Youth mental health is at stake. Are schools working hard enough?

CECILIA, Kentucky (AP) — For fourth grader Leah Rainey, a day at school begins with what teachers call an “emotional check-in.”

“It’s nice to meet you. How are you feeling?” Ask her to click the emoji that matches her state of mind: happy. sad. Worried. anger. Frustration. calm down. stupid. I’m tired.

Depending on the answer, 9-year-old Leah gets advice on managing her mood from her cartoon avatar, plus a few more questions. Did you have breakfast? Are you hurt or sick? Are you okay at home? Is there someone unkind to her at school?Today Leah chooses to be silly, but she says she suffered grief while learning online.

At Lakewood Elementary, all 420 students will start the day the same way this year. A rural Kentucky school is one of thousands of schools nationwide using the technology to screen students for their state of mind and alert teachers to those in need.

In a way, this new semester Restores some degree of pre-pandemic normalcy. Most districts have lifted mask mandates, withdrawn COVID vaccine requirements, and ended social distancing and quarantine rules..

But many of the pandemic’s long-term effects remain a troubling reality for schools. Among them are the negative effects of isolation and distance learning on children’s emotional well-being.

Student mental health reached critical levels last year, and the pressure on schools to find solutions has never been higher. Districts across the country are using federal pandemic funds to hire more mental health professionals, deploy new coping tools, and expand curricula that prioritize emotional health.

Still, some parents believe schools shouldn’t be involved in mental health at all. So-called social-emotional learning (SEL) has become the latest political hotspot, with conservatives saying schools are using it to promote progressive ideas about race, gender, and sexuality.or that the focus on well-being is noticed by scholars.

But at schools like Lakewood, educators say helping students deal with emotions and stress benefits them in the classroom and throughout their lives.

Located in a farming community an hour’s drive south of Louisville, the school used federal funding to create a “break” corner in each classroom. According to school counselor Sherry Carr, students can swing the rifle using a “self-calibrating kit” with tips such as deep breathing, squishy stress balls and acupuncture rings. ‘ will be built. This is part of an emerging national trend to create campus her sanctuaries where students can decompress and speak with counselors.

The online student screener Lakewood uses is called Closegap, which helps teachers identify shy, quiet kids who need to talk or otherwise go unnoticed.

Closegap founder Rachel Miller launched online platforms in several schools in 2019 and saw interest explode after the pandemic hit. She said more than 3,600 US schools will use the technology this year, with free and premium versions available.

“We are finally starting to realize that schools are not just teaching children to read, write and do math,” said Dan Domenech, executive director of the National Association of School Superintendents. He said more and more schools are embracing the idea that a confused or troubled mind can’t focus on schoolwork, just as it’s based on the idea that a child can’t learn.

Experts say the pandemic has exacerbated mental health vulnerabilities among American youth, who have experienced increases in depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation for years.Published by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention A recent report found that 44% of high school students said they experienced constant sadness and hopelessness. Girls and LGBTQ youth report the highest levels of mental health deterioration and suicide attempts during the pandemic.

If there is any silver lining, the pandemic has helped raise awareness of the crisis and destigmatize talking about mental health. It also drew attention to shortcomings in the school’s response. 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 funds that have been poured into schools to address needs in the pandemic era. Added.

Still, there are many skeptical voices that the school’s response alone is enough.

“All of these opportunities and resources are temporary. It’s not an investment in mental health for us.” The school said it plans to increase the number of counselors and mental health training for all 10th graders this year.

Some critics, including many conservative parents, don’t want to see mental health support in schools in the first place. She uses it as a “rock horse” to introduce liberal ideas about sexual and racial identity. I am also worried about

“Social and emotional well-being are an excuse to intervene in children’s lives in the most intimate ways that are dangerous and irresponsible,” Nomani said. ”

Despite unprecedented funding, schools have struggled to recruit counselors, and this reflects a shortage in other industries in America.

At Goshen Middle School in northwestern Indiana, students’ anxiety and other behavioral problems were “unexpected” and they are struggling to fill the vacancies of counselors who retired last year, say two of the school’s remaining students. said Jean Desmarais Mauss, one of the counselors. , each with a caseload of his 500 students.

“Are you trying to meet the needs of 500 students by yourself?” said Desmarais Morse. “It’s impossible.”

The American Association of School Counselors recommends a ratio of 250 students to one school counselor, but few states come close.

Only two states, New Hampshire and Vermont, met the goal in the 2020-21 school year, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics. Some states face alarmingly high rates. In Arizona, there is an average of 716 students per counselor. In Michigan he is 1 to 638. In Minnesota it is 1 to 592.

And while Hammond School City in Indiana has won grants to hire clinical therapists in all 17 schools, it has been unable to fill most of the new jobs, superintendent Scott Miller said. said. “The school is stealing from other schools. It just doesn’t have enough workers to go around.” I’m here. And we are looking to hire more staff.

Another challenge for schools is identifying children in distress before they have an emotional crisis. With 277 schools and nearly 200,000 students in the Houston Independent School District, one of the nation’s largest, students are asked to put their finger up every morning to show how they feel. One finger means that the child is deeply hurt. 5 means you feel good.

Shawn Ricks, District Senior Manager of Crisis Intervention, said:

Houston teachers are now conducting mindfulness lessons with ocean sounds playing on YouTube, and Lucy the Chihuahua and Omi the Cockapoo are joining the district’s crisis management team.

The grant helped Houston build relaxation rooms called “Thinkeries” in 10 schools last year. Ricks said that at his Thinkeries campus, which features beanbag chairs and warm-coloured walls, he saw a 62% drop in calls to emergency calls last year, according to school district data. The district is constructing more buildings this year.

But the room itself is no panacea. For calm rooms to work, schools need to make students aware of what they are feeling angry or frustrated with. That way, the space can be used to decompress before emotions explode, says Kevin Dahilf, executive director of Counseling In School, a nonprofit that helps schools strengthen mental health services. Shell said.

During the last few days of summer vacation, Well Space at University High School in Irvine, California, received the finishing touches from an artist who painted a giant moon mural on top of a mountain. Potted succulents, jute rugs, Buddha-like figurines, and suspended egg chairs provided an atmosphere that didn’t feel like school. Professionals are placed full-time.

The goal is to normalize the idea of ​​asking for help and give students a place to reset. “If they can refocus and refocus, they can return to the classroom after a short break and be ready for deeper learning,” Blakely said.


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Gecker reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writer Heather Hollingsworth of Mission, Kansas. Arleigh Rodgers of Indianapolis and Brooke Schultz of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania also contributed to the report. Data her reporter Kavish Harjai contributed from Los Angeles.

Rodgers, Schultz, and Harjai are members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to cover hidden issues.

The Associated Press education team is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. AP is solely responsible for all content.

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