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Districts adapt to new curricula to address mental health needs with students

Health awareness is slowly becoming more prominent within school curriculum as the conversation has slowly begun to turn from physical health to mental health.

Barb Anderson, a consultant with the Iowa Department of Education, said in an email there are no standards specific to mental health but there are health education standards required in preschool to 12th grade.

She said health literacy which includes mental health and awareness is also in the Iowa Core Standards. However, these are not a curriculum meaning they are only guidelines, not requirements, to assist staff with helping students. However, she said the department has recently drafted Second- Step Social Emotional Learning (SEL) competencies that focus on positive mental health. The competencies are optional while the department still is working through the details.

“The SEL Competencies are currently available for use while the department is piloting them, as well as continuing to encourage feedback throughout this school year,” she said.

Kathleen Gavin, Director of Instruction for the Mt. Pleasant Community School District, said the district has recently implemented the practices. She said they are used for all students from kindergartners to high school seniors.

She said the goal is to look at best practices for regulating behavior with students. That can come in the form of morning meetings where students and teachers check-in, or teaching breathing techniques for students to use when they are in distress.

“It’s those critical behaviors that really do impact a student’s ability or inability to learn. They have to be regulated or in the right frame of mind so from that perspective, that’s the intent of these standards,” she said.

In the Washington Community School District, Teresa Beenblossom, principal at Lincoln Elementary, and Adam Miller, principal at Stewart Elementary, report using the second step practices. Beenblossom said for the Lincoln students the practices are delivered during guidance class which students receive twice a week for 40 minutes. Stewart students have the same class for 30 minutes twice a week.

Within the program there are multiple ways to connect with students. Gavin said the social aspect focuses on helping students who struggle with how to express their feelings vocally or physically. She said if students do not know how to actively seek help and become a cooperative learner it could negatively impact not only themselves but how others view them as well.

She said sometimes when students act up other student do not want to be around them. The practice for teaching these skills begins with small things like greetings.

Gavin said in the kindergarten classrooms, students choose if they would like a fist bump, high five or hug from their teacher before they walk into the classroom. This allows the student to choose the social interaction and gives them a sense of comfort, she said.

The emotional learning competencies are designed to keep students in their upper brain, where decision making, critical thinking and impulse control skills are stored, she said. By having access to tools to regulate this, she said students are able to regulate themselves.

The zones of regulation are a tool that are used to help identify this, she said. Instead of using words like anxiety and depression, students are encouraged to explain if their body feels regulated or dysregulated.

By identifying if something is wrong the students are able to talk about it, reflect on it and prevent it she said. The zones are on a color scale that help the students identify where they are. Being in an orange zone could mean someone is grumpy because they skipped breakfast or being in a blue zone could mean they are happy because it is their birthday.

Miller and Beenblossom said students in both of their schools also use these tools and have seen great results. Miller said by having more ways to help students with mental health complications, it has made it easier to identify which students need more assistance.

“As we’re doing these programs for all kids, the ones who aren’t responding to some of the strategies we are using are really the ones who are starting to stand out as who needs some extra help,” he said.

Gavin said by identifying where the student is emotionally, it then opens doors to talk about why the body feels that way. This can be a lot for staff to handle, she said, which is why there is a guidance counselor and a social worker in every building of the Mt. Pleasant Community School District.

Taryn Mottet, counselor at Pence Elementary School in Fairfield, said it is required by the state to have one counselor per district. However, in her district, there is one in every elementary school, one in the middle school and two in the high school.

Angela Jones, Principal at Pence, said each student in the building receives at least 25 minutes of core guidance each week. Mottet said she goes into the classroom and teaches a curriculum, second step, to each student.

For students who need a bit more guidance, the district offers SAIG: social academic instruction groups. Mottet said the idea is give direct instruction to students in a smaller group. They work together on social skills and cooperating in different settings to give students the tools to be able to handle any situation.

Jones said the positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) program plays right into the curriculum. She said the teachers get together and share concerns with one another to determine if the student needs to meet with a counselor or be placed in a SAIG group.

Mottet said guidance counselors do the best they can but are not certified therapists and sometimes cannot help give the student exactly that they need. Instead, they source out to other therapists.

“As a school counselor we’re supposed to see students to fix smaller issues. We aren’t therapists. We give kid skills they can walk out the door with,” she said. “But truly if they’re seeing someone more than eight times they need to be referred to a therapist who can support the level of need they have.”

Mottet said the district decided to source out this year and has one therapist who travels to the different buildings to see students. The therapist sees everyone from kindergarten to seniors in high school once they are referred.

Jones said by having the therapist come directly to the school, it cuts down on the time the students are away from class and helps to take away the stigma receiving help is a negative thing. She said it allows the students to be more transparent with staff because they have someone they trust in the building.

Miller reflected that sentiment, saying the Washington school district sees it as an added benefit to provide that option. Beenblossom said sometimes families struggle to make it to appointments after working hours but by having a therapist in the school that issue is eliminated.

In the Washington district there are three providers in Lincoln, which serves students third through fifth-grade, and two in Stewart, which serves students Kindergarten through second grade. Miller said the preschoolers at Stewart learn social and emotional skills daily through play, eliminating the need for a curriculum. A psychologist has been hired for the district and visits each school as need three days a week.

Mottet said the increase in staff is not because mental health concerns are a new issue, they are just ones that has been buried for a while. She providing more services does not mean mental health issues have necessarily increased, they just have not been addressed.

“The students have been there with their mental health needs all along, its just now we’re becoming more aware of it and we’re able to serve them better by going to trainings and having people in our district and having different resources available to help them,” she said.