SPRINGDALE, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) – As the first day of school looms over local students and parents, both groups may be feeling excited and anxious about getting the school year off on the right track.

The Director of Student Services at Springdale Schools, Damon Donnell, says he still remembers how it felt to send his daughters off to school for the first time.

“It was really hard for me to know that they were going to be safe, that they were going to be secure, that they were going to have a good time, and that they were going to be loved there,” he admits.

And that worry is understandable. Donnell says in the first weeks of school, students often begin forming significant bonds and connections. But according to a 2021 report from the Centers for Disease Control, only 61% of high school students say they feel connected to people at school.

It’s something Amanda Kuttenkuler, the Vice President of Programs at the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, says is a common concern.

“We know it’s a real problem,” begins Kuttenkuler. “[And] it’s not in just one school district. It’s not in just a small town or a big city or where crime is higher or lower. It’s everywhere.”

Kuttenkuler says her nonprofit travels the state teaching Mental Health First Aid classes, which informs adults how to identify when kids are struggling with their mental health. For kids, Kuttenkuler, says mental health is often tied to how a student feels like they’re fitting in.

“That’s where their identity comes from. It’s being a student, making a team, you know? And even though we want to say: “that’s not where your identity is,” it’s as much their identity as my job is mine or your job is yours.”

That’s why Donnell says districts like his focus on identifying students that are struggling to belong.

“We’ll either get those students with a counselor or a social worker, and really help that student engage into that school better,” says Donnell.

But before that becomes necessary, Donnell says parents help take out a lot of that first-day stress by walking their kids through things like locker combinations and schedules.

 “Probably the biggest fear that kids have is: “I’m not going to know anybody,” and “I’m going to be all by myself.” But if they know in advance that other kids are going to be in those classes with them… then that’s a really big relief for that anxiety.”

And if problems do arise, Kuttenkuler says a listening ear is crucial.

“Kids are going to tell us stuff all the time that we’re like: “that is crazy! I can’t believe you did that!” Or “oh, you thought that was a good idea?” But listen, non-judgmentally. Let them know that you’re there.”

As for parents who might be feeling anxious too, Donnell recommends basic precautions like preparing for that heightened first-week-of-school traffic.

But he also told our team the best piece of advice he once received from a friend.

“He said: “Let them fly. Let them fly.” And I got to tell you, that took me a while to really internalize. But once I did, I knew that I was doing the best thing for my kid to let them have their own path in life.”

If you’re looking for further information on how to be a mental health resource for people in your life you care about, Kuttenkuler encourages you to sign up for one of her nonprofit’s mental health first aid classes, made possible through a partnership with Arkansas Blue Cross Blue Shield. You can find a link to signups here.