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Behavioral, mental health issues on the rise with kids back in the classroom, experts say

The uncertainty of the return to school coupled with soaring depression and anxiety rates has left parents and teachers scrambling to help students succeed.

WINDHAM, Maine — With kids back in the classroom amid the pandemic, experts say there is a serious uptick in behavioral and mental health issues in schools across the country. Maine is no exception.

"Has it been hard? Yeah. And I've cried a lot," Leah Richards, a fourth-grade teacher at Manchester School in Windham said. "I think the hard part is just getting back into the routine." 

Richards said she has noticed a change in her students because of the lack of consistency in their day-to-day. It started showing up during remote and hybrid learning, and now it's showing in person.

That uncertainty is, in some cases, causing kids to act out in ways they may never have before, according to experts. 

"We are seeing that across the board, a huge uptick in behavioral issues at school," licensed clinical psychologist and Founder and Executive Director of the Cira Center for Behavioral Health Dr. Colleen Cira told NEWS CENTER Maine.

Cira said she is hearing from educators, mental health professionals and parents nationwide struggling to support children. 

Several studies, including one by JAMA Pediatrics, found depression and anxiety rates have doubled due to the pandemic. Cira said it unfortunately is not a surprise given the circumstances.  

"They don't yet have the vocabulary to be able to tell us to make sense of all the stuff happening inside of them, so of course it's going to come out in their behavior," Cira said. 

In Maine, those trying to combat the underlying issues fear the impacts are only getting worse.

Courtney Angelosante with the UMaine College of Education and Human Development said schools across the state are reporting concerning trends in regards to kids' mental health needs, and the impacts and being felt even among the youngest of students.

"We are seeing very young students coming into kindergarten without having access to early intervention. Students with more profound disabilities, lacking language, lacking communication," Angelosante said. 

Through grant funding provided through the Maine Department of Education, Angelosante has been leading an effort to better train teachers to address behavior issues in the classroom. 

More than 4,000 students statewide are receiving Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) thanks to the intensive professional development program. 

The nationally-recognized framework aims to offer a wide range of supports to students to better promote positive academic and behavioral outcomes.

Educators from 15 schools in Maine first formed the PBIS Regional Professional Development Cohort in 2018. Angelosante said they never thought the program would have to be completed amid a pandemic. 

"The issues are deep and broad," she said. "We're working with staff to make sure everyone understands what are the evidence-based steps that promote academic and positive behavior."

Not every school has the resources needed though. Angelosante also said a shortage of teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff is only making the matter worse. 

Back at Manchester School in Windham, school counselor Jess Weatherbee said they are doing the best they can. 

"One of the challenging things is really trying to support every single student," she said. "We want to validate them make sure they've been heard while also making them feel safe here."

With the help of an in-school social worker and psychologist, they are trying to teach kids skills to cope. It usually starts by just talking about it.

Stigma among students, staff, and parents is a critical roadblock to young people getting the help necessary. 

Fortunately, teachers like Richards are doing everything they can to make a difference by taking it one day at a time. 

"We all have our days where we just go home and it's like 'What happened today?'" Richards said. "But I come in here and I see these kids smiling every day and it makes everything worth it."

Several schools that have reportedly experienced notable incidents of student mental health and behavioral concerns declined NEWS CENTER Maine's request to speak about this topic.

A spokesperson for the Maine Department of Education said officials were "prepared for the impacts of the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic" and are doing what they can to provide support to school districts statewide. 

"We have encouraged all educators to prioritize the physical and mental health of students and themselves first and to focus on the critically important development of safe and trusting relationships and healthy school climates, within which students can then grow and learn," Kelli Deveaux said in a statement. 

Find more resources from the Maine DOE for parents, students and educators here.

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