New program to address stress and anxiety in Oakland County children

By: Brendan Losinski | C&G Newspapers | Published March 10, 2023

 The ReNEWed Jr. program aims to address mental health concerns for young students at local schools through programs such as the one at Sheiko Elementary in West Bloomfield, pictured.

The ReNEWed Jr. program aims to address mental health concerns for young students at local schools through programs such as the one at Sheiko Elementary in West Bloomfield, pictured.

Photo provided by Julie Brenner


OAKLAND COUNTY — A new program is hoping to bring mental health help and training to young children throughout Oakland County’s school districts.

The ReNEW Jr. program is an extension of the ReNEW program that the Alliance of Coalitions for Healthy Communities started in middle schools over the last few years. The new program will now address issues like stress and anxiety with students in grades three through five.

“This program specifically focuses on students in the third through fifth grade. We’re exploring expanding it to even younger age groups,” said Alliance CEO Julie Brenner. “The plan is to fully launch it across Oakland County within the next two years. … We’re giving the youth the ability to recognize uncomfortable feelings that they may not have the knowledge or have the tools to address.”

The primary funder of the program is Variety the Children’s Charity, which has allowed ReNEW Jr. to partner with schools at no cost.

“As part of Variety’s core programs, we provide things for children with special needs or who are under-resourced,” said Michelle Murphy, the executive director of Variety. “The missing piece for us was a mental health program. We think of ourselves as small enough to listen but big enough to make a difference. We kept hearing that this was something kids need. We were lucky enough to be introduced to those at the coalition and to start talking about what we could do.”

Kendra Ruddy, the prevention program specialist with the coalition, said that ReNEW Jr. is all about bringing concepts of mental health to young people while making it easy to understand and digest.

“Our program is four weeks long. We go into the schools once a week and we try to focus on interactive things,” said Ruddy. “We try to identify what some of these big and difficult things are, how to recognize them, and healthy ways to manage them. We focus on mindfulness and what that can mean to young ones. It’s about paying attention to your body and learning to recognize when you do need to talk to somebody or perform some breathing exercises that we talk about in the program.”

She added that the key to working with children at this age is to make everything as interactive as possible.

“It’s really interactive. There’s lots of videos, and we practice things to help them address their emotions,” Ruddy said. “It could be writing in their notebook, it could be breathing exercises, it could be talking to somebody. Healthy friendships also are something we focus on. Even in middle schools, we’ve found that a lot of stress and difficult feelings come from friendships and the people we’re surrounding ourselves with. It’s not about talking to them — it’s about talking with them.”

All agreed that the need to address these concerns in younger children has been growing throughout the last several years.

“We know that kids have been exposed to a lot in the last several years, as we all have,” said Murphy. “For children, often, feelings are amplified, yet their voices are very small. With preventative programs and education, we hope to make a difference for them that is lifelong. These are skills and strategies people need as children, young people and adults. By doing it early, you are making a difference before a lot of these issues become a problem.”

“We know there were issues of stress and anxiety prior to COVID, but then when COVID hit, everything just escalated,” Ruddy added. “Isolation and not getting to interact with peers for a long time was a big deal. Social media also contributes to this. It’s everywhere, and students and children aren’t getting the same level of interaction as they did in the past. Coping with the issues that result have kind of slid under the rug in a lot of cases.”

The coalition covers Oakland County with strong substance support groups and mental health programming. All of its programming is free, and if there is a group already serving a community, they try to partner with them.

“Districts are usually strapped for resources,” said Brenner. “I think we can help by providing these types of resources. We’re here and happy to help in whatever way we can. … Any interested districts can contact Kendra and we can start the process for working together.”

The coalition can be contacted by emailing Ruddy at or calling (248) 221-7101.

Brenner said one of the best parts of this program is that it is flexible in order to fit the needs of an individual school.

“It’s adaptable,” she said. “We have thus far integrated it into the school day, but it can be done as an after-school program or be used in summer camps. It depends on what the school thinks works best. Because of Variety, it’s free, so any school district can adopt it.”

ReNEW Jr. has completed the first of its initial implementations and is already working with other schools.

“We just finished in West Bloomfield at Sheiko Elementary School,” said Ruddy. “We just started in Southfield at McIntyre Elementary. We’re in our initial phase right now, but we touched base with these schools through our local coalition partners. We hope to keep expanding this program into other schools (throughout Oakland County).”

Ruddy went on to say that addressing these issues at such a young age can encourage lifelong improvement.

“When we do these programs with kids this young, I think we break the stigma of addressing these issues,” she remarked. “They can seek help or admit that they are struggling with these tough feelings.”

“I want people to recognize that there are organizations in Oakland County that serve youth who want them to be healthy: mentally, spiritually and physically healthy,” added Brenner. “I hope we start seeing decreases in stress and anxiety as children this age get older and that we see improvements in mental and behavioral health.”