APPLEGATE: Protecting students’ mental health in trying times

Across the country, there have been many reports of a growing mental health crisis as children struggle with the added stresses of the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers, counselors and principals are often the first line of defense to recognize and address when kids are going through difficult times. Schools are a pillar of the community, and as such, we continue to work to identify new ways to support our community’s children.

To meet students’ needs, Niles Community Schools has adapted to provide a social emotional learning curriculum, screen its students for mental health needs and offer access to mental health resources.

Our social emotional learning curriculum is designed to teach students empathy and coping strategies, which can greatly benefit their mental well-being. The program is currently being implemented among students K-5 and piloted among students grades sixth through eighth. A curriculum review is being conducted at the high school level, with the goal of a fully integrated K-12 social emotional curriculum in the next couple of years. Social emotional learning serves as a foundation of the program and teaches students the social skills to help prevent and address mental health issues.

As part of our return to school and continuity of learning plans, the district is sending out a screener to students to assess their mental wellbeing — whether they are currently learning in-person or online. These screeners have been crafted to make sure they are appropriate to students based on their grade level. After screeners are completed, behavior specialists and social workers from the district will use this information to evaluate the mental health needs of students and provide recommendations.

Once it is determined that a student needs additional mental health resources, or if a student or family reaches out seeking assistance, the district will connect them with the proper community supports. 

While schools serve as an important resource and safe space, parents, family members, friends and neighbors can provide invaluable support for children in their life, simply by offering judgement-free listening and a caring environment. Stay in-tune with your child’s needs and acknowledge that they are not at fault for the struggles that they may face. Mental health has become less stigmatized, and there has been an increase in mental health advocacy in recent years. It is important that students know there is nothing to be ashamed of, and we could all do more to focus on our mental health.

There has always been a need for mental health services in schools, but school systems now understand the relevancy of these programs more than ever before. In recent years, the education system has approached mental health as an academic content area, elevating it to the forefront. As a result, schools are supporting the growth of well-rounded human beings who can function in society in more ways than just academic knowledge.

Additionally, Niles Community Schools has partnered with OK2SAY, making it easy for students, staff, parents and community members to confidentially report tips or seek help for a student. OK2SAY can be reached by texting 652729 (OK2SAY), calling (855) 565-2729, emailing OK2SAY@mi.gov or downloading the OK2SAY app. 

As a community, we can provide the next generation with the resources and environment that they need to thrive. As always, thank you for your ongoing support of our students and go, Vikes!

Dr. Dan Applegate is the superintendent of Niles Community Schools.

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