While the pandemic has put additional stress on people’s mental health, area school administrators say their districts have always put a focus on students’ and staff members’ social and emotional wellness, even before COVID-19.
“Climate and mental health have been components of our strategic plan for several years, well before COVID,” said Aimee Turner, assistant superintendent for special education for Wallingford schools. “Many of the strategies and supports in place now were in place prior to COVID. Although we have seen an increase in the number of students struggling emotionally, the support and systems we have had in place continue to be appropriate.”
In 2021, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that “more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.”
“I think since the pandemic, anxiety has been on the rise,” said Jeff Solan, superintendent of Cheshire schools. “There’s a lot of stress and sometimes it's social anxiety after coming out of the isolation. I think we’ve certainly seen an increase in anxiety which is why things like physical fitness, being involved physically, a healthy diet, taking care of your body and also your mind supports that. If that is not enough for you, we have other resources as well.”
In Cheshire, Solan said in the classroom, there are designated periods of time known as “mindful moments.”
“Students are taught how to focus on their breathing, clear their mind, be present in the moment,” Solan said.
Cheshire school staff are currently participating in a 30-day mental health awareness challenge, which began on Sept. 6.
“Employees have access to a special portal for free where they can participate in weekly webinars on stress management, mindfulness and they also have forums and discussions where they can share suggestions for what is working for them, what their challenges are,” said Adilen Figueroa, human resources staff member.
Cheshire schools also have an on-site health coach for staff members.
“She’s available to meet with staff virtually or in-person,” Figueroa said. “She has indicated that there are many topics that someone can choose to receive coaching on … She has mentioned that mindfulness and mental health has been a very popular topic.” Southington
In partnership with Connecticut Behavioral Health, Southington Public Schools was able to develop a district-wide behavior team. Dr. Ryan Loss of Connecticut Behavioral Health is spearheading this project, according to Rebecca Cavallaro, director of pupil services for Southington Public Schools.
“He works closely with our district staff and administrators really to look at providing support to school teams and to students who are struggling with either behavioral concerns or any issues relating to mental health that might impact them during the school day and their success in their classrooms,” Cavallaro said.
Cavallaro said the district uses a program called RULER, which is created by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, to “infuse the principles of emotional intelligence into the immune system of pre-K to 12 schools, informing how leaders lead, teachers teach, students learn and families support students,” according to its website.
“It’s really focusing on the emotional wellbeing of students and staff in the school environment, making sure that we’re checking in on how people are feeling, are we regulating our emotions and really making sure that we’re all caring for each other,” Cavallaro siad. Wallingford
In Wallingford, elementary schools use a program called Second Step, a “social emotional curriculum that introduces children to identifying and managing their emotions, navigating social situations as well as citizenship,” Turner said.
In the upper grade levels, the schools use the program, Sandy Hook Promise.
“This program focuses on students and adults supporting each other to create a safe, violence-free environment,” Turner said.
Turner said the district also performs a screening to identify students who are at risk emotionally and socially.
“For students who require support, the district mental health staff work closely with students and families to identify school and community resources depending on the level of need,” Turner said.Meriden
Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski, assistant superintendent of student supports for Meriden Public School, said when they look at mental health, they look at the whole child.
“It’s important to know that we are addressing academics, we’re addressing social activities and we are addressing social-emotional learning as something that we’re teaching, but it’s all together,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.
Therefore, when the district looks at kids who are “doing better” after the pandemic, Sullivan-Kowalski said they are looking for students who are “actively participating in things.”
The district hired new employees including school psychologists, social workers, school counselors and two deans of students at Lincoln Middle School and Edison Middle School that focus on social-emotional learning. Dave Manware is dean of students at Lincoln Middle School and Nate Testroet is dean of students at Edison Middle School.
“They have worked in supporting the students' needs and are already making great connections,” Sullivan-Kowalski said of the two new deans.
Third grade and above take the district’s “Getting To Know You” survey, which helps teachers get to know their students better.
“What we like to do is have most students take it in May or June and it’s for the new school year,” Sullivan-Kowalski said. “Teachers are able to pull up an individual student’s Getting To Know You survey and you get a quick idea of what the student likes, their dislikes and different ways to connect with the student.”
Overall, social-emotional learning is a priority in the district and is built into classroom lesson plans. Sullivan-Kowalski said problem solving skills and communicating with others have been struggles for students since the pandemic, so it is a focus in the schools.
“I think everybody's anxiety is a little high post the pandemic and having opportunities to talk through a problem or a situation has really been a great focus for us,” Sullivan-Kowalski said. Outdoor classrooms, staff support
Along with that, throughout the district, there are designated outdoor classroom spaces, giving students the opportunity to spend some time outside during the school day.
“We were able to maximize our instruction with outdoor learning,” Sullivan-Kowalski said. “This became an instructional tool which students and staff really enjoyed, so we built permanent outdoor learning environments across the district.”
Staff members in Meriden Public Schools can utilize their benefit program, Cigna, to help them navigate their mental health.
“There’s classes like yoga and pilates, there’s individualized coaching that has come out of that partnership, so a staff member can work with Cigna and get individualized coaching in whatever area they need,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.
Along with that, Meriden teachers are also encouraged to apply to Fund for Teachers, a program that focuses on teachers’ professional development.
“I think finding what sparks people, what interests them, getting back to something that someone is passionate about is kind of along those same lines as social-emotional and mental health needs or just self care and loving what you’re doing,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.
Mental health awareness
When it comes to focusing on mental health in schools, Turner said a student is successful if they feel a connection to their school community.
“Research shows students are more available to learn when they feel connected to school,” Turner said. “When students’ mental health needs are being met they are able to build positive relationships with peers, increase students’ capacity to learn, experience positive social experiences, enhance their creativity and find academic success.”
Therefore, since the pandemic, Cavallaro said some people are struggling to re-engage with others, which is something that all members of the school community need to understand.
“I think as much as we’re getting closer to feeling back to normal, there still is that underlying sort of feeling that people have had over the past few years and I think it’s important that staff are aware of that and students and that administration is there to really support staff when they’re feeling that way so that we’re all aware that we’re really in it for each other and we want a positive environment for our students and staff to learn and work in,” Cavallaro said.
Lauren Mancini-Averitt, president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers and ninth grade world history teacher at Maloney High School, said that districts can always improve on their mental health awareness efforts.
“We’re trying,” Mancini-Averitt said. “This is an issue that is statewide and nationwide. I still think we can all be better on them … I think some countries in the world do it better than us from a country standpoint. I do think we can always do better, so with that said, we have a lot more hands on deck per se. We have a lot more school counselors, we have a lot more psychologists, we have a lot more training.”