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5 ways that afterschool buffers toxic stress

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5 ways that afterschool buffers toxic stress

By Erin Hegarty and Lena Hoffman. 

As we navigate new terrain during this year's Mental Health Awareness Month, the COVID-19 pandemic is opening up new conversations about how we can safeguard and strengthen the mental well-being of children, young people, and families. Thoroughout May, we'll be highlighting how afterschool programs support children and young people as they face both new challenges, particularly social distancing's impact, and more familiar issues, including trauma, ACEs, and substance use.

Read the rest of our Mental Health Awareness Month coverage here.

With the increasing toll that the COVID-19 pandemic is taking on communities and families across the country, attention has turned to the impact the crisis has been having on youth mental health. Primary among the concerns of school health professionals, mental health practitioners, and public health experts is the current impact – and potential for significant future impact – resulting from children and youth experiencing prolonged stress.

What is toxic stress?

Stress, in itself, is not entirely negative. In tolerable amounts, it can actually be growth-promoting.  Stress becomes harmful when the dosage is more intense or is prolonged to the extent that it overwhelms the body’s stress response system. This type of stress is called toxic stress, because it can impair the brain’s growth and development, and can weaken other critical systems in the body, leading to problems with learning, behavior, and health in both the short term and throughout one’s lifespan.

While toxic stress may not always be avoidable, such as in cases of natural disasters or long-term public health crises, there are ways that this stress can be buffered and the harmful immediate and long-term effects can be mitigated. Research has shown that positive relationships with peers and stable, caring adults; predictable routines that emphasize healthy behaviors; and, social and emotional skill development can not only buffer and mitigate the impacts of toxic stress, they can increase the natural resilience of children and youth, leading to positive growth following traumatic experiences, as well as increased capacity to withstand future adversity.

Afterschool promotes mental wellness

Afterschool, rooted in a tradition of positive youth development, has evolved in ways that support social-emotional learning and whole-child development. And, as such, programs in and of themselves are buffers for toxic stress. For example, in addition to providing nutritious snacks and meals, and opportunities for physical activity, programs are now incorporating health education that supports the development of a wide range of healthy behaviors and routines, including avoiding drug and alcohol use, getting adequate sleep, and staying safe on the internet.

Increasingly, programs are implementing evidence-based models that promote the development of social-emotional skills, as well as incorporating concepts of trauma-informed care and whole-child development. And the most core component of any afterschool program is, and has always been, an explicit focus on creating a safe environment by fostering the development of positive peer relationships and providing the support of stable, caring adult program staff and activity leaders.

Afterschool networks responding to public health challenges

In 2018, several of the 50 Statewide Afterschool Networks came together to form a professional learning community to address the emerging public health crisis of substance misuse and addiction, with a particular focus on the opioid crisis. Since its inception, the group of networks has shared perspectives, resources, and ideas over monthly calls and at periodic in-person meetings. By spring 2020, especially with the additional challenges of COVID-19 introduced to the field, it was clear that the agenda needed to be broadened to tackle issues around mental health and social and emotional development. In recognition of the larger agenda, the group is now calling itself Ensuring Healthy Futures.

At the inaugural “virtual” meeting of Ensuring Healthy Futures, the Statewide Networks discussed the most immediate mental health impacts and challenges they have seen in the field, and identified the five most important ways that afterschool programs can help buffer and mitigate the negative impacts of toxic stress while youth are sheltered in place, and when they return to in-person programming at schools and community centers.

These five ways are:

  • Supportive adult and peer relationships;
  • Social-emotional learning:
  • Safety and belonging;
  • Youth voice and choice; and
  • Promoting physical health.

The networks also identified a number of unique challenges that the COVID-19 public health crisis presents to programs in buffering toxic stress in these ways. For example, the physical distancing protocols that are necessary to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus also present a challenge to building a sense of safety and belonging, and in fostering positive and adult and peer relationships. The activities and practices that programs traditionally utilize, including “circle time” and sitting together at meals, are not possible while sheltering-in-place, and will need to be significantly modified for the return to in-person programming.

The way forward

While the challenges may be significant, it’s important to remember that afterschool programs have a long history of overcoming challenges in innovative ways that are responsive to the needs of their communities—and programs are not alone in this. As schools return to in-person classes, they will be faced with the challenge of providing instruction to children and youth who have not only had a significant disruption to their academic progress, but will also likely be experiencing the negative physical, emotional, and cognitive effects of prolonged exposure to toxic stress that can impede their ability to learn. Schools will need the help of partners, including afterschool providers, who are similarly experienced in social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices, and who have the demonstrated ability to connect with and build trust and relationships with parents and caregivers.

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