Schools offer therapy-based programs to help 'overwhelmed kids'

PAW PAW (AP) -- A half-staff American flag flew outside Paw Paw Early Elementary School on a cold December morning in rural southwest Michigan. Trixie, a miniature therapy dog and social worker offered comfort at the entrance doors.

Schools offer therapy-based programs to help 'overwhelmed kids'

Children in face masks were seen hopping off the buses to the morning chill. Some stooped to touch the shaggy pups before moving inside.

The Van Buren Intermediate School district in Michigan has seen a lot like children in many other cities and towns. An unending pandemic continues to strike, causing disruption in classrooms and ill health. It has also left many families homeless and jobless. Since in-person school resumed its full-time operation this fall, there have been three suicide attempts by students. There were also two suicide attempts last year. A deadly shooting occurred just two days ago at a school located just a few hours from the scene.

With the help of state funding and federal COVID relief money, all 11 children in this district are receiving additional support.

The district launched an educational program that is based on cognitive behavior therapy, a key component in modern psychology. This comes after a school year that was meant to bring back normality. The district embraces social and emotional learning and has embedded the principles of this method in its curriculum.

Every grade teaches students how thoughts, emotions and behaviors can be linked. They also learn how to control their thoughts and reframe them to achieve more positive outcomes. This program also includes sessions on suicide prevention and more intense lessons for children with anxiety, depression, or trauma. The concepts are taught to all district employees.

Schools in the U.S. are teaching more social and emotional learning skills. However, others use a fragmented approach. They create a class to talk about emotions or focus their attention on the most troubled students. Many schools lack the resources and funding to implement the comprehensive approach Paw Paw and its neighbors are trying, which incorporates evidence-based psychology into the curriculum and involves all staff members.

Olga Acosta Price is the director of the National Center for Health and Health Care in Schools. Effective social and emotional learning does not happen "only with certain people" or at specific times. This kind of approach is crucial in light of the widespread disruptions caused by the pandemic, she stated.

On this December day, Paw Paw Early Elementary's second-graders sat cross-legged on the ground. Their teacher gave them an introduction and showed them a video. They learned how to manage "big" emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety and anger.

One example was given to the children: Feeling angry at your mom for not buying your favorite breakfast cereal. This makes your mom sad and you even more upset. You could remind your mom that you like waffles, and ask her to make them for you, making you both happier as you start your day.

Four fifth graders from the adjacent elementary school were invited to a mindfulness session. They practiced slow breathing and used their forefinger and forefinger to track the fingers of the other hand. Eric Clark, a behavior specialist, wore a black mask with the message "Be Nice" and led the session. He calmly accepted the refusal of a girl to take part.

Clark stated that he has seen children with anxiety and thoughts of self-harm since the school was reopened. They are feeling overwhelmed and don't want anymore.

He said that he believes we are beginning to see the effects of the last few years. "The added stress of not knowing what the future holds, not knowing if we will have school due to too many cases, not knowing if there are any other variants or not knowing whether someone has a job or not.

Clark stated that the psychologist-focused program adopted by the district, called "TRAILS" (by its University of Michigan creators), is helping everyone to manage the challenges.

Clark stated, "We cannot control what's coming at our", but Clark explained that we can control how it reacts to it.

Abby Olmstead is a 10-year-old girl who has a deep-set, dark-haired complexion and freckles on her nose. Clark said that the finger-breathing exercise helps her calm down.

She said, "He always makes it funny when I'm anxious, and that's not bad,"

Dawn Olmstead, Abby's mom, stated that Abby had difficulty with online school last academic year and is now learning to manage her frustrations.

Olmstead stated, "I certainly approve of what they do for social and emotional learning." "If this was not present, it would be difficult to get down to basics for my daughter."

The program has been used to train more than 1,000 district employees and bus drivers.

"From the superintendent down to all staff members, we have said that you need to understand what makes children tick," stated Corey Harbaugh (Paw Paw Schools' Curriculum Director). "You have to do better in that area so that every adult that a student has contact with, from the moment they board a bus in morning to the time they get off in afternoon, has been trained and given tools to help them with social and emotional skills.

Some parents are skeptical of the approach, arguing their children are already "well-regulated" and don’t require it. Some people mistakenly believe that social and emotional learning are somehow connected to critical race theory, a method of understanding American racists.

Harbaugh is not afraid to speak out.

"We are very clear in saying that we know this is good news for children. He said that the research was there.

Studies show that educational programs for social and emotional learning can increase academic performance, classroom behavior, and stress management. Research suggests that TRAILS lessons can be used to reduce depression in at-risk children and help them develop coping skills.

Nearly 700 schools in the United States have signed contracts to support and implement this program. The website offers free online materials that can be downloaded more than 2000 times per day. Users come from all parts of the globe, according to Elizabeth Koschmann, a University of Michigan researcher. These downloads have risen dramatically during the pandemic.

Schools contact her nearly daily to ask "how they can keep up with students falling apart, staff losing morale, experiencing great burnout, and just feeling a pervasive sense exhaustion, despair and hopelessness."

There is ample evidence to support the importance of paying more attention to mental health in students.

The number of children with mental health problems, including depression, suicidal behavior and eating disorders, has increased in the U.S. emergency departments. Many areas lack pediatric mental health therapists, and children often have to wait for months to receive outpatient treatment.

U.S. Health officials issued a December 7th public health advisory. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, cited research that showed depression and anxiety symptoms increased by two-thirds among young people during the pandemic. His recommendations include expanding school-based programs.

The American Academy of Pediatrics was one of the groups that made similar recommendations when it declared children's mental health in crisis a national emergency.

Teachers and students are all suffering from the effects of the pandemic. "More needs to be done," Dr. Sara Bode said, who is chair-elect for the academy's council of school health and a pediatrician at Nationwide Children's Hospital, Columbus, Ohio. Comprehensive programs are essential because it is impossible to treat this crisis individually.

An emergency drill at Paw Paw Middle School interrupted 8th graders who were writing down the values and behaviors they would like to see in a class social contract. Students and administrators had time to reflect on the shooting at Oxford Middle School in Michigan. It was allegedly perpetrated by a boy only a few years younger than these students.

Paw Paw students were instructed to find the nearest classroom, rather than run outside in case of a shooter.

Will Bowater, 13, stated that the reminders can be stressful, but that it helps to know there are people who, like, are collected enough to consider how to deal.

He stated that the school's emphasis on positivity and feelings is a positive thing, even though it sometimes sounds corny.

Harbaugh admitted that it is a work-in-progress.

He said, "If you look at our school and social, emotional learning, Paw Paw, we are not serving up a gourmet dinner here." We're in the kitchen and there's flour all over, eggs broken, and we know that the ovens are heating behind our backs. We are trying to figure this out. We're going to keep trying."

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