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Students around the country spent months trying to adapt to remote learning. Now many of them are trying to adjust again to in-person learning. And that can be a challenge. Health experts recently called the decline in children and adolescents' mental health a national emergency. NPR's Elizabeth Blair tells us how some art teachers are trying to help.
ELIZABETH BLAIR, BYLINE: Think back to sixth grade - your first year of middle school, tons of new people you don't know. It's always been a big transition for kids, says Jesse Mazur, the principal of George Washington Middle School in Alexandria, Va.
JESSE MAZUR: We have sixth-graders that come from eight different feeder schools. So when our sixth-graders arrive here, there's generally some jockeying for social positioning.
BLAIR: That jockeying is happening so much this year, says Mazur, it's almost like they have an entire building full of sixth-graders.
MAZUR: I think it caught us all off guard. The student behaviors were not what we anticipated.
BLAIR: But unexpected emotions are more than OK in theater.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Whoa. This will change my life. I can fly.
BLAIR: And that's what you find in the controlled chaos of Robert McDonough's drama class. Some 20 seventh-graders in small groups rehearse different scenes in the same room at the same time. McDonough gives each group feedback.
ROBERT MCDONOUGH: All right. So take it from your (unintelligible). Give her her cue.
BLAIR: The energy is high, and McDonough doesn't try to turn it off. He says after months of being estranged from their peers, students are eager to be together again.
MCDONOUGH: There is a hunger for that piece that was missing. And so they're on the search to find it, to get it. It is great. It can be a little tiring (laughter) just so you know.
JAMES HAYWOOD ROLLING JR: My hope is that teachers recognize that even though it's a struggle right now, we're very much needed.
BLAIR: James Haywood Rolling Jr. is a former art teacher and president of the National Art Education Association. He says art class is often a school's oasis.
HAYWOOD ROLLING: Art teachers have a unique ability to affect students' agency, their sense of being able to take what is a mess or chaos and make order out of it.
BLAIR: But it's not like kids can just go back to art or drama and everything's fine. Early childhood music teachers have had some of their best tools taken away. Music therapist Monica Levin Zooms into a small class of 3- and 4-year-olds at Frances Fuchs Early Childhood Education Center in Prince George's County, Md.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) Hello, friends. How are you?
BLAIR: The kids wear masks and keep their distance from each other - well, try to.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Sit down.
BLAIR: For Levin, this is better than no music class at all, but...
MONICA LEVIN: They're missing the ability to share, to take turns, to touch toys together. When kids were in-person pre-pandemic, I could sit kids on the floor, and they could share a small drum together, so they're making music together. And those kinds of things I do miss because it's a catalyst for language development, questions and answer, you know, inquiry.
BLAIR: Older kids are also struggling. Heaven Hill is a high school junior in Chicago.
HEAVEN HILL: Since we've been alone for over a year, getting back into socializing with classmates and teachers has been a little difficult. There is - I have noticed, like, a disconnect being around so many people at once. I can feel kind of anxious sometimes.
BLAIR: And do you see art as an important outlet?
HILL: Yes, 100%.
BLAIR: At a program called After School Matters, Hill makes brilliantly colored mosaics that have been turned into public murals.
HILL: I love the idea of having to figure out how I can make these tiles flow and show movement through tile and color. And I just love looking at the process and being in the process. I just think it's a great creative way to say what you want without actually having to speak.
BLAIR: Another creative way to say what you want is to sing. Music therapist Stephanie Leavell writes songs to help small children understand what's going on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
STEPHANIE LEAVELL: (Singing) I will be washing my hands.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: A lot.
LEAVELL: (Singing) My teacher will be washing their hands.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: A lot.
LEAVELL: (Singing) My friends will be washing their hands because school's different this year.
BLAIR: Leavell says she doesn't sugarcoat.
LEAVELL: I think that kids are so perceptive. And they have the ability to understand their own emotions in the right environment. And then this one was just an opportunity to say, you know, all of these big things are happening. All of these big changes are happening, but it's going to be OK.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LEAVELL: (Singing) School's a little different this year. Schools are a little different this year. It might feel a little weird because school's different this year.
BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News, Washington.
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