As things start to feel a little more “normal” (though we are STILL IN A PANDEMIC my friends!), we will be dealing with the many lingering effects of COVID in many ways for the foreseeable future. Today we are hearing about how Clubs in Rhode Island have come together to meet the needs of the youth in their state right now from Erin Gilliatt, Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of East Providence.
For someone who has spent the last three months talking non-stop about the effects of the pandemic on youth mental health, this blog post has been hard to start. In fact, it’s been staring at me from my “To Do” list tauntingly for weeks, which probably says as much about my own mental health and exhaustion as anything else, since this is a topic that I feel passionately about. But I think this sense of overwhelmed confusion tinged with optimism is where a lot of us find ourselves at this unique moment in time, and if us grown-ups are feeling this way, I can only imagine how the youth that we serve are doing.
Like any good data-geek, I started this writing assignment by googling “youth mental health covid” and I received 182,000,000 results in .65 seconds. Let that sink in for a second – that’s a huge volume of information that reflects the uncertainty and concern about this topic. At times it feels like we don’t know more than we know, and we most certainly don’t know what the true impact of the loss, fear, isolation, and upheaval will be on our youth. As youth development professionals, we want to get to work helping our kids recover – but without an understanding of the scope of the problem, it is hard to find a path forward.
The State of the Kids in Rhode Island – The Kids are (Sort of?) Alright(?)
The six Boys & Girls Clubs in Rhode Island have worked hand-in-hand since the Covid crisis began and we decided this spring that our best first step into the new normal was to truly find out how our kids were doing. We worked with an independent evaluator to field a survey for Club kids statewide to ask them just that, and I think our results speak to trends we would find throughout our Movement.
- Overall, kids are “ok.” When the data was analyzed, overall 70% of youth responses to questions on their social emotion wellness were positive. When I read this, I was initially really pleased – at least it was better than half, and the kids weren’t completely miserable. But digging into the data we can see more of the outlines of where we need to get to work:
- Kids are experiencing the school stress that we forecasted. In our survey, 54% of a largely elementary school audience indicated they were stressed about school. Again, not terrible – it wasn’t 100% – but given that the average survey taker was in 4th grade, it’s something we need to be aware of as we move forward this summer.
- Kids are, unfortunately, sad. When asked how often in the last week they had felt sad, 55% of our survey takers said sometimes, and 10% said a lot. This is a significant number and gives us some real marching orders in terms of helping youth with their social emotional wellness.
- Kids are bored…. But aren’t we all? When asked, 57% of our survey takers said they had been bored at least sometimes in the last week – and 28% said they had been bored a lot. Our survey asked kids about their broad experiences both in and out of Clubs, so some of this reflects what is happening outside our doors, but some of this also reflects the changes many of us have had to make in how we do business. For those of us that still have to keep kids in stable pods with limited movement around the Club, it isn’t as fun as it used to be.
So armed with this data, and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, we are poised to do what we do best – making sure kids are having fun being KIDS.
Crafting Our Response
With a better handle on the scope of the work to be done, we can plan our next steps and clearly see our role in rebuilding our communities:
- Focus on FUN: FUN is in our DNA at the Clubs, so we are absolutely poised to bring joy back into our member’s lives as we return to normal this summer. For Clubs that have remained in limited operations, this will be a great opportunity to celebrate restarting some paused favorite activities. Challenge staff to embed spontaneous fun throughout the Club day, hold a contest where kids vote on the Club activity they missed most last year, throw a “Back to Normal” party to get kids who may not have seen their friends from other schools back together…. A deliberate focus on FUN will be paramount this summer.
- Focus on ROUTINE: Although we are returning to normal, it is still going to be a major change for our kids and from what they have been used to for the past fifteen months. Having solid routines built into the Club day will help give kids of all ages a sense of security as they make what will hopefully be the last pivot of the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Focus on MOVEMENT: Clubs have a strong track record of getting kids up and moving: pre-pandemic, in fact, 37% of Club members were getting the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity per day, vs 25% of youth as a whole. Now it’s time to dial up the focus on movement – for a number of reasons. First, we know that kids on average moved less and watched more screens during the pandemic. Second, we know that kids tend to move less the older they get, and there is growing concern that the pandemic has lowered this “baseline” level of movement for youth which will affect them going forward. And finally, we know that exercise is a key component of mental wellbeing. The Rhode Island data proved this out, actually, as youth who reported getting more exercise also reported being happier and less stressed.
- Focus on WELLNESS: Beyond just getting kids active, we also have our work cut out for us on broader wellness initiatives, specifically those around mental health. The full ramifications of the pandemic won’t be known for awhile, but the Rhode Island data shows that we have challenges ahead. For those kids who are struggling, that 10% who are sad a lot, we need to identify them and refer them out to our mental health partners for more help. But for the 55% who are sometimes sad? They are our call to action. Our organization is taking a multifaceted approach to this piece. Our first step has been making sure our staff are prepared for the challenges ahead through trauma-informed and mental health first aid trainings. Next, we are strengthening our partnerships with local mental health providers to ensure that when we need to make referrals, we have the best organizations on speed dial. Then we are building out a menu of programs with wellness embedded throughout – from formal curricula like Positive Action and SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness, to guided meditations and yoga classes, to art projects designed to help kids process their emotions. I would urge everyone who hasn’t already to direct their staff to the amazing trauma-informed trainings now available on SLU as a great first step in our upcoming work.
While things are looking better, we know as youth development professionals we have our work cut out for us to help our youth rebuild. Even without your statewide data, an informal poll of your Club members might help you see the areas your organization can focus on over the next few months to help your members navigate this last transition. For ideas on how to do this, check out the Screeners for Emotional Wellness resource on BGCA.net, and for some state-level data about how our communities are faring overall, check out this recent ClubX Blog post. I wish you the best, most fun-filled Club summer yet – and look forward to hearing all of us complaining about how loud and crazy the kids are when our clubhouses are back to their usual happy chaos.
Helpful Resources for Supporting Youth Emotional Wellness
- Screeners for Emotional Wellness: Use this resource to help collect information on what your youth, families, and staff need to support their emotional wellbeing.
- SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness: Use this resource to teach youth the resiliency skills they need to navigate through challenging events.
- Providing Support for Grief & Loss: Use this resource learn more about resources and strategies for supporting youth, families, and staff that have experienced loss and trauma.
- Mental Health Discussion Guides: Use these resources to learn more about youth mental health needs, and how to facilitate a discussion that supports their mental wellbeing. Find them in the Mental Health section of the “Do” page on the Behavior Support Toolkit. These resources are available to anyone, including non-Club staff.
- Family Engagement Planning Guide: Use this resource to learn more about how to engage families to better support youth’s needs.
- Trauma-Informed Training Calendar: Use this resource to sign-up for upcoming trauma-informed training sessions to learn more about how to support youth who have experienced trauma.
- Mental Health First Aid Trainings: Use this resource to request a training on how to support youth in crisis. This resource is available to anyone, including non-Club staff.
- 211.org: Use this resource to look up local organizations to partner with in supporting your youth and families’ needs. This resource is available to anyone, including non-Club staff.
How do you use data at your Club? What initiatives or programming have you implemented in response to what you’ve learned from youth? We want to hear! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email ClubXBlog@bgca.org.
Erin Gilliatt has served in the Movement since 2000, becoming Executive Director of the Boys & Girls Club of East Providence in 2004. She has general oversight for all Club functions, including ensuring that current Club programs are based on industry best practices, with a focus on measuring program outcomes.