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Students are facing a mental health crisis as they return to classrooms

Many school districts have seen an uptick in behavior problems as a result of a tumultuous couple of years for our young people.

WASHINGTON — It's been a tough couple of years for students, from isolation during the pandemic, to virtual learning, the return to in-person classes, and violence in many of our city streets.

Psychologists say it is no surprise: Our children are in crisis. Many school districts have seen an uptick in behavior problems and fights as a result.

What's being done to prepare our kids this school year as they head back to class? How can parents help?

Jordan Rouse is beginning his junior year at D.C.'s Friendship Collegiate Academy on a high note. He's focused -- a good student and a good friend, especially when he sees his classmates struggling.

"I sort of try to reassure them that everything is going to be OK, and there are going to be better days," Jordan said.

But even a firm foundation can be shaken.

"I kind of get sort of anxiety because there's so much violence going on," Jordan said.

A nationwide survey by Medstar Health shows nearly 90% of caregivers are concerned about their child's mental health.

Dr. Peggy Jones is the principal at Friendship. She says the high school is now implementing excursions and project based learning, more extra-curricular activities, counseling, small group sessions...and something she's calling the joy factor.

"We kind of looked at joy in how we address them, and making sure they know they are important. Being able to teach them to advocate for themselves, and identify and know who to go to when they need help and also being able to advocate for each other," Dr. Jones said.

Educators say making sure students have a safe and successful school year starts with conversations at home.

Dr. Rita Nakashima Brock with the Shay Moral Injury Center offered some advice for parents.

"Give them a chance to talk about it, and listen without trying to minimize or explain away or dismiss how they're feeling," Dr. Brock said. "Then you can move to problem solving, you can say, 'Oh, I so hear you. I know, it's really upsetting. I really empathize. And so what do you think we could do about it? How could we make it feel better to go to school?'"

Dr. Brock is a moral injury specialist studying the impacts of war on veterans – she now sees the same trauma affecting school children. 

"I think a lot of people are feeling moral distress right now. And if it doesn't get taken care of it can actually descend into something pretty serious that wreck your life," she said. 

The doctor says families should practice mindfulness or belly breathing to help manage stress. So when students get to school – they can focus on learning and healing together.

Principal Peggy Jones said working together can help spark joy. 

"Joy comes with knowing that I'm really struggling but there are other people here to help me and walk along with me," Jones said.

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