Featured pediatric expert
Dr. Sarah Gubara is a pediatric psychology fellow at CHOC, specializing in trauma, suicidality, and program development focused on systemic mental wellness interventions. She continues to develop empirical studies on the intersectionality of culture and mental health as a researcher for her alma mater Johns Hopkins University. Passionate about increasing access to mental health care, she is currently developing the Mental Health Crisis Clinic at CHOC, the first clinic of its kind in Southern California providing short term access to children experiencing suicidal ideation.
Melanie Cole, MS (Host): Welcome to Long Live Childhood, a pediatric health and wellness podcast presented by Children’s Health of Orange County. Together, we can keep kids happy and healthy. I’m Melanie Cole. And joining me today is Dr. Sarah Gubara. She’s a pediatric psychologist with Children’s Health of Orange County, and she’s here to tell us about supporting academic wellness through mental wellness for our children.
Melanie Cole (Host): Dr. Gubara, it’s such a pleasure to have you with us today, and I really love this topic. Can you tell us a little bit about how mental wellness and academic wellness are connected?
Dr. Sarah Gubara: Absolutely. Well, I’m very delighted to be here chatting with you today. And mental wellness and academic wellness are absolutely connected. I always like to say you have one brain and you carry it with you everywhere you go. And so, our brains impact everything from our energy level, our concentration, processing and performance. So, they’re very interconnected.
Melanie Cole (Host): We’ve seen this epidemic of mental issues. This real mental health epidemic with our children lately. In what way are you seeing these mental health challenges that our children have been going through for the past few years, which is I have two children and I can tell you that the anxiety and things of that nature have really risen in the last three or four years. And so, can you tell us how those mental health challenges, such as anxiety and depression impact how our children learn and their academic achievement?
Dr. Sarah Gubara: Yeah, it definitely changes so many things for kids now, and we are seeing quite a difference post-COVID. It is no surprise that anxiety and depression are correlated with low grades. And unfortunately, what we see is an intersection of discipline versus diagnosis where sometimes kids are penalized for these lower grades, but it is so related to some of their mental health symptoms. And so, one of the biggest ways that this challenge exists is because our brains have a limited number of cognitive resources. And so, those resources are distributed to manage regulation if you’re experiencing any impairment or anxiety or depression, and they have to balance that between all the resources you need for learning and encoding new material and memories.
Melanie Cole (Host): Well, I’ve seen it. You know, I saw when my kids were having these anxiety and depression disorders that their grades were suffering, and certainly all of the online school really affected both aspects, academic achievement and mental health and wellness. What are some coping strategies and tools that teachers and parents, Dr. Gubara, can share with their children and their students to optimize learning? Give us some really good tips here.
Dr. Sarah Gubara: Yeah. I think the first tip that is often missed is building connection with that child. I think too often we take this one-size-fits-all approach, but we really have to identify the gaps with that individual child. And what ends up happening is we actually foster a sense of ownership with that child to take on more of those strategies that make sense for them. The second thing that is really helpful is scaffolding some of those strategies that teachers are already using in the classroom at home. This allows for more sustainable coping skills and we want to make sure that it works in a way that’s aligned with both schools and then personal values at home. If it’s cultural or academic beliefs or aspirations, it’s really important that we encourage care and repair as a community.
Melanie Cole (Host): What does care and repair mean?
Dr. Sarah Gubara: So, one of the things that we want to take a look at is values of success and academic achievement. Because when we talk about academic wellness, what does that really mean? To you and me, it might mean two very different things, right? I’m a self-professed nerd who loves reading and prioritized academic achievement. But for another one of my siblings who is more interested in the arts, that looks very different. And there’s room for both, and we want to encourage that. But globally, we want to focus on balancing taking care of our mental health, addressing vulnerabilities in a way that allows us to succeed in whatever endeavor or achievement we’re approaching.
Melanie Cole (Host): Dr. Gubara, our children, some of them are doing classes online. You know, my college daughter has some classes in person and some online. Because the AAP has changed the definition of screen time, right? I mean, it’s totally different now than it used to be. But social media has really interjected itself, not only into our children’s education, but into so much of their lives. Where do you see social media either helping or harming their academic achievement as it sort of invades their mental health space?
Dr. Sarah Gubara: So, as a former life, my first job out of college was as a social media manager. So, I love social media. There’s an opportunity to learn from people across the board, different strategies globally on how to learn. YouTube is so instrumental for teaching kids if it’s algebra or more advanced computer programming strategies. So, I think there’s a lot of opportunities to learn. And at the same time, we also want to balance how much exposure we’re having to information collecting without allowing our brains the chance to take a beat, if you will, and process what they are consuming. So, I think consumption without processing is something we do need to be mindful of.
Melanie Cole (Host): That’s really important information. And I think parents need to know what our children are doing and if we’re noticing some of these things and some red flags for kids. Now, CHOC and Orange County Department of Education are building well spaces throughout the county. Can you tell us more about the ways we can create spaces of calm, both at school and in the home that ultimately promotes students’ educational outcomes? In my home, we like to have music playing all around all the time, but soft music and kind of in the background, and it does create this space of calm. But what are some other ways? What are some ways that we can create those spaces? And what are some of the ways that CHOC and Orange County Department of Education have built those well spaces?
Dr. Sarah Gubara: Yeah. Creating a routine and a dedicated environment can be so important. Especially as we see so much overlap with how often we’re spending time at home and working from home and studying from home, creating a routine and some rituals of care when we approach studying or working is really important.
I love that you mentioned music. For some kids, having silence is really detrimental to focusing. I grew up in a family of six. So for me, studying in quiet is not going to pose me for success. I need to hear more liveliness and noise behind me, and it allows me to hyperfocus. For other kids, having things where they’re fidgeting and able to self-soothe is actually more indicated for their ability to be able to process and learn. And so as long as we’re child first and child focused on that child’s particular needs, it can be more helpful to us to identify what is more beneficial for that child. If it’s being outside when studying, which, you know, is a little easier in California, or if it’s having a chance to nap before studying, all those things need to be considered with your child about what feels right when we’re studying.
Melanie Cole (Host): Really, that’s a great bit of information right there. Great advice that we have to know what works for our child as they’re learning to study and they’re doing their homework. And what are some tips for balancing academic rigor and mental wellness? I’d like you to wrap this up and give us a summary, but also some self-care tips, not only for our children, but for ourselves, because we cannot really help our children through all of this if we’re not taking care of ourselves.
Dr. Sarah Gubara: Absolutely. I think we have to approach with intention and understanding that when we talk about self-care, these are science-backed initiatives and information on how our brains work. Our capacity to be able to focus and retain new information depends on what part of the brain we’re living in. And so, I think it’s really important that we first address vulnerabilities and that looks like making sure that we’re eating and sleeping and resting and taking breaks. I think the idea of multitasking and all-nighters has become so pervasive culturally that we forget that the brain’s capacity to function diminishes with every all-nighter we take.
And so, the first thing to balance is making sure that physiologically we’re taking care of our self. The brain is an organ and we need to treat it like we do all our other organs, which is taking care of its vulnerabilities first and, secondly, creating a routine and an accountability partner. So for kids, it’s easy to have that as a parent, but creating someone who says, “Hey, did you get a chance to take a break today or did you take a walk?” and then, get back to studying or reading or working.
Melanie Cole (Host): That’s really important, what you just said. As an exercise physiologist, I’m all about the taking a walk to get your brain back to that center spot where you can really focus. You’ve given us so much to think about, Dr. Gubara. Thank you so much for joining us today. For more mental health tips and information, please visit choc.org/mentalhealth.
Thank you so much for listening to Long Live Childhood, a pediatric health and wellness podcast presented by Children’s Health of Orange County. Together, we are keeping kids happy and healthy. Please, parents, remember to share on your social channels as we’re all learning from the experts at CHOC together. I’m Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for joining us today.