Job, home losses are crippling schoolkids

Family stressors causing withdrawal, acting out

March 15, 2009 

In one day, Salida Middle School Principal Shannon Kettering encountered three students having difficulty coping with their family's financial struggles.

One child's father joined the military after losing his job and is training in another state before he's deployed overseas.

Another student's family is being evicted from their home. The boy is on a heart monitor and Kettering is concerned about his health.

The third hasn't been eating lunch.

"His parents can't afford it. I told them to apply for free and reduced lunches, but they said they are too proud to do that," Kettering said. "I told them they can't be that proud right now."

The downward-spiraling economy is taking its toll on everyone. Schoolchildren are no exception. Many are too young to understand their parents' struggles, but they notice the tension.

From losing their homes to foreclosure to parents losing jobs, money is tight and the youngsters begin taking on some of the same stress adults grapple with.

Children also must deal with impediments to learning that come from moving too often. Students who move twice in a year are half as likely as others to read proficiently, according to a recent study by First Focus, a nonpartisan group in Washington.

Moving also means switching schools and teachers and losing friends. The latter can be devastating to younger children, said Jonathan Sandoval, school psychologist and professor at the University of the Pacific.

"Children are very sensitive to their parents' level of stress and that gets reflected," Sandoval said, so it's no surprise that teachers and parents notice children acting out, withdrawing, not eating or getting lower grades.

Some of that behavior is leading to a rise in detentions and suspensions at area schools.

Lisa Cotroneo of Salida has seen many of the signs in her three children, ages 12 to 15. Cotroneo's husband was in between jobs a few months ago and the family went through three foreclosures in a year. The family is now renting. In February, Cotroneo and her husband weren't sure what the family was going to live on.

Cotroneo's children began acting out their frustration when they saw other students at school with new shoes and clothes. Their grades slipped for a few weeks but have been pulled back up to A's, she said.

"In the beginning, it was very stressful. We didn't have food; they didn't understand," she said. "There was a lot of hurt and emotions. We had to tell them, 'It's not your fault. It's just the way the economy is.' "

Teachers and school staff try to make campuses "a safe place, an upbeat and positive place when the ground is crumbling beneath you," said Connie Stark, principal of Sinclear Elementary School in Ceres.

The principals and Sandoval suggest parents tell children some of their financial struggles, but only what the children need to know.

"Let the child know what's happening, but temper it to their grade level," Stark said.

They suggest parents apply for subsidized meals to ensure children are eating well, because good nutrition is necessary for brain development.

Stark urged parents to look into after-school programs. Many districts, like Ceres Unified, offer after-school recreation and academic activities at no cost.

"It takes everybody to teach our children," Stark said. "It's the home, it's the school and it's the community."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.

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