CECILIA, Ky. (AP) – For fourth-grader Leah Rainey, the school day now begins with what her teacher calls an “emotional check-in.”
“It’s good to see you. How are you feeling?” chirps a cheery voice on her laptop screen. She asks her to click an emoji that matches her state of mind: Happy. Sad. Worried. Angry. Frustrated. Calm. .Stupid. Tired.
Depending on the answer, Lea, 9, gets advice from a cartoon avatar to manage her mood and a few other questions: Have you had breakfast? Are you hurt or sick? Is everything okay at home? Is someone at school being rude? Today, Leah chooses “silliness,” but says she struggled with sadness while learning online.
At Lakewood Elementary School, all 420 students will start their days the same way this year. The rural Kentucky school is one of thousands across the country using the technology to monitor the mental state of students and alert teachers to anyone struggling.
In some ways, this year back to school season will restore a degree of pre-pandemic normalcy: Most districts have lifted mask mandates, dropped COVID vaccine requirements, and ended social distancing and quarantine rules.
But many of the pandemic’s longer-term impacts remain a troubling reality for schools. Among them: the detrimental effects of isolation and distance learning on children’s emotional well-being.
Mental health of students reached crisis levels last year, and the pressure on schools to find solutions has never been greater. Districts across the country are using federal pandemic money to hire more mental health specialists, rolling out new coping tools and expanding curriculum that prioritizes emotional health.
However, some parents do not believe that schools should be involved in mental health at all. So-called social-emotional learning, or SEL, has become the latest political flashpoint, with conservatives saying schools are using it to promote progressive ideas about race. gender and sexualityor that the focus on well-being takes attention away from academics.
But at schools like Lakewood, educators say helping students manage emotions and stress will benefit them in the classroom and throughout life.
The school, in a farming community an hour’s drive south of Louisville, has used federal money to create “chill out” corners in every classroom. Students can use a “self-regulation kit” with deep breathing tips, stress balls and acupuncture rings, school counselor Shelly Kerr said. The school plans to build a “Reset Room” this fall, part of an emerging national trend to create sanctuaries on campus where students can go to decompress and talk to a counselor.
The online student monitor Lakewood uses, called Closegap, helps teachers identify shy, quiet kids who may need to talk and would otherwise go unnoticed.
Closegap founder Rachel Miller launched the online platform in 2019 with several schools and saw interest explode after the pandemic hit. This year, she said, more than 3,600 US schools will use the technology, which has free and premium versions.
“We’re finally starting to understand that school is more than just teaching kids reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the National Association of School Superintendents. Just as free lunch programs are based on the idea that a hungry child can’t learn, more and more schools are embracing the idea that a cluttered or troubled mind can’t focus on schoolwork, he said.
The pandemic magnified the fragility of mental health among young Americans, who had experienced an increase in depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts for years, experts say. A recent report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 44% of high school students said they had experienced ” persistent feelings of sadness or despair During the pandemic, with LGBTQ girls and youth reporting the highest rates of poor mental health and suicide attempts.
If there is a fine line, the pandemic raised awareness of the crisis and helped destigmatize talking about mental health, while also drawing attention to schools’ shortcomings in addressing it. President Joe Biden’s administration recently announced more than $500 million to expand mental health services in the nation’s schools, adding to federal and state money that has poured into schools to meet pandemic-era needs.
However, many skeptical responses from schools are sufficient.
“All these opportunities and resources are temporary,” said Claire Chi, who attends State College High School in central Pennsylvania. Last year, her school added emergency counseling and therapy dogs, among other supports, but most of that help lasted a day or two, Chi said. And this is not “a mental health investment for students.” This year, the school says it has added more counselors and plans mental health training for all 10th-graders.
Some critics, including many conservative parents, don’t want to see mental health support in schools in the first place. Asra Nomani, a mother from Fairfax County, Virginia, says schools are using the mental health crisis as a “Trojan horse” to introduce liberal ideas about sexual and racial identity. She also worries that schools lack the expertise to deal with students’ mental illnesses.
“Social-emotional well-being has become an excuse to intervene in children’s lives in the most intimate ways that are both dangerous and irresponsible,” Nomani said, “because they are in the hands of people who are not trained professionals. .”
Despite the unprecedented funding, schools are having trouble hiring counselors, mirroring shortages in other American industries.
Goshen Junior High School in northwest Indiana has been struggling to fill the vacancy of a counselor who left last year when student anxiety and other behavioral problems were “off the charts,” Jan Desmarais-Morse said. , one of two counselors left at the school. , with 500 students each.
“One person trying to meet the needs of 500 students?” said Desmarais-Morse. “It’s impossible.”
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of 250 students per school counselor, which few states come close to meeting.
For the 2020-21 school year, only two states — New Hampshire and Vermont — met that goal, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Some states face unusually high ratios: Arizona averages one counselor per 716 students; in Michigan, 1 to 638; and in Minnesota, 1 to 592.
Also in Indiana, Hammond City Schools won a grant to hire clinical therapists at all 17 of its schools, but has not been able to fill most of the new jobs, Superintendent Scott Miller said. “Schools are stealing from other schools. There just aren’t enough workers to go around.” And despite more funding, school salaries can’t compete with private consulting practices, which are also overloaded and trying to hire more staff.
Another challenge for schools: identifying struggling children before they are in emotional crisis. In the Houston Independent School District, one of the nation’s largest with 277 schools and nearly 200,000 students, students are asked every morning to hold up their fingers to show how they feel. A finger means that a child is in deep pain; five means she or he feels good.
“It’s identifying your brush fires early in the day,” said Sean Ricks, the district’s senior manager of crisis intervention.
Houston teachers now teach mindfulness lessons, with ocean sounds played via YouTube, and a Chihuahua named Luci and a cockapoo named Omi have joined the district’s crisis team.
Grant funding helped Houston build relaxation rooms, known as Thinkeries, at 10 schools last year, costing about $5,000 each. District data shows campuses with Thinkeries, which have bean bag chairs and warm-colored walls, saw a 62% drop in calls to a crisis line last year, Ricks said. The district is building more this year.
But the rooms themselves are not a panacea. For calm rooms to work, schools must teach students to recognize that they are feeling angry or frustrated. Then they can use the space to decompress before their emotions explode, said Kevin Dahill-Fuchel, executive director of School Counseling, a nonprofit that helps schools strengthen mental health services.
In the final days of summer vacation, a Well Space at University High School in Irvine, California, was getting the finishing touches by an artist who painted a mural of a giant moon over the mountains. Potted succulents, jute rugs, Buddha-like statues and a hanging egg chair brought a non-school feel. When school starts this week, the room should be filled full-time with a counselor or mental health specialist.
The goal is to normalize the idea of asking for help and give students a place to reset. “If they can refocus and refocus,” said Tammy Blakely, the district’s director of student support services, “they can then, after a short break, return to their classrooms and prepare for more learning. deeply.”
This story has been updated to restore the name and title of Tammy Blakely, director of support services in Irvine, California.
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Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press reporters Heather Hollingsworth in Mission, Kansas; Arleigh Rodgers in Indianapolis; Brooke Schultz in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; and Kavish Harjai in Los Angeles contributed.
Rodgers, Schultz and Harjai are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.
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