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December 1, 2017
Vol. 75
No. 4

Tell Me About … / A Change You Made That's Helped Support Students' Mental Health

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Social-emotional learning

Just Give Them a Break

Inspired by a workshop on trauma-informed practices led by fellow teachers, I created a "Break Box" in my classroom. The box contains puzzles, clay, coloring pages, a sand timer, and other small objects to help students self-soothe if they are feeling upset or unfocused. Students know that they can choose to take five minutes with the box whenever they need to. Since bringing in the box and explaining what it's for, I've seen an improvement in students' ability to advocate for themselves and focus on learning. Students who used to act out or shut down during challenging moments now take themselves to the Break Box, set the timer for five minutes, and "reset" themselves. More often than not, when the timer goes off, students are ready to re-engage in class. Having the Break Box available tells students that it's OK to need a break sometimes, and it teaches them concrete strategies for coping with negative emotions.
Sydney Chaffee, humanities teacher, Codman Academy Charter Public School, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 2017 National Teacher of the Year

Mentoring Teachers to Support Students

Watch Nikos Giannopoulos, 2017 Rhode Island Teacher of the Year, describe how his Dean of Students mentored him to support students who have experienced trauma.
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Relieve One Stress—A Lack of Materials

Eighty-seven percent of the 1,500 students who attend my high school live in poverty. Eight years ago, we began the Warrior Free Bookstore for all students. Each day during lunch period, students can retrieve materials they may need for their assignments, such as pencils, paper, index cards, spiral notebooks, jump drives, colored pencils, composition books, highlighters, markers, and poster board. The inventory is managed by our marketing classes, and no money is ever exchanged. One of our alumni, upon hearing of this innovation, described the stomach aches she used to get as a child knowing she would have to face the school day without the required materials. With access to school supplies, students have one less thing to worry about. The program reduces stress not only for students but for their families as well.
Susan Kessler, executive principal, Hunters Lane High School-Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Nashville, Tennessee

Let Them Talk It Out at Lunch

I started a weekly lunch support group for my students where we discuss issues that are troubling them. It is optional to join the group, and about 15 children turn up each week and create a safe space for discussion. It is not the same 15 each week. The topics can include gender and sexuality, jealousy, conflict resolution, or understanding themselves—whatever comes up at that time. I use a variety of tools to facilitate problem solving, including Theatre of the Oppressed and art therapy. I don't act as an expert, but as an experienced older sister in the process. As the year progresses, students learn to support one another and hardly need me around to discuss and problem solve. A lot of conflicts get resolved this way.
Aishwarya M, teacher, K C Thackeray Vidya Niketan, Pune, Maharashtra, India

Looking Beneath Explosive Behavior

In my school, we were having many explosive behavior problems tied to anxiety. Administrators read the book Lost at School by Ross Greene, which explains that "all behavior has meaning," and encouraged us to ask ourselves, "What is bothering my student, and what can I do to help?" This book motivated my principal to have every single adult in our school trained in the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention System. This training has helped us to develop a common language around mental health, to better understand our students' behavior, and to counsel them through their problems more effectively. Taking the time to understand why students are misbehaving, acknowledging feelings, giving outlets (such as requesting short breaks or conducting breathing exercises), and making plans to be proactive and to make better choices in the future makes children feel supported and helps them deal with their anxiety.
Annmarie Hogan, assistant principal, Public School 26, District 31, Staten Island, New York

Use Play to Decompress

Our school has launched a number of initiatives, including facilitating lunchtime talks for students about managing stress, assembling a committee to examine our GPA calculations to see if they contribute to student stress, and placing posters around the school with positive "tear off" messages. In the library, we host stress relief activities like Play-Doh Day or Popcorn Day to encourage students to take time to play and relax. Our campus joined Stanford University's Challenge Success initiative and has held teacher book group studies to learn more about managing student stress. Our entire district has a focus on social-emotional learning. All these components are aimed at combatting the stress of being at a high-performing school.
Carolyn Foote, librarian, Eanes Independent School District, Austin, Texas

A Cultural Approach to Healing

As the district level coordinator for the school system's English for Speakers of Other Languages program, I observed a significant increase in the number of high school-aged students enrolling, many of whom had experienced trauma as an immigrant, asylee, or refugee. Luis Cardona of the National Compadres Network connected us to their programs, Joven Noble and Xinachtli, which use cultural approaches to healing through building community and personal responsibility. We arranged for 25 of our school employees to participate in training, including school counselors, bilingual family outreach facilitators, pupil personnel workers, school psychologists, and representatives from the local police department. The programs involve all participants, including parents and families, in collaboration and community building. This connected, consistent approach to mental health work has shown great promise as more students feel connected to the adults and other students around them.
Kelly Reider, new teacher mentor, Anne Arundel County Public Schools, Annapolis, Maryland

Creating Space for Grief

Last year, a month before school started, one of my future student's mother passed away after battling cancer for some years. As we started the school year, nothing seemed to comfort or interest him. To complicate the emotional situation even further, my other students were afraid that it could also happen to them. I provided opportunities for the students to be heard, to say what they thought and felt, but also opportunities for them to be empathetic and provide support. As a classroom community we established a calendar where every day one of this student's classmates would bring food to share with him during lunchtime. All students relaxed as they focused their attention on the one who was suffering, and little by little we saw how he could finally enjoy his time at school again.
Nancy Murillo, 3rd grade teacher, American Institute of Monterrey, Monterrey, NL, Mexico

Keeping Girls Fit—and Supported

Being an elementary physical education teacher can be fun. But when you only get to see students every third day for an hour, it can be challenging to take care of students' whole health. So I started an afterschool Lady Lions Fitness Club. We dance, discuss nutrition, and most important, talk about positive body image. I remind them that it is OK to just be your wonderful self!
Robyn Prescott, physical education teacher, Metro Nashville Public Schools, Nashville, Tennessee

Making Refugee Students Feel Welcome

Refugee students often enter schools with PTSD, interrupted formal education, and the anxiety of being in a new country. I want these students to feel safe and welcome in my classroom. If I don't take the time to learn their complex stories, I cannot effectively support their mental health. I spend the first few weeks of school building a positive classroom environment. We celebrate the culture they bring with them. I allow them to use their native languages to support English language development. Small changes such as these help support students' mental health and empower them to grow as learners.
LeighAnn Matthews, ELL teacher, Highland Park School District, Highland Park, New Jersey

Twisty Tuesday, Fist-Bump Friday

Building relationships with my 7th grade students is tantamount to supporting their mental health. I greet every student at the door with our special handshake of the day (Business-Man Monday, Twisty Tuesday, High-Elbow Wednesday, Thumb Thursday, Fist-Bump Friday). Everyone is greeted with the special handshake, a welcoming smile, and a friendly hello. This simple gesture ensures that I speak with each one of my students, make eye contact, and recognize his or her presence. No one ever goes unnoticed or walks into class feeling unwelcomed.
Kelley Weigand, English language arts teacher, Park Crest Middle School, Pflugerville, Texas

Let Kids Make a Difference

Teamed up with the principal, guidance counselor, and digital shop teacher, I've been inspiring kids through the library media center to make a difference. Every week, my students are asked to write an email explaining how they have made a difference in someone else's life. Currently, the digital shop teacher is 3–D printing crochet needles. In the winter we will crochet scarves and send them to homeless shelters. The goal of this lesson is to show students that helping others can help us heal.
Andrea Coffey, library media specialist, Samuel S. Yellin School, Stratford, New Jersey

Soothing Our Own Stress

As part of my dissertation study, many of the teachers at my school participated in a four-week professional development on mindfulness meditation. The teachers met for one hour a week with a trained mindfulness meditation instructor who helped them understand the impact of developing a regular mindfulness meditation practice. The teachers used the free Insight Timer app to guide their twice-daily 10-minute sessions. After only four weeks of practice, the teachers reported positive changes in their interactions with students, especially with how they reacted to the daily stressors of teaching. Learning to manage stress allows them to develop better relationships with their students, resulting in a better classroom environment for all students.
Darrin Reynolds, principal, Ralph D. Butler Elementary, Avon, Massachusetts

Affirmation through Finger Snaps

In my 9th grade class, we explore the importance of empathy and creating a safe space so we can "dare greatly" and "fail well." But the hallways, school bus, and lunchroom loom just beyond our classroom door, so these platitudes don't buoy us much past September. In an effort to alleviate anxiety, I recite our class mantra: "All any of us want to know is that we are seen, heard, and valued." I remind them, "Today we are bravely sharing our personal narratives, so we must really listen to each other. When you listen, you affirm, 'I see you. I hear you. And what you say matters to me.'" The next day, I advise them again. "Today, we are presenting our book talks. Speaking in front of others is daunting for many. So we will be quiet, and really listen. At the end of the presentation, we will snap to convey our support and appreciation." As we snap together, I remind them that the thrum of our fingers repeatedly echoes, "We see you, we hear you, and what you say matters to us."
Beth Pandolpho, language arts teacher, West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District, West Windsor, New Jersey

Trauma: Responding with Care

Last school year, we participated in a pilot program through the Macon-Piatt Regional Office of Education #39 in Decatur, Illinois, to become a trauma-informed school. All faculty participated in trainings to become more knowledgeable about the adverse experiences some students have had in their lives and how to address them in a supportive, professional way. Teachers made a deliberate effort to approach students with a nonjudgmental lens and concern themselves with the function of the behavior and what we could do to assist. Through self-reflection, I reevaluated the way I approached things and gained a new perspective. Outcomes in some cases remained the same as they have always been, but there were several instances where after taking a step back from a student's behavior, I was able to make a much more reasonable and effective decision regarding the situation and the outcomes. I definitely tried to generate a proportionate response to inappropriate actions and remember that these were still kids I was dealing with. The end result? Happier students, happier teachers, and a more relaxed and happy administrator. Other effects? More involved families, more responsible students, and more informed and equipped educators who are ready to address multiple types of behavior and the precipitating factors that lead to them.
Jonathan Field, principal, Sangamon Valley Community Unit School District #9, Niantic, Illinois

The Power of Sugary Snacks

In my AP European History classroom, I have started to employ daily and even weekly rituals in an effort to help reduce student stress and improve their mental health. On Fridays, I bring in doughnut holes for the students. They work hard in this fast-paced AP course, and I have learned that spending a few minutes picking up these treats and taking the time for the kids to enjoy them together can pay great dividends. The lost five minutes of instructional time more than pays off when I have energized students that look forward to coming to my class.
Jim Fornaciari, AP European history teacher, Glenbard West High School, Glen Ellyn, Illinois

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