Anthony DiRienzo led a group of first graders last month in a simple exercise to show how food is digested in their bellies.
Each was given a plastic bag and two crackers, then the Smallwood Drive Elementary School health teacher passed from student to student, pouring soda into the bags.
Ooh, aah and screams of disgust followed, and then DiRienzo continued his lesson on how what we eat passes through the body, which picks up the nutrients it needs and gets rid of the rest.
If only pandemic relief was so easy for this group, who spent kindergarten learning remotely with other students across the country.
“It’s definitely been an adjustment,” said DiRienzo, one of two health teachers hired at the start of this school year to help elementary school students in the Amherst District catch up on academics while getting better. attacking the socio-emotional setback that many children have experienced as Covid-19. rages.
DiRienzo and Maya Dils, the new health teacher at Windermere Boulevard Elementary, have spent this school year teaching a new curriculum to K-5 students focused on the importance of eating well and exercising regularly. – but also interpersonal skills that include patience and gratitude, as well as how to express feelings appropriately.
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“It was a shock for them, so the health program came at the right time,” Dils said. “I notice a lot of difficulty building peer relationships or navigating peer relationships. The focus on social and emotional learning helps them understand why it’s important to work together, why it’s important to share, why it’s important to be kind to each other. They haven’t necessarily had to do these things for two years.
The tiered approach – traditionally designed for middle and high school students – combines the efforts of new health teachers, who also teach part-time physical education, with homeroom teachers, guidance counselors , psychologists and student personal services.
He has helped all students better navigate pandemic transitions, as well as identify patients and families in need of additional support, taking a team approach to meeting the greatest challenges.
“Everyone’s circumstances are different,” DiRienzo said, “so it takes a bit of what the students do at home and then gives our families a bit of what we do in the classroom, so we can kind of so as to fill in the gaps.”
The pandemic has made some of these gaps more gaping.
Six years ago, about 16.5% of children aged 6 to 17 had at least one mental health diagnosis, according to data from the National Child Health Survey. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.1% of children ages 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety and 3.2% with depression.
“This virus has thrown us a curveball or two. You never know for sure,” said Dr. Thomas A. Russo, chief of infectious diseases at UB’s Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.
“Then came the pandemic,” Dr. Carol Weitzman, director of developmental-behavioral pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine, said in an interview late last year with Stateline, a publication of the Pew Charitable Trust.. “We don’t yet know much about how this has affected children’s mental health. We are just beginning to learn. But we do know that about a quarter of all children present with symptoms of depression and a fifth with symptoms of anxiety.
“That’s millions more children than before the pandemic.”
The US bailout, passed in March 2021, included $170 billion in funding for schools, some of which were used to bolster mental health services.
The fallout from the pandemic also prompted New York State Health Commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett at the end of Public Health Week in April to call for better access to support services. in mental, emotional and behavioral health for all state residents.
Bassett noted that half of mental health disorders begin at age 18 and 75% at age 24.
“We talk a lot about students falling behind academically, but I think they’re also, maybe even more, socially behind,” said Jeffrey Wheaton, district health, physical education and athletics director. Amherst Central School.
“We need to emphasize interpersonal skills,” he said. “How do we respect each other? How do we face adversity? These types of skills.
The challenge, Dils said, is that many children and adults only see the physical side of health and not the mental, emotional and behavioral parts.
“You need all the pieces of the puzzle,” she said, “to be healthy overall.”
The state framework for teaching mental health education has three components.
Teach self-management by improving self-awareness of what it means to live healthy and resilient.
Develop healthy relationships through communication, empathy and compassion.
Knowing what, when, where and how to ask for help for yourself and others.
Amherst’s elementary course topics cover appropriate expression of feelings, self-care and healthy habits, bullying, good digital citizenship, how to show forgiveness and gratitude. There are also lessons on nutrition and food groups, drug and alcohol prevention, safety, disease prevention, healthy relationships, stress, and how to recognize inappropriate advances from adults and parents. other children.
“Topics can be changed and adjusted based on social norms within our society, especially for fifth graders,” Wheaton said. “For example, lessons about the dangers of tobacco use are now shifting to vaping and social media safety was more about physical danger from strangers and now it’s more about safe online use.”
Older elementary school students could also learn to read food labels, DiRienzo said, or be encouraged to use adult coloring books or other strategies to deal with daily fears and frustrations.
“When we walk into the classroom, the students enjoy the conversations,” Dils said. ” They participate. They ask questions. They want to share things about their own life.
The type of open communication that develops helps them understand that others share similar feelings and are trying to overcome similar challenges. It also helps to build closer bonds between students, their classmates and staff in a way that brings more encouragement, confidence, hope and optimism into everyday life.
“Kids love it,” said Cathryn Mahon, a fifth grade teacher who worked at Batavia at the start of the pandemic and started at Smallwood Elementary this school year.
The District of Amherst uses national health education standards to promote personal, family, and community health at all school levels. Students receive health education each year from kindergarten through ninth grade, and the district is considering whether to offer higher-level electives in the future, Wheaton said.
Amherst also has a district-wide Wellness Committee and encourages a holistic approach to health and wellness in all academic subjects.
Mahon freshmen did five sets of jumping jacks during their lesson last month on the digestive system.
They learned that if you stand on your head, your muscles are still pushing food through your digestive tract. That the platypus digests its food in the intestines, not in the stomach. And that burp is a way to release the air you consume with your food and drink.
DiRienzo and Dils also provided reinforcement on good sanitary hygiene as the pandemic and its Covid-19 variants continue. Advice includes limiting screen time, exercising more and getting enough sleep, as well as using proper etiquette with hand washing, sneezing and staying home when sick – as well as not wearing of judgment if some students and adults choose to continue wearing masks.
As summer approaches, those involved in the new Elementary Health Curriculum are pleased with the progress students are making during these difficult times.
“I think the focus has been more on a sense of normalcy and getting back to some of our more traditional rituals and routines,” Wheaton said. “It’s the way the world right now, the way we live, that we run.
“We are doing the best we can.”