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Pandemic accelerates ConVal’s mental health and school climate initiatives

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/29/2020 4:22:14 PM

Many of the student mental health initiatives in the ConVal reopening discussion are things school counselors have wanted to implement all along, but the school needs strong community partnerships in order for them to succeed, Director of Student Services Cari Christian-Coates said. ConVal school counselors are preparing for any student mental health scenario as the fall semester approaches. The school is in the process of hiring extra counseling and nursing to anticipate the increase in need during the fall semester, but that the wellness reopening committee’s tasks are just accelerating the school’s long term goals of improving student mental health and school climate, centered around partnerships with community organizations.

Returning to school under a drastically different format could be traumatic to some, she said, and others may have struggled with isolation or neglect during the past four months, or had other needs not reflected in responses to school surveys. “We’re preparing ourselves for whatever comes to us,” she said, by observing the students in the fall and continue to build relation-centered practices in the classroom, and supportive classroom environments. “If that’s set up, then we can support whatever is presented to us.”

The COVID-19 crisis increased the urgency for mental health and school climate improvement initiatives the school was already working on, Christian-Coates said, like a focus on social emotional learning and improving school climate. Elementary schools in the district have been emphasizing social emotional learning, or SEL, for a couple of years now. At its core, SEL is all about helping teaching students to self-regulate, she said, which pays dividends towards a more positive classroom environment, better connection between adults and students, and better overall student wellbeing, with potential to reduce rates of bullying, dropouts, and suicide.

What does SEL look like in the classroom? Elementary school teachers have been trained to engage students in a judgment-free way to encourage them to share whatever they’re comfortable with, and establishing group check-ins to start and end the day, Christian-Coates said. Classrooms can implement “regulation stations,” a place where an overstimulated student can decompress without becoming disruptive or leaving the classroom. Current elementary school students will continue age-appropriate SEL activities as they age into middle and high school, she said, and hopes the programming will soon be consistently implemented throughout the District. Meanwhile, Christian-Coates said she’s hoping that last year’s high school student initiative for improved school climate and culture continues with the new principal.

At the end of June, the School Board passed a suicide prevention policy to comply with SB 282. The bill required lots of measures ConVal was already taking, and additionally mandates that school districts to annually provide two hours of suicide prevention training to all staff members, Christian-Coates said. This will increase the staff that receive training via the NAMI Connect program, she said. This training will be in addition to the youth mental health first aid training staff have been receiving for the last several years, which teaches them how to identify signs that a student is being bullied, feels suicidal, or if they need therapy. It’s information that’s second nature to school counselors but can be really eye opening for teachers, Christian-Coates said.

The accelerated improvements in mental health measures also underscore the District’s needs for community partnerships, Christian-Coates said. “It’s something that’s really important, but it’s also an unfunded mandate that comes from the state legislation,” she said of the new suicide prevention policy. “We have to train all of our staff, but there’s no funding to do it. We’re really trying to say yes, but we need to partner with other organizations… People always ask what the school is doing about this. Here’s what we’re doing, tell us what you’re doing,” she said.

The pandemic has deepened some existing community partnerships out of necessity, Christian-Coates said. ConVal is one of the biggest sources of referrals for social services in the region, and the School District had already been collaborating with the Grapevine Family Resource Center and The River Center over the last year, Christian-Coates said, and had been in talks about extending the River Center’s home visiting program to fill gaps in the school’s own home visiting protocol. Other reopening committees are made up of essential partners, including select board members, firefighters, police, and hospital representatives, she said. “It’s just better for everybody if we are all working together,” she said.


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