This is the second of a four-part special report. 

FARMINGDALE — Before Dani Quirion’s students left for winter break, she asked them to reflect on three things they were proud to have done over the past year.

“I’m doing the best that I can,” said one of her students, who is timid and does not share much. “I can’t always get online because my Wi-Fi is bad, but I’m trying my best. COVID-19 taught us to work together and be nice, and I wish that it could be over so we could take off our masks and be together.”

Nearly brought to tears by what her student had shared, Quirion cited instances like that for why she teaches.

Quirion has seen the mental health struggles her students are experiencing, and three years ago implemented mindful activities into her sixth-grade science class at Hall-Dale Middle School in Farmingdale as a way to connect with them.

Quirion also wanted to show students healthy ways to handle anxiety or appropriate responses to stressful situations.

After seeing the positive impact of her efforts and how students looked forward to them daily, Quirion decided to make them part of the routine in her classes.

Quirion said students benefit from “hearing peers’ experiences, and being able to connect that they aren’t the only ones to go through this.”

“It’s helpful to have the validation from their peers, and not just from adults,” she said.

Dani Quirion, a sixth-grade teacher at Hall-Dale Middle School in Farmingdale, discusses Mindful Games cards during an interview last month in Winslow. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Quirion said she has taught students to be mindful and reflect on experiences that did not go as intended or expected. She uses iPhone applications, including “Calm” or “Smiling Mind,” to teach students mindfulness, which seeks to help them understand their thoughts, feelings and emotions.

She also has them play the game “Two Roses and a Thorn,” in which students talk about two parts of their day they enjoyed and one they did not.

Hall-Dale, along with other Regional School Unit 2 schools, has been in a hybrid-learning model this school year. Quirion said she has seen how the coronavirus pandemic has affected her students, including their having to juggle more responsibilities, manage their online homework and even deal with fear of family members dying with COVID-19.

“In sixth grade, they are aware of so much,” Quirion said. “I think that as adults, we need to shift our perspective and understanding that they know more than we think they do, and that they need to hear from adults.

“It’s something that if you approach it with realness, they will be real back. Relationships are the foundation of teaching, and I want to give them the opportunity — if they don’t have it at home — to have it at school.”

HOW SCHOOLS CAN HELP

Many schools across Maine offer guidance counselors or social workers to whom students can turn in times of stress.

Lita Blanchard, social worker in Winthrop Public Schools, said her job has become increasingly difficult because there is less time to connect with students who might need help or have received help in the past. Blanchard works at Winthrop’s three schools, and has found it challenging to connect with students.

During a typical school year, Blanchard said, she would take students out of class or a study hall. Now, given how schedules are set, she is unable to do that, even though students are learning in person four days a week.

Blanchard, who also has a private counseling practice, said referring students to therapists outside of school is difficult because most therapists are fully booked due to the coronavirus pandemic. Blanchard said Wednesdays, when Winthrop does not have school, have become especially stressful for students and parents because of COVID-19.

“We are in a long-term pandemic and, because of that, a lot of private therapists aren’t seeing people in person,” Blanchard said. “Most therapists are doing Zoom (videoconferencing), and that doesn’t really work well for kids.”

Many students and parents these days are struggling with a lack of public and social interaction, according to Blanchard. People miss our “touch-based” society that normally allows students and adults to be together and have contact with one another.

“I think that with the younger kids, the grade school kids, the fact that they have to be distanced, adults can’t touch them and they can’t share toys and things — they have to stay distanced at recess — it’s very difficult for them,” Blanchard said.

She compared the pandemic to summer vacation, which can feel like the longest time in some students’ lives.

“They have only lived a certain amount of years,” Blanchard said, adding the pandemic can seem daunting to many children.

She said parents should watch children closely and teachers should check on students regularly, and refer them to school guidance counselors, if necessary.

The Mindful Games cards that Dani Quirion, a teacher at Hall-Dale Middle School in Farmingdale, uses with her sixth-graders. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Blanchard said Winthrop’s guidance counselors have been spending most of their time recently checking on students.

“We need to be checking in more frequently,” she said. “I think it’s important for families to stay in close contact with staff. For instance, if their child is doing poorly that day, they can email or text to say they are on shaky grounds.”

Blanchard said students also need be aware. They should check in and practice self-care, such as physical activity, coloring and talking with friends. Such activities, she said, can be greatly beneficial.

Quirion said the best advice she has for her students is to practice the mindfulness activities she has taught them.

Part of the reason she has shown her students multiple ways to be mindful is so they can pick what works best for them.

One of Quirion’s students, for example, recognized that doing the dishes can be mindful. Others have told Quirion how they have practiced their meditation exercises during the weekend.

“Kids can develop their own techniques and coping skills naturally,” Quirion said, “if they know how to identify what they are doing or have the ability to explain what works and how they can practice and do it more consistently.”

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