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Voices from the Field: Middle-High School Educators Speak Out on Resilience, Well-Being, Mental Health, and the Benefits of Social Emotional Learning

Many schools across the country have worked to formalize programs around social emotional learning (SEL) in and beyond the classroom in a systematic effort to help both students and staff with challenges around mental health and trauma. 

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“If I had a magic wand to help every member of our school community with issues around mental health, it would be to get rid of the stigma,” says Tech Director, Teacher, Coach, and soon-to-be 7-12 Counselor Chris Blecha, Brady High School, Brady, Nebraska. “Imagine how transformed our students and staff would be if we normalized talking, normalized asking for help, normalized all communication no matter how tough at first so that the process became natural.”

According to a story from The New York Times, “a report (opens in a new window);released in early July 2023 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that 42 percent of U.S. high schoolers experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, while 22 percent seriously considered attempting suicide.” And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that “…nearly 3 in 5 (57%) U.S. teen girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021 — double that of boys, representing a nearly 60% increase and the highest level reported over the past decade.”

High School English Teacher Megan Andersen, Mullen High School, Mullen, Nebraska, says, “I know this may be an unpopular opinion but I believe one of the silver linings of the pandemic has been bringing the mental health crisis to the forefront.”

For many schools across the country, the pandemic has been the kick in the pants needed to formalize programs around social emotional learning (SEL) in and beyond the classroom in a systematic effort to help both students and staff with challenges around mental health and trauma.

What is going on?

“Our students are having the same issues as all kids across the country,” says Community Project Manager - Project AWARE Supervisor and Social Worker Tiffany Hughes who works in the K-8 Roosevelt School District in the South Phoenix area of Arizona. “We have seen an enormous increase in anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and feelings of disconnection. Sure, kids may feel more ‘connected’ because of social media, but, especially in the wake of the pandemic, we see kids who don’t know how to make friends, behave in class, or practice basic SEL skills like self-awareness and self-regulation … they simply don’t know how to be kids together.

“We have also seen a lot of avoidance and absenteeism. Students don’t want to take risks or do anything that makes them feel uncomfortable like raising their hand with a question, standing up in front of the class, or working with a partner,” Ms. Hughes explains. “When students don’t feel safe and connected in school, you start to see their brain being wired for protection instead of connections. This can result in their not wanting to take risks academically and/or exhibiting behavior issues and avoidance. I know parents want to protect their children and keep them from feeling unpleasant emotions , but some parents are not doing their kids any favors by saying, ‘Okay, if you don’t want to go, if you don’t want to do that, you don’t have to …’ Frankly, if kids don’t sometimes feel that little bit of discomfort or nervousness, which is what allows them to take healthy risks and grow as individuals, they will continue to avoid and isolate and, ironically, feel more anxious. This is the opposite of what parents want for their children.”

As a high school teacher and head boys’ basketball coach at his school, Mr. Blecha says what stands out most about his students’ current mental health is a lack of both resilience and self-regulation. For example, he may have an amazing athlete who dominates on the court but who needs to be benched because he acts out or can’t control his emotions because of a negative call from the ref or an opposing player who stole the ball. “Without being able to recognize and name your emotions or understand why you’re feeling them, you can’t deal with them and move on,” he says.

What to do?

After the pandemic, in particular, many school districts realized that they needed to formalize SEL programs to address the significant mental health issues of their students and staff.

Ms. Hughes’ school district was lucky enough to receive a grant, Project AWARE, through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) called “Advancing Wellness and Resilience and Education.” Roosevelt School District was one of three districts currently in Arizona to get the grant.

As community project manager — a formal position created for the grant — Ms. Hughes works to build a comprehensive mental health system in her schools. “This work doesn’t just involve our school social workers and counselors, it also includes building strategic community partnerships and spearheading outreach and prevention events, which in turn involve parents and community members as well as students and staff. I would say that I’m very lucky to be in a district that truly values mental health and SEL.

“Roosevelt’s Department of Students Wellness is working on a Student Wellness strategic plan, which includes social, emotion, and mental health and has a whole section on academic integration. “Since implementing this more formalized SEL and mental health awareness work, we have seen a huge increase in our academics. SEL is housed under teaching and learning and what we’ve been focusing on lately is positive conditions for learning around the idea that if students are not in the right part of their brain to learn — if they are stuck in survival brain —they cannot learn. It doesn’t matter if you have the most sophisticated computers, the best curriculum software, or the most amazing teachers who have the best lesson plan to teach, if our kids cannot get out of their downstairs, survival brain and get into their upstairs brain, they’re never going to be able to learn. So, we have definitely seen an increase in academic performance because of our more formalized SEL work.”

In Nebraska, Social Worker Sara Gentry coordinates mental health supports for rural school districts and also works directly with high school students experiencing mental health crises. Ms. Gentry does individual clinical therapy with students and also serves as the liaison between community partners and school districts. Because most of her schools are in tiny rural villages, when there is a significant crisis, sometimes getting to a hospital with an official behavioral unit can take several hours. So, instituting initiatives and practices around mental health, wellness, and SEL is crucial.

Most of the staff in Ms. Gentry’s districts have had formalized SEL and mental health awareness training through an Educational Services Unit (ESU), from which discussions around mental health awareness and SEL have continued and expanded.

Ms. Andersen, who works in one of Ms. Gentry’s school districts, gives an example of how more formalized communication, which they learned through their SEL training, can help students and staff set a positive tone on any given day. “We are in a small enough school that everybody knows everybody and everybody kind of knows what’s going on. But that being said, you never really know what’s happening with people at home or in their heads,” she says. “For example, we have a boy who comes from a terrible home life. He’s a super sweet kid, but he’ll sometimes arrive at school deeply angry. And so, the staff who sees him first will help him deescalate and also talk to his teachers, give them a heads up that he might be having a bad day and provide a couple of strategies to help him to continue to deescalate. And usually, by the time second period rolls around on his bad days, he’s doing pretty well. I definitely give props to the first and second period teachers who know how to recognize what is going on with this boy, help him, then further help him by communicating with the rest of his teachers.

“It may sound like a small thing, but helping a student recognize and deal with his emotions so he can learn self-awareness, self-regulation, and resilience are huge life lessons … and can make all the difference for him, his teachers, and his classmates.”

Big strategies, daily rituals, classroom lessons, small moments

There is a video called “Every Opportunity,” which the Roosevelt District Schools showed during convocation at the beginning of last year’s school year to every faculty and staff member — from principal and teacher to bus driver and cafeteria member. It shows how every little moment, every little encounter between an adult and a student at school can change the climate of the day. A bus driver wishing a kid good morning and “I like your new sneakers” or “Love the blue hair!” as the kid heads up the bus steps is totally different than a “Get in and sit down, we’re late” greeting. A smile from the lunch lady who knows carrots are your favorite or a teacher thanking and acknowledging you for raising your hand or helping a classmate with a problem are all instances of encounters that matter.

Here are some examples of big strategies, daily rituals, classroom lessons, and small moments at various schools that help teach and instill the concepts of SEL.

Welcoming routines: Some schools have administrators, teachers, and social workers welcome students each morning. They model positivity, they say hello to the parents, they ask the students what they are most looking forward to that day. They do something similar at dismissal.

Class circles and social contracts: Many schools, like Brady in Nebraska, have class circles, or what they call “Eagle Time,” named after their school mascot. It’s a time first thing every morning for kids to be in a small group of eight or nine with one-to-two kids from each grade level, 7-12, with an adult. “A lot of great conversations can happen when kids’ hands are busy with cards or puzzles, when cell phones are put away and kids connect and, over time, feel safe to share genuine feelings and thoughts with each other,” says Mr. Blecha.

“One of the signature themes of our Student Wellness strategic plan is safety. We want all our students — and staff — to feel safe, connected, seen, and valued when they come to school so that they can fully engage in their learning,” says Ms. Hughes. “So, one example of how we do that is through social or classroom contracts where kids get to have agency and voice in how they want to be treated in addition to how they want their classmates and teachers to be treated. When they help write the rules for their classroom, they are more apt to follow them … and to feel like an important part of an important group.”

Relationship inventories and surveys: Some schools conduct relationship inventories. “Around October, we send out a Google form to students with a few open-ended questions, which help us make sure that each student has at least one adult in the building with whom they connect. We ask: ‘If you have a really great day, who’s somebody in the building that you want to share that information with? If you have a really bad day, who’s an adult in the building that you want to go to for support?’ It’s an effective way to make sure no child falls through the cracks,” says Ms. Gentry.

In Ms. Hughes’ district, they conduct climate surveys and focus groups with students to ask them what they want to see in their school, what changes or additions they would like. “Last year, they asked for calm rooms. Long story short, we now have a calm room on each campus for students and staff to use when they need an emotional break,” says Ms. Hughes. “We wanted our students to know we heard them and value their needs and wishes. We can’t do everything, but our next goal, per their request, is to offer more before- and after-school activities like more sports, theatre, dance … all of which, of course, will help students feel more connected and give them more opportunities to build their SEL skills.”

Mentorship programs: Some schools also try to tighten bonds in their communities through mentorships — whether between high schoolers and elementary kids or high schoolers and local community members who might work in a field of interest for a certain student.

Teachable moments: “Similar moments of personal growth, connection, and communication often occur in class, woven into the curriculum,” says Mr. Blecha. “In my Computer Science classes, we use something called, basically a fun and effective block-based coding tool that helps any kid learn to code without being bogged down in syntax. What I like most about it is how the concepts of SEL are right in there. The whole idea of learning to code this way is simply to try … so what if you make a mistake, what’s the worst that’s going to happen? So, I see kids get creative and curious, feel fine failing and then trying something else … and a couple of months in, I find that my students are asking each other for ideas and help instead of me. It’s all about working through problems and learning to the enjoy the process — no matter how bumpy — of developing a new skill.”

In Ms. Andersen’s high school English classes, she always teaches a short story like Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” which directly addresses issues around mental health. “I find that teaching stories like this offer me not only opportunities to model self-awareness, respect for myself and others, and so on, but also for my students to become more comfortable practicing their own self-awareness and other core concepts around SEL.”

Ms. Andersen says she has also changed some of the books and units in her curriculum based on needs around SEL. “A few years ago, I moved away from some of the classics, which our kids just don’t connect to it much anymore; instead, I’ve been teaching works like Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely’s novel, All American Boys about a friendship and ultimately a community bitterly divided by racial tension, and The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore about two boys with the same name who end up on very different life trajectories. My school is almost entirely White, but I think it is hugely important to have conversations around race or LGBTQ+ issues, for example, that might not be had otherwise … all of which help kids develop empathy and other social-emotional muscles.”

Sports and extra-curriculars: “Our schools are the hubs of our communities. And sports are huge, Friday night lights and all of that. Many of our communities have Girls on the Run, which has fun, evidence-based programs that inspire girl empowerment by building confidence, kindness, and decision-making skills. Also, many of our community events are hosted by our schools and are often student-led like our Veterans’ Day celebrations, senior citizen banquets, and family STEM nights,” says Ms. Gentry.

Although Mr. Blecha says there are countless opportunities to strengthen SEL skills in the classroom, the basketball court is flush with moments to model, teach, and deeply instill lessons around social emotional learning, resilience, mental health, and well-being. “We talk a lot about ‘next play.’ When we get a timeout or someone’s gotten a bad call in a game — something’s happened — we usually give two claps. The first clap is to acknowledge that whatever happened, happened. The second clap to signify positive moving forward. And then we say ‘next play,’ again to acknowledge and move on instead of staying stuck,” he says. “I always push ‘wins and lessons’ instead of ‘wins and losses.’ A loss is not a loss if you learn from it.”

Mr. Blecha has also instituted twice-weekly 20-minute yoga during practices for his players. “This is rural Nebraska, so a lot of people think yoga and mindfulness are pretty hippy-dippy. But if you normalize practices like yoga and mindfulness, like having a healthy diet — which does not mean drinking two Mountain Dews for breakfast! — along with skills around self-awareness and self-regulation, you see your students grow and mature. You see them start to respect themselves more, their peers, their teachers, and families,” he says. “It takes time to get buy-in, but when kids learn that big-name athletes like LeBron James are avid yoga practitioners and incorporate yoga into their fitness routines, and when they can use that centered feeling from yoga on the free-throw line, it all starts to come together for them.”

Human interactions: “I think a lot of districts think they have to spend a lot of money on SEL programs, but I tell them to save their money,” says Ms. Hughes. “Opportunities for SEL happen in our every-day interactions. The most powerful SEL lessons are taught through how we interact with each other as staff and with our students. You can do a 20-minute lesson on self-regulation and it can be evidence-based and very compelling, but if you — as the adult — cannot model that skill, students will not be able to learn it correctly. SEL is when I come in in the morning after getting a flat tire and spilling my coffee and I walk in and tell my students, ‘Hey guys, I’m having a rough morning … I just spilled coffee all over myself and I had to change a flat tire, so how about we do a project-based activity today instead of my talking through the lesson?’ It could be as easy as that. What I tell educators all the time when I’m teaching them how to do their own self-management is that there are two ways for you to walk into the classroom when you’ve had a tough morning — you can take it out on everybody else or you can own your bad morning and model for your students how you take a bad morning and still make it a productive day.”

Healthy educators equal healthy students: “It seems, on many levels, that the mental health crisis has fallen onto the education world to handle,” say Ms. Gentry. “So, we believe that supporting our faculty and staff is the best way to also support our student body. If you want happy, healthy students, you need happy, healthy educators.” Backed by a grant through the Nebraska Department of Education, Ms. Gentry’s districts have been working with Ricky Robertsonan educator, author, and trauma expert who works with schools and organization on how best to support students and fellow educators through trauma-informed practices and resilience.

“One of our primary focuses working with Ricky has been on being proactive instead of reactive. We are good at reactive, but that is not sustainable especially as more kids and adults struggle with mental health issues. So, our districts are stepping back and taking an intentional look at what systems we have in place to support students and staff before we’re in a crisis and what systems we still need to implement and build,” she says.

Mr. Blecha — who starting this fall will also serve as the 7-12 grade counselor at Brady High School — says bringing experts like Mr. Robertson to the schools for professional development and delving into best practices around topics like adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and teacher burnout sends the right message to all faculty and staff in schools. “I don’t believe there is a teacher shortage, rather a shortage of the right scaffolding for the mental, emotional, and physical needs of teachers,” he says. He believes that creating more ways for teachers, coaches, bus drivers, custodial staff — every adult in the school — to better and more regularly connect with each other will not only help their own mental health but it will also trickle down to the students. In his new counselor office, he is creating different areas for students and staff to feel welcome to come talk, work on strategies, settle into a pocket of silence, or spend a few minutes moving the sand around in the mini Zen garden to recalibrate before returning to class.

Ms. Hughes’ district added a staff wellness track as part of their professional development, which includes apps for meditation and exercise and a counselor-led book club featuring titles like Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of the Human Experience. Also, at the start of this year when they show the “Every Opportunity” video, every member of the faculty and staff has a chance to share a story about how they have made a student feel seen and heard … and in so doing, these teachers or paras or nurses or facilities folks also feel seen, heard, and valued. “This one bus driver talked about buying little presents from the dollar store for each kid on her school bus, which she gave them the day before break. She lit up when she remarked on their happy faces and reactions and how much she loves her job,” says Ms. Hughes.

Many schools are addressing the mental health issues of staff as closely as they are the students, but not all. Ms. Andersen believes that her school is not making mental health for faculty and staff a priority at this point. “I hope that changes,” she says. “But in the meantime, we have an amazing school counselor who, as you can imagine, is very busy. We are lucky to have her.”

“Something’s working … ”

“Recently, we had a high school senior on the basketball team at one of our schools who noticed that one of the younger kids on the JV squad came to school wearing the same two dirty hoodies. The senior went home and dug through his own clothes and filled a couple of garbage bags with clean, gently used clothes and gave them to the school counselor to offer to the younger student. He thought having some nice, clean clothes would help the seventh grader’s confidence. ‘I know they don’t have very much,’ the senior said. And it was just a beautiful display of empathy from one student to another,” says Ms. Gentry.  “I think I could probably write a book about some of these amazing moments … moments that show that something’s working.”