/selmaterial.  Repeated practice is helpful for younger kids.
  10. And last but not least, show enthusiasm for the first day of school! Remind students of the joy of learning and seeing friends and beloved teachers. Whether they are walking into a school building or walking to the kitchen table, they should be prepared and excited to start school.

It’s certainly normal that all parents and students have some apprehension about returning to school this year. However, being prepared and informed helps reduce stress and anxiety. Most importantly, keep the lines of communication open with your kids.