Focus on Learning First, Grades Second, as Hawai‘i Schools Move Through Next Stages

Life Interrupted panelists urge families to connect with children over meals, talk about ways to deal with stress and work together to cope with changes.




As students face more changes at school over the next year, family and friends can help by talking about expectations and anxieties, and working together on ways to help cope with a swirl of strong feelings.


That was among the core messages from this week’s (May 20) panel for “Helping Students Recover and Grow,” the second session of HONOLULU Magazine’s free virtual mental health webinar, Life Interrupted: Navigating What’s Next.


Dr. Cathy Bell, a psychiatrist who specializes in strengthening families, urges parents to focus on the big picture rather than getting hung up on college prep or career prep. “We get so many messages from the world,” Bell says, that emphasize grades, scores and rankings above all. “But that’s not what makes the most successful, healthy, happy people.”


Dr Cathy Bell

Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Cathy Bell



Bell encourages families to talk about what’s important to them, which can be done in practical ways such making sure kids get enough sleep, spend time away from their screens and share chores that give children and teens responsibilities rather than having things always handed to them. The tasks can contribute to a sense of belonging, of contributing beyond each individual’s needs or wants, she says.


While the pandemic disrupted much of our lives and classroom time was lost for many, we should recognize that all of us learned important things, notes Phil Bossert, executive director of the Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools. Bossert says he hopes all schools recognize that whatever time they missed in the classroom had an impact but didn’t stop students from learning. “We do need to avoid telling students how much they lost, because we don’t want them to feel like they’re this loser generation that is never going to succeed, because they missed a whole year of school,” Bossert says.


Philip Bossert Hais Photo

Photo: Courtesy of Hawaiʻi Association of Independent Schools



Kanoelani Elementary principal Stacie Kunihisa agrees, adding that all schools need to find that balance on the seesaw between academics and social emotional learning.  “We’ve got to teach them those skills,” that help them recognize stress, to have the courage to talk about feelings and to be compassionate to others.


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Photo: Courtesy of Stacie Kunihisa



Kunihisa emphasizes that families and the community all help to shape students and provide them the coping skills to needed to lead happy lives.  And sometimes that message is as simple as “be nice to others; give grace; it starts with the family,” Kunihisa says. When there’s too much attention paid to the grades and scores at school, skills that help people work together and make a difference can get lost. “They’re not going to magically know how to be a good friend,” she says.


SEE ALSO: Hawai‘i Experts Share Strategies for Getting Through Pandemic Exhaustion


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Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Eduardo Jones



Dr. Eduardo Jones, Sutter Health Kāhi Mōhala’s director of behavioral health, encourages families to lean into what they’ve learned from spending more time together. “I think one quick tip is just to continue family meals,” he says, “a few days a week where you guys make sure you’re sitting together down as a family and having meaningful communication and spending that important time together.” Setting aside this time can help families talk about adjustments, be grateful for what they do have and brainstorm ways to figure out new routines.


Anisa Wiseman, program director for NAMI-Hawai‘i, encourages families to use pandemic tools such as video conferencing or online resources to reach out to get help. And she reminds us that change can happen gradually as we emerge from this strange time. “Pretend like you’re a bear in hibernation. Maybe you’re just kind of peeking out of your den and you can go out and pick some berries if you want to. But you can also go back to sleep in your den in your safe space. So, just be like the bear and go slow and take it one day at a time.”



Photo: Courtesy of Anisa Wiseman



As part of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Wiseman’s organization also runs structured eight-week courses that provide specific coping tools, family support groups, crisis intervention teams and workshops can all be reached through their website at


Kunihisa works to partner with families, including creating videos to share tips with parents that help explain school strategies.


SEE ALSO: Teaching Kids in Hawai‘i To Stay Cool, Calm and Collected


Mahalo to Dr. Jason Keifer, Brain Health Hawai‘i and the Kāhala Clinic for joining us as presenting sponsor for this year’s webinars. Our series began in May, which is Mental Health Month to help draw attention to the issues, nudge us toward solutions and illuminate resources available to all of us. And thank you to our silver sponsor: Hawai‘i Association of Independent Schools; and mahalo to our community partners Mental Health America Hawai‘i and NAMI (National Alliance for Mental Illness)–Hawai‘i.


Look for new webinars every other Thursday, next up June 3 and June 17. Missed a session? Find them here, available whenever you are.