From Therapy Dogs to Yoga, Schools Continue Focus on Mental Health

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Mental health continues to be a priority in area school districts as administrators implement programs and support services to help students and teachers.

The Record-Journal talked with administrators from the Meriden, Southington and Cheshire school districts about how their schools have been supporting students and staff members.

In Cheshire, Assistant Superintendent Marlene Silano said they have put into place a variety of programs including mindfulness practice and therapy dog visits, and incorporated activities at the high school where kids can decompress while learning how to tackle exams.

Silano said that the district taught teachers how to practice mindfulness, which means being in the present moment. They then bring this technique to the classroom, teaching their students how to do it as well.

“They know when to engage that, when to implement it in the classroom, depending on the grade level and the time of day,” Silano said. “But our students at the high school, in particular, are more familiar with this because it was implemented a number of years ago … Students found it was helpful to them both before taking a test and also to fall asleep at night.”

Cheshire Public Schools received a grant from the Elim Park retirement community which allowed the district to work with an organization called Pet Partners to bring into schools therapy dogs and a bunny.

“Those therapy dogs come into the schools and they are a big hit with the kids,” Silano said.

Silano said another “big hit” at the high school is a program called “Cocoa and Cram” where upperclassmen meet with underclassmen to talk about strategies for taking the midterms.

“Helping them understand how best to prepare for exams and to help them reduce tension and anxiety around midterm exams,” Silano said.

Both Cheshire Public Schools and Southington Public Schools utilize RULER, which stands for recognizing, understanding, labeling, expressing and regulating emotions.

“It’s about having kids at all age levels being able to recognize their emotions, to understand what that emotion means, to label it,” Silano said.

RULER is a program developed by the Yale Child Study Center.

“It really examines teacher well-being, school climate, classroom climate and student social-emotional well-being,” said Rebecca Cavallaro, director of pupil services for Southington Public Schools.

RULER has been implemented in all grade levels in Southington.

“Staff has been trained in the RULER approach and it is utilized in classrooms throughout the district,” Cavallaro said.

Cavallaro said that the district has added more social workers, school psychologists and board-certified behavior analysts, which also supports student needs.

“And to help support teachers so that they are able to really address the needs of the students,” Cavallaro said.

The Community Health Center (CHC) provides behavioral health services in all of the schools in the Meriden district, said Patricia Sullivan-Kowalski, assistant superintendent of student support.

“To assist families in getting connected with CHC for outside therapy services,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

Along with that, Sullivan-Kowalski said that the district uses a climate survey and a “Getting to Know You” survey. Students take the “Getting to Know You” survey at the end of the year for use in the following school year.

“Teachers are able to identify if there are students that might need to be connected to a person or an activity or if there is somebody that may like something, but they’re not connected to that yet,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

Students can also use an online tool called Speak Up, which gives them the opportunity to connect with support services.

What the students choose to write will be immediately shared with the school psychologists, the school principal and Alvin Larson, research and evaluation specialist for Meriden Public Schools.

“To red flag that there is an issue and that also is helpful because if somebody is feeling a certain way and they are not comfortable telling somebody, they can type it and send it,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

Making sure students feel a part of their school community is a priority, Sullivan-Kowalski said. So, the district promotes extracurricular involvement and offers various activities in which students can participate.

“Just trying to encourage kids to participate in as many different extracurricular activities because we know that the research shows that when kids are connected to school, they do better,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

Teacher support

Sullivan-Kowalski emphasized that if the adults are in a good place, the students can be too.

“When teachers feel good about their work and in themselves, then it trickles down to the children and they feel better about their work and themselves,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

In Meriden, Sullivan-Kowalski said the staff members work on “creating classrooms that are community spaces”

“Where a teacher and the students really feel that they are a community,” Sullivan-Kowalski said.

Both Meriden and Cheshire
districts use Cigna as their insurance carrier, which offers staff members opportunities to participate in wellness activities.

In Cheshire, Silano said the Cheshire Public Schools’ human resources department created various challenges, including a walking challenge in the fall where teachers could win prizes.

“Currently, we are involved in a sleep challenge where individual teachers are setting goals and recording that,” Silano said. “We’re listening to webinars from a doctor who is an expert on sleep and so he’s been giving us a lot of information to help us with our sleep.”

Sullivan-Kowalski said Cigna has offered yoga and pilates coaching for teachers and classes.

The Record-Journal, in a previous article, reported that Lauren Mancini-Averitt, president of the Meriden Federation of Teachers, and other union leaders created notecards where staff members can write to one another.

In Southington, Cavallaro said it is important to look at teacher needs, including through professional development days.

“Through pro-social activities, things of that nature and just trying to keep things as positive as possible and support those who are reaching out,” Cavallaro said.

Government action

State Rep. Liz Linehan, whose district covers Cheshire, Wallingford and Southington, is the House chair of the Committee on Children.

Linehan was one of the main authors of House Bill 5001, An Act Concerning Children’s Mental Health. The bill has 73 sections that have to do with programs and their funding, including the implementation of a grant program funding boards of education’s hiring of mental health specialists.

“Some legislation that we will be doing this year will be tying up some loose ends on that, so you’ll see a couple of bills come in that will underscore and take programs a little further,” Linehan said.

Some of the bills going forward may not include mental health in the title, but Linehan said it will be included in “the safety net” of those bills.

For example, the committee is working on a bill in conjunction with the Office of the Child’s Advocate to create a Title IX toolkit after seeing a rise in adult sexual misconduct stories coming out of schools in Connecticut. Linehan heard from these districts that the federal legislation for Title IX is confusing, so they may not have known what the next steps should be.

“When we talk about adult sexual misconduct and Title IX and those investigations, those actually have a lot to do with students’ mental health because if a student was a victim of adult sexual misconduct in a school setting, there’s trauma there,” Linehan said. “We’re really trying to work around getting to the root of the problem and figuring it out before a child is really victimized.”