Educators prepare to help kids navigate stresses of a new school year

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For many students, a new school year can bring first-day jitters.

But increasingly, educators and youth mentors in central Ohio and beyond are focusing on the challenges, anxieties and mental-health concerns that students might experience throughout the school year.

Today’s students face some concerns that have existed for years. Bullying, peer pressure and the stress associated with academic work, extracurricular activities and the pressure to succeed are a few, said former school psychologist Renée Wilson, now a youth minister with Reynoldsburg United Methodist Church.

But students also face many new, weighty concerns, including threats of violence at school, the impact of drug addiction, and a flood of constant information from cellphones and social-media feeds, Wilson said.

“Kids carry a lot, they always have, but we’re seeing it a lot more,” she said.

More students are approaching counselors about the issues, said Heather Fairs, president of the Ohio School Counselor Association and a counselor with South-Western City Schools. Some of the increase could be because people are more willing now to discuss such issues openly, she said.

A 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey indicated that 6 percent of Ohio students had stayed home from school at least one day in the previous 30 days because they felt unsafe. Twenty-one percent had been bullied at school, 15 percent had been electronically bullied, and 6 percent had been in a physical fight that year.

Fourteen percent of Ohio youths ages 12 to 17 experienced at least one major depressive episode in the 2015-16 school year, up from 9 percent in 2011-12, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

At the start of a school year, parents can take steps to ease the transition for their children, including adjusting bed and meal times, monitoring cellphone use, communicating openly and seeking help from professionals for students experiencing ongoing anxiety, Fairs said.

To provide support year-round, the Ohio Department of Education is creating standards for social and emotional learning at all grade levels. Officials hope to present the guidelines later this year.

Others are already starting initiatives to address the issue.

Hilliard City Schools officials, for example, created an administrative role called a director of student well-being for this school year.

Mike Abraham, formerly a special-education coordinator, will work with school nurses, counselors and psychologists to prevent problems and address concerns. They’ll kick off the year by providing information to students and parents about how to get help. They’ll work on “success plans” for students who need it, and they will oversee ongoing efforts, such as a peer-to-peer program that connects struggling students to a peer and an adult.

“This is about letting our students know we’re here for them,” Abraham said. “As adults, we need to recognize that kids may be struggling.”

Wilson and ministers from six other central Ohio churches hope to unite hundreds of students Friday at their third-annual “Light the Night” event.

“We want students to think about how they can be hope, strength, peace and a presence that’s different from the angst, anxiety, darkness, struggle and stress that otherwise exist,” Wilson said.

“It’s easier to be a big light when you have others helping, too.”

This year’s gathering is 7:30-10 p.m. at East Side Grace Brethren Church, 7510 E. Broad St., Blacklick. The program includes musical and spoken-word performances, joint prayer time and group discussions. The free event rotates among churches every year and welcomes students of any faith background or none at all. Last year, 270 attended, more than double its inaugural crowd.

One participating church recently surveyed its youth group about potential discussion topics, and the No. 1 concern was “stress,” Wilson said.

What triggers those feelings might vary among students, said youth minister Barbara Serrano of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Parish in Pickerington. But overcoming them often depends on the same solution, Serrano said.

“They want to feel safe, and they want to know someone cares,” she said.

People must work every day to show they care, Wilson said.

For example, after the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, Wilson’s Reynoldsburg youth group started “I see you” Sundays, a question-and-answer activity dedicated to learning more about their peers. It’s just one way she hopes to extend the positive power of “Light the Night.”

“One night out of 365 isn’t going to do it, but it’s a springboard to whatever our next step can be,” Wilson said.

awidmanneese@dispatch.com

@AlissaWidman