Avon Schools Offer Resources to Help Students Feel Their Best

Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography Provided

Avon students are fortunate in that the school district offers ample support for student mental health at all levels, from elementary to high school. Three years ago, Avon was awarded the Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) grant, designed around increasing awareness, education, and access to mental health services and support in the school setting. Among the array of professionals contributing to this initiative are Registered Psychotherapist, who brings expertise and compassion to empower students on their journey towards mental wellness.

The Project AWARE funds have enabled the schools to break down resources into three levels. Tier 1 gives universal help to all students, offering a variety of approaches that revolve around Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) concepts. The evidence-based core competency areas for social and emotional learning include self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness. Tier 2 goes to students who need additional support. Tier 3 is available to students in crisis, as a temporary bridge to help them until they can be linked up with resources outside of the school setting.

“The triangle gets narrower at the top, but you want to make sure you have a strong base,” says Krista Fay, mental wellness coordinator with Avon Community School Corporation.

She notes that the district looks at the universal supports that go into mental health and wellness for students, and couples those with social and emotional learning, which emphasizes character traits, personal skills and emotion regulation.

“We want to make sure that students have a good understanding of their emotions, social awareness skills, time management skills, responsibility and decision-making skills,” Fay says. “That all sets the stage for good mental health and wellness.”

The social and emotion learning commitment is new to Avon schools this year. For instance, elementary classes engage in 30-minute morning meetings in which students  are taught the skills they need to successfully interact with one another. There is a push to rebrand what has formerly been known as “soft skills” and call them “essential skills.”

“When you think about what you want your kid to graduate with, it’s not necessarily a deep understanding of the Pythagorean theorem,” Fay says. “You want them to be able to communicate, self-initiate, make responsible decisions, and handle ethical dilemmas.”

She calls this approach two sides of the same coin, as school leaders want students to understand themselves and one another. When students do that, they can open up to access more academic instruction.

“If you walk into class and you’re not regulated because you’re upset, it doesn’t matter how great that lesson is, your emotions are getting in the way of you being able to receive that information,” Fay says. “However, if a student is taught how to recognize when he is upset – and not only recognize it, but learn safe and healthy skills to help regulate himself back down to a baseline level – now he has increased his academic availability.”

Stephanie Bode, assistant principal at Avon High School (AHS), maintains that the administration regularly surveys the student population to keep a pulse on how they are doing. National statistics report that two-thirds of students cite stress as a challenge, while 40% suffer from chronic anxiety. According to Bode, social media and smartphones have contributed to heightened anxiety.

“We see a correlation between kids’ loneliness and anxiety with the advent of the iPhone,” she says. “Although kids today are safer physically, they are more vulnerable emotionally than they have ever been.”

Some students hide their pain, which can often exacerbate it. That’s why it’s smart for parents to normalize having a bad day.

“You can tell your child, ‘Today I feel bad and that’s okay. Here’s what I’m going to do about it,’” Fay says. “That shows that you’re not going to wallow in that space forever. It also shows your kids the importance of prioritizing mental health.”

In addition, with funds from the Project AWARE grant, schools have hired social workers to work with students who may need an additional intervention. These school social workers provide both small-group and one-on-one services related to mental wellness. Fay stresses that they are not diagnosing or labeling kids, but rather helping them discern how to identify and manage their feelings.

“We don’t say, ‘You have an anxiety disorder,’” Fay says. “Instead, we are helping kids understand what anxiety is, what stress is, and how that shows up for you, not just in your body but in your thinking patterns.”

Social workers help empower students to utilize skills to regain control of extreme emotions.

In 2010, actress Glenn Close co-founded the organization Bring Change to Mind (BC2M) after both her sister and nephew were diagnosed with mental health disorders. The national organization was adopted by various schools across the country as a club for students who are passionate about mental health. Two years ago, AHS started offering the student-led club, which is not meant to be therapy for students but rather a way to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health.

“We have a student movement around the importance of mental health, and the BC2M club is one manifestation of that movement,” Bode says.

Caleb Dowers, an AHS senior and president of BC2M, says sometimes we can’t control what happens in our minds, but we often blame ourselves for those struggles.

“You wouldn’t blame yourself if you had a genetic disease,” Dowers says. “You can’t help that. Once we equate mental illness to having the same importance as physical health, the stigma disappears.”

Dowers first attended a club meeting last year and was impressed by how real the students were with one another.

“I came away refreshed and hopeful,” Dowers says. “I just loved the atmosphere and grew to love our motto, which focuses on mental illnesses specifically, because we talk a lot more about mental health, in general, than we do mental illness. Until we humanize mental illness and its effects, and educate ourselves on these illnesses, we can’t truly appreciate or understand what mental health all is. It goes beyond stress and depression.”

He notes that while mental health is a phrase we use with some degree of regularity, people rarely enter into genuine conversations about what they are experiencing.

“Once we become vulnerable and have these conversations, we feel less stuck in our situation,” Dowers says. “It brings freedom.”

Yamana Uno, BC2M’s secretary, joined the club because she noticed increasing numbers of kids who were struggling with mental health.

“I want to raise awareness within the school and our community, and help people realize that it’s not something to be ashamed of,” says Uno, a senior.

At their club meetings, students participate in various activities and games, incorporating a short lesson on one mental illness at every meeting. At a recent meeting, students wrote encouraging messages on bathroom mirrors around the school using dry erase markers.

“One way to boost your mental wellness is to simply be kind to others, and that was the goal with this activity – to spark smiles,” Dowers says. “I know the potential this club has within our school, and I’m already seeing it change the school dynamic, both in how the administration handles mental health and how students value it.”

What Project AWARE and BC2M have in common is the goal of making mental health and wellness more conversational and less scary. Leaders of both have launched various campaigns such as “Seize the Awkward” to help demonstrate that it can be uncomfortable to sit with someone when they are having a mental health challenge. Yet that’s precisely what we should do.

“We all have highs and lows when it comes to our health,” Fay says. “At some point, we move back to baseline, but by expanding our support network and normalizing talking about our thoughts, feelings and experiences, we make it easier and more accessible to recognize when we are in those lows.”

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