Looking at Mental and Physical Health for our Exceptional Individuals

by Raymond T. Heipp. Ph.D.

As we look ahead toward the re-opening of school buildings and a return to face-to-face education, we will begin to see additional activities like forehead scans for fever, hand sanitizer or washing hands requirements, and the wearing of masks. While those will be important as we seek to regain healthy physical environments, we cannot forget what lies behind those masks; the individual and their mental health!

I can only share what I have experienced, heard from professionals in the field, or read in respectable articles. Anxiety rates, depression, and escalations have increased drastically. As neuro-typical adults, we have probably felt this anxiety during this time. A dear friend of mine who is a doctor on the front line with a teen who has some physical issues shared with me that the anxiety levels in her house are through the roof. Ironically, the major source of the anxiety there is from her husband who is worried for her well-being, his daughter’s well-being, and what this will mean for their family in the future. Their daughter has picked up on the worrying and has found her anxiety levels increased simply on account of that. However, she can actually process those feelings and express her concern to both her parents. What about those individuals who, after picking up anxiety from those around them, cannot process those feelings, express them, or even have someone with whom they can share them?

As we move into our next phase of life after this pandemic, we must keep the mental health of our exceptional individuals in mind. It will not be as simple as saying that “they will be back in school, so it will be normal.” It will not return to any sense of normalcy immediately. We need to understand that while we broke routines in shifting from face-to-face learning to virtual learning, we will also be breaking a newer routine of the virtual as we return to face-to-face learning. Add to that the fact that face-to-face learning may be adjusted to meet safety and health recommendations and may not be easily understood for some individuals. What happens when we cannot have lunch with our friends? What happens when courses like adapted physical education are changed or postponed to another semester? What happens when therapy time becomes a unique hybrid of face-to-face and virtual to protect against issues like this happening in the future? These are all events that can begin to heighten anxiety levels even after the return to a school building.

So what can we do? First, we must not live in denial. This pandemic, no matter what the news agencies state, caused a major disruption in learning. The shattering of the educational routine is something that is real and must be addressed and supported upon our return to the classroom. How can we do this? Look at ways of making learning a holistic process. Learning must become an area where we are not simply learning our numbers or letters. We need to take a look at how we can create lessons based on the individual needs and levels of our exceptional individuals that can be easily applied in multiple environments. What does that mean? Let’s break out just couple of areas here. Communication skills need to be presented in a way that can move the lessons to wherever the individual is located. SLPs can augment their face-to-face time with virtual sessions in school to make that transition to the home environment easier during a time of illness or day away from the building. Washing hands is something that should have a set routine which is followed everywhere. Even bus rides should have routines built in that demonstrate learning can take place in alternate locations. Thus, we must redefine routine to make it something which focuses around the individual, not the location.

Next, we must be aware of the need for some of our exceptional individuals, as well as some neuro-typical students, to have time and space to get away. Sensory rooms or spaces, and sensory items like socially and educationally-appropriate fidgets need to become acceptable and a new norm within schools and even workplaces. We need to work with all individuals and teach a level of understanding and tolerance for those who do not process anxiety easily. How do we make our learning environments more sensory-friendly? How do we as educators, especially in inclusive classrooms, move beyond the idea of “back in my day we….” and into an era where sensory breaks are part of the curriculum? Those are issues that are not pedagogical in nature. Those are issues that are directly related to mental well-being. If we are truly educating our students to become the best they can be, then we must give them the tools to deal with further anxiety in society. We need to be aware that the statement “I am getting them ready for the real world” in not allowing for sensory release is not factual. Instead, the truth of it lies in the fact that it is simply modeling what society is seeing in the “real world” and not doing anything to prepare for it. True preparation for dealing with that “real world anxiety” would include techniques for dealing with it; like sensory breaks, yoga, and meditation.

Finally, we need to understand that for some of our exceptional individuals, this is an event which will never fade from their memories. The actual trauma they may have experienced in this utter disruption of their lives will be similar to individuals who suffer from any level of PTSD. Please remember that PTSD is not strictly related to the military. In actuality, any major trauma can bring about its onset. We need to be conscious of this as our exceptional individuals return. We also must be supporting ourselves in this as we, too, have experienced the trauma of this pandemic at different levels. Thus, the best way for us to get ready to help our exceptional individuals is to make sure that we are supporting ourselves. Take time to center yourself each day. Find some time for you to relax and process all of this internally. Find some activity to bring you to a point of peace from which you can continue to make a difference in the lives of these individuals.

I thank you for all that you have done, are currently doing, and will continue to do. You, like our doctors and nurses, are on the front lines of life! We at School Health will be doing what we can to support you too. I am excited to announce two upcoming ways of us assisting you. First, we will be releasing a new video series at the end of this month. At the time of this blog, 15,000 of you had viewed our first series which focused on Working with Our Exceptional Individuals during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Our upcoming series is going to focus on Creating a Holistic Transitioning Model. We will be looking at changing our perceptions of transitioning from a linear to a holistic format; what that means and how we can do it effectively. I am also pleased to share with you that we will be hosting a webinar in August as we are returning to school buildings. This webinar is going to focus on the topic of anxiety and what our students will be facing as they re-enter school. Our guest speaker will be Dr. Maria Frankland from the University of Maine. Please stay tuned for specific information about that.

As always, please feel free to reach out to me with any questions at rheipp@schoolhealth.com. We are all in this together and will come out of this time stronger than ever!

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