The school years are an exciting period of learning and growth for children and teens. It’s a time for young people to develop the personal, academic and social skills they’ll need to be successful in life. However, it can also be a challenging time in terms of mental and emotional wellness.
As students progress through the grades, they’re faced with many new responsibilities, societal expectations and relationships to navigate. These environmental stressors can be overwhelming for some youth, commonly resulting in feelings of anxiety or depression. Additionally, roughly half of all mental disorders manifest by a person’s mid-teens, making the school-age years rife with potential mental health concerns.
For these reasons, it’s vital that children and teens have access to comprehensive behavioral health care. This includes education about important mental health topics, training in preventative coping skills, and one-on-one therapy and counseling. Interventions like these help youth build resiliency and lesson their risk for serious mental health conditions later in life.
Fortunately, some school systems are taking steps to provide these services in their curriculums and on their school grounds. One such case is Avon Community School Corporation (ACSC), which has partnered with Cummins Behavioral Health Systems to provide support for all its students. We spoke with Krista Fay, Mental Wellness Coordinator at ACSC, to learn more.
Social-Emotional Learning: A Foundation for Wellness
Take a moment to think about everything children learn in school. You’ll probably think first about the various subjects they study in their classes: reading, writing, mathematics, history, world languages and the sciences, to name a few. However, the school environment also provides an opportunity for youth to learn many important “soft skills” that they’ll need to be successful in life.
“Those skills look like self-management, emotion regulation, social awareness, responsible decision making and time management,” Fay says. These all fall under the umbrella of social-emotional learning (or SEL), defined by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) as “the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”
Social-emotional learning is often an informal, unguided process, but research has shown that teaching SEL alongside academics increases students’ potential to succeed in school and throughout their lives. That’s why Avon Community School Corporation is working to integrate Universal Social-Emotional Learning Curriculums into its schools. Starting this year, students are receiving instruction on essential SEL concepts, as Fay explains:
“We’re teaching students conflict resolution skills and some basic emotional regulation strategies. For example, we’re doing a lot of work with kindergartners on identifying emotions like anger. What’s the difference between annoyance, anger and rage? The size of your feeling. You can show a child three different sizes of blocks, and now they have context to represent how big their anger is. If it’s a little anger, they can do these things, and if it’s a medium or big anger, they can do these other things. It gives them a framework for identifying their feelings and recognizing the cues they produce in the body.”
Small Group and Individual Counseling: Additional Help for Those Who Need It
Even with knowledge of social-emotional learning concepts and skills, there will always be children and teens who need additional support. ACSC partners with Cummins BHS to provide one-on-one counseling and therapy for students who have the greatest needs. This level of service allows for diagnosis and treatment of mental health issues within the school environment.
However, there’s a large divide between youth who need simple SEL lessons in the classroom and youth who need the support of individual therapy. ACSC is addressing this gap with its new Mental Wellness Team. “We hired four social workers, and they are providing small group services for kids. As counselors start to see mental health needs, they can refer to the social workers, and the social workers can put in a bumper level of support. For some kids, that may be enough to address their needs,” Fay says.
“To be clear, we’re not diagnosing mental health needs through this program. We’re looking for how students are presenting in the learning environment. For example, a teacher or staff member may notice that a student appears upset or has expressed feeling worried about a particular subject or social situation. If we provide small group support with other kids who are experiencing the same thing, we have a better chance of getting them to recognize their emotions, regulate their behavior and apply wellness principles, which will help them be successful over a longer term.”
The benefit of providing all three tiers of service is a smoother transition from level to level. This is helpful when youth are moving up levels of service as much as when they’re moving down. “In the past, a student might have been very successful with Cummins—so successful that they discharged—and then when that support was gone, they struggled and had to immediately return to a high level of support. Now we have a way to walk-down services so that kids can not only maintain success, but also transfer those skills across lighter and lighter levels,” Fay says.
Although Avon Community School Corporation’s new mental health services program is still in its infancy, Fay is excited and optimistic about the impact it will have on students’ well-being. Cummins BHS is proud to be a community mental health partner with Avon schools in this initiative!
To learn more about how Cummins BHS is supporting mental health in schools and the community at large, read some of our other posts below!