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During COVID-19, student emotional health takes on greater weight

Kindergarten students at North Todd Elementary learn about helping others and finding the courage to stand up to bullying as part of the school’s bullying prevention program. Photo: Joe Imel
Sheila Woodall leads her kindergarten class at North Todd Elementary in a lesson about finding the courage to stand up to bullying. Photo: Joe Imel
A kindergarten student responds to a question during an anti-bullying lesson at North Todd Elementary. The school uses the national Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Photo: Joe Imel
Students in this fourth-grade class at North Todd Elementary answer questions about themselves, left, then talk with one another about what they have in common. Photo: Joe Imel
North Todd Elementary Assistant Principal Yvonne Rundall chairs a school committee that promotes positive behavior expectations. Photo: Joe Imel

Every Friday at North Todd Elementary in Elkton, classroom teachers lead students through guided scenarios meant to teach them to recognize bullying-and to know how to appropriately respond when they see it in real life.

“The role-playing scenarios have helped tremendously in helping kids understand what bullying actually is,” says the school’s assistant principal, Yvonne Rundall, a Pennyrile Electric consumer-member. “The activities offer very explicit examples where they can see and hear different types of bullying and potential resolutions.”

The weekly role-play is part of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, a national anti-bullying curricula used by several schools across Kentucky, often with training support from the Kentucky Department of Education.

Todd County Middle School adopted Olweus during the 2018–2019 school year. Since then, the school has seen a dramatic reduction in the number of students being sent to the office for behavior issues, says Assistant Principal Kimberly Davis.

“My favorite part is that it empowers students to be aware of what bullying is, so they can make changes inside their groups of friends or inside their school. It’s not just an adult being on standby all the time,” Davis says. “Our kids are learning to stand up for each other, and if they see bullying now, they’re more adept at reporting it to a trusted teacher.”

Supporting students’ emotional learning

Bullying awareness is just one way that schools are increasingly recognizing the importance of creating safe learning spaces that support students’ emotional well-being.
Across the state, school counselors, teachers and administrators are find-ing creative ways to let kids know their mental health matters. It’s a message that’s been particularly important after months of remote learning, social distancing and other challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One silver lining that has come out of COVID is a greater awareness of just how important it is to prioritize social and emotional learning and mental health—not only for students but also for staff,” says Sarah Akin, a school counselor at Indian Hills Elementary in Hopkinsville and current president of the Kentucky School Counselor Association. “When you’re taking care of those needs, we see an increase in academic success as well.”

Last school year, Akin implemented a new initiative, Mindful Mondays, at her school, in which she leads students in a mindfulness exercise via school intercom to help start off each week on the right foot.

The exercises often encourage stu-dents to take deep breaths, reflect on their feelings, and set positive goals or intentions for their day—and then visualize accomplishing them.

“The mindfulness activities really help students regulate their emo-tions and behavior,” Akin says. “The kids really love it. One student came up to me and said, ‘I wish every day was Mindful Monday. ’”

Providing help to kids in crisis

The challenges of the pandemic year have severely affected some students, even very young ones.

“We had many students talk about feeling isolated and withdrawn,” says Amy Beal, a school counselor at Donald E. Cline Elementary in Campbell County, who frequently checked in on individual students’ mental health using Google Meet appointments during remote-learning times.

At Mercer County Intermediate School in Harrodsburg, which teaches students in grades 3–5, school counselor Amy Riley found herself responding to “multiple suicide threats—much, much more than we usually do” when school resumed in person, she says.

“Students’ anxiety and depression levels were through the roof,” Riley says. “We decided to be proactive rather than reactive” in addressing it.

Immediately, the school launched suicide prevention training for all of its teachers, and Riley began leading weekly, schoolwide mindfulness and calming exercises to help boost student mental health. She also launched a daily intercom announcement called “SEL Moment,” highlighting social and emotional learning tips, such as how to be empathetic if a friend is in need.

“We had a huge, schoolwide cam-paign called ‘If you see something, say something.’ So kids would know to tell someone if their friends are reporting having suicidal thoughts,” Riley says.

Students are taking the messaging to heart, she says. In fact, in most of the school’s suicide threat cases last school year, parents were shocked to learn that their children were struggling emotion-ally. It was their friends who noticed a problem and alerted Riley or another adult at the school.

Sources of Strength and more

At Butler County High School in Morgantown, school counselor Sherlyn Bratcher, a Warren RECC consumer- member, helps lead suicide prevention lessons through a national project called Sources of Strength.

“The program basically focuses on eight strengths that everybody has,” Bratcher explains. “So it’s physical health, mental health, family support, positive friends, mentors, healthy activi-ties, generosity and spirituality.”

The program helps students recognize the importance of building healthy relationships and strong connections with others—and encourages them to turn to one of their support networks whenever they’re facing mental or emo-tional challenges. In previous years, the school has put up bulletin boards where students can add names of trusted adults they can turn to if they need to talk about a problem, reinforcing the notion that they can ask for help whenever it’s needed.

Even while the school was in remote learning during COVID-19, Bratcher made a point of finding creative ways to stay connected with students so they never felt alone, including inviting them to send in photos of themselves doing healthy activities at home for the school’s social media page.

Since the pandemic hit, she and her fellow counselor have made it a priority to email a weekly Emotional Check-In survey to all Butler County High School students, asking them to rate their current emotions with an emoji and giving them an opportunity to share how they’re feel-ing in an open-ended response question.

It’s a practice that’s being adopted successfully by many school counselors across the state, Bratcher says.

“Sometimes, students will just com-pletely unload” how they are really feel-ing on that survey, she says. “And then we know to schedule an appointment to check in on them.”

Drama students star in anti-bullying music video

Drama students at Newport High School starred in an anti-bullying themed music video in 2019. The video features the song Bully, recorded by Cincinnati-based rock band Victor Spoils. The video was filmed on site at Newport High School, offering students a fun way to bring an important message to life. 

“The kids were really excited about it, especially since there was such a positive purpose to the song,” says Newport High School drama teacher Brittany Stacy.

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