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First Graders Have Never Had A Normal School Year. Here’s How They And Their Teachers Are Coping

The teacher is talking to her students.
Amy Feiereisel/ NCPR News

Jessica Quimby is trying to teach a math lesson. She’s up front on a big colorful rug, where all her first graders are supposed to sit. A couple of them are sitting, but many more are running around the room, crawling under desks and tables. One is trying to get the attention of his friend by hitting him with a book.

Quimby, who has been teaching at Salmon River Elementary School for four years now, says this is the new normal.

“Overall they have very little stamina to get anything done. So that’s been a huge adjustment for us. I haven’t been able to teach as much as I would have at this point in the school year."

She says some of her students are still at a PRE-K level, academically and emotionally.

"Like, the levels are just so vast in my room that it’s been a hard time getting like the whole group instruction going and being successful with it.”

Quimby says she can really feel the impact of the pandemic on her students. They spent a lot less time in Pre-K and Kindergarten than they normally would have, and "some of them have never been in school before because they chose remote or because they were homeschooled because of the pandemic. They didn’t get as much socializing as they would have.”

Quimby says a lot of Pre-K and Kindergarten is about acclimating kids to the school environment. The kids are supposed to learn how to play with others, and get used to school schedules and teachers.

Quimby’s students didn’t have that, and she’s seeing it in how the kids are behaving.

“To be honest," she says, "it’s been kind of crazy. [They're] like running around the room, and they’re fighting with each other.”

She says meltdowns and tantrums are pretty common.

Dealing with the emotional needs of her students is having an emotional toll on Quimby, too.

Early on in the school year, she said that she was really tired, and feeling "like I normally would at the end of the school year, at the beginning of the school year. Which is kind of scary."

She wondered how she would get to the end, how she could possibly sustain herself: "I’ve said it a few times in meetings too where I’m like: I can’t do it. I can’t do it at this pace.”

Across the region, schools are having to make big readjustments to meet the needs of their students and teachers. Many have created new support programs and positions to deal with a sharp rise in emotional and mental issues in students.

Salmon River hired Melissa Cross. She's technically a teacher's aide, but her job is more like an emotional support person, or an unofficial counselor. When students' tantrums or fights escalate into something teachers can't handle by themselves, they call Cross.

“If it’s a high level meltdown, I usually go up to the classroom, and the principal usually assists me. We’re able to normally talk the kid down into, let’s go for a walk.”

Instead of detention or in-school-suspension, Cross takes the kids to her room, which is in a less trafficked area of the school building. “It’s away from everybody, so it’s a place where they can have their outburst, once they calm down then we can start walking through different steps.”

Sometimes a student just needs to talk. Some will do yoga or breathing exercises with Cross. They’ll talk about how to manage feeling overwhelmed, or sad, or angry.

A lot of kids need her help, following a regional and national trend. The first week of December, the United States Surgeon General issued an advisory outlining the devastating impacts of the pandemic on children’s mental health.

"This was a challenge before, the challenge has gotten worse. And I believe this is a critical issue that we have to do something about now, we can’t wait until the pandemic is over."

Melissa Cross is seeing the national crisis play out in real time on a hyper-local level.

“It’s been happening a lot more than in the past. Between three and five times a week we have what we call our heavy hitters. Angry, throwing fists, throwing chairs, destroying classrooms."

Cross says most of her cases are in the younger grades, and that’s been echoed by other elementary principals across the region. Cross says the majority are first graders. They are really overwhelmed by what’s being asked of them: “Now you’re expecting them to sit all day, through instruction, no nap, no stuff that they’re used to, and kindergarten was only a three hour day."

If you talk to a classroom of first graders, the way I did, they certainly won’t tell you they’re traumatized.

When I asked how school was going, I got a lot of enthusiastic one-word responses about recess and lunch. They all said they liked school, and they thought masks were annoying.

But there are hints of the pressure these kids are feeling. Six year old Mia Wylie says, "the most hardest thing is being in school so long. But it’s fun."

Isaiah Seymour says that sometimes, it can be hard to focus in class. "You just need to listen to her [the teacher]." But that can be hard, he says,"cause all the kids are talking."

Isaiah knows his classroom is a little chaotic, but he doesn’t know the difference between it and a pre-pandemic classroom. His teachers, and guidance counselors, and principals, do.

For the students' sake, and perhaps their own, they’ve had to change expectations, says Salmon River Elementary Principal, Ben Barkley. He says the pandemic has made it very clear that “before you can get into the instruction, you have to get those rituals and routines in place. Once you have those social and emotional component in place, then it’s much easier to provide instruction. Our younger students really are struggling with that. But we’ll get there. In time."

Some of the changes they’ve made this fall include extra recess time, and more class breaks. They take the time to practice routines, like walking in lines and sitting on the rug. Social and emotional needs is the priority, not knowing how to add three and six.

And Jessica Quimby says her students are making progress, day by day.