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Helping kids navigate mental health ahead of school year

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The arrival of the bus on the first day of school is an exciting time for many students, but for others, it can be a difficult transition.

Michelle Storie is a certified school psychologist and assistant professor at SUNY Oswego. She said she’s seen an uptick in referrals for children struggling with anxiety, depression and ADHD since the COVID-19 pandemic.

"We're seeing elevated anxiety and depression in adults, and certainly if we're seeing it in adults, that's going to carry over to kids," said Storie.

Jeffrey Pirozzolo, superintendent for the Auburn Enlarged City School District, said schools are also seeing that increased demand for services. Auburn has been putting in extra support over the past two years, including social workers in every building and school counselors in the elementary schools.

"We've really built our support staff,” said Pirozzolo. “We're doing lessons daily. Counselors are pushing into classrooms, so we're continuing to provide that social-emotional piece."

Jeremy Belfield, superintendent for the Lafayette Central School District, said his district is also focused on providing that support in the months to come.

"When times get tough for students and for children in general, it's really important that we try to make sure that we maintain a sense of normalcy for kids,” said Belfield. “Connecting with them, finding out what's on their mind, building those relationships."

Storie said parents can help support students at home, too, as the school year ramps up. She said anxiety is often triggered by not knowing what to expect or feeling like there’s a lack of control. It may help to ask if students can visit the school over the summer, and even if there’s already a scheduled orientation, consider if your student may need more time.

"Some kids need longer than that to feel comfortable in a new building or get acclimated to a new building, especially students who may have learning disabilities,” said Storie. “Their visual/spatial skills might not be as strong, so those kids might need a couple of visits."

Storie said also think about what new challenges students may face in a new grade. For example, if they’re using a locker for the first time, practice on locks at home.

Storie said throughout the year, parents should do what they can to let their kids know they can always talk to them if issues come up.

"I think parents need to model when they're feeling upset about something or anxious about something, using those words and talking about what they do to calm themselves down in a situation," said Storie.

She said carving out family time, even just a quick walk or yoga class, can be a great way to provide emotional support at home.

Jessica Cain is a freelance reporter for WRVO, covering issues around central New York. Most recently, Jessica was a package producer at Fox News in New York City, where she worked on major news events, including the 2016 presidential conventions and election. Prior to that, she worked as a reporter and anchor for multiple media outlets in central and northern New York. A Camillus native, Jessica enjoys exploring the outdoors with her daughters, going to the theater, playing the piano, and reading.