How a Culture of Caring Is Helping These Schools Improve Student Mental...

Mental Health

How a Culture of Caring Is Helping These Schools Improve Student Mental Health

By Nadia Tamez-Robledo     Feb 1, 2024

How a Culture of Caring Is Helping These Schools Improve Student Mental Health

This article is part of the collection: Making Sense of K-12 Student Mental Health.

A few years on from district-wide remote learning spurred by the coronavirus pandemic, Principal Darren A. Cole-Ochoa has observed the students at Truan Junior High re-adapting to in-person schooling fall along a spectrum.

“When we got into the classroom, the students were shy. They didn't want to work in groups. They had a wall,” Cole-Ochoa says of the students in the small town of Elsa, Texas. “[Now] some of them have blossomed, some of them have overcome that. But then we still have some that wanna be on their phone, they wanna be on their Chromebook here at school, so they isolate themselves.”

Cole-Ochoa is among the educators nationwide who are trying new approaches to social-emotional learning in hopes of helping students deal with the continuing mental health struggles that took shape or worsened during the isolation of remote learning that started in 2020.

Districts have taken a wide range of approaches, as documented by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit that studies how government policies impact low-income families. Some approaches include “advocacy centers” where students are coached through strong emotions with activities like yoga, breathing exercises or calming music. Others are applied more broadly, like mentorship programs or culturally responsive curriculum.

Culture Change

When Cole-Ochoa was assigned to the junior high campus more than two years ago, it was with the directive to turn around its academic performance. Cole-Ochoa, a former police detective, says that his approach was to focus on creating a welcoming culture before cracking down with punishment.

“Why are you going to write up a child because he or she didn’t bring a pencil? Do you know what happened?” he says. “We don’t know what happens when a child leaves here. A lot of our kiddos come with hard stories where they don’t have heat, they don’t have electricity, running water, mom and dad are having to work all the time. So they as a seventh and eighth grader, they are the babysitter, they help get food on the table for their family, and it takes a toll.”

All together, Cole-Ochoa says the efforts are aimed at reinforcing positive behavior and making sure students know they have somewhere to turn for help — before any negative behavior is punished. Students have access to both a female and a male counselor and a social worker. Counselors visit classrooms to give talks on topics like how to do well on homework and the negative effects of vaping. Any student seen doing a good deed, like picking up trash in the hallway, is given a “Stinger Buck” that can be spent on prizes.

On the opposite end of the Lone Star State in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Principal Anabel Ibarra likewise developed a plan for culture change at Bowie Middle School. When she arrived at the campus three years ago, it was with a focus on “capturing kids' hearts strategies.”

“I always think of it as Maslow's. You have to take care of the students’ needs first,” she explains. “You have to make sure they feel cared before we could even get to fixing the academic problems or other things of that nature.”

Like Cole-Ochoa’s approach, her school has fun initiatives like glow dance parties for students who meet their academic improvement goals. Students can continue improving their test scores even after the party starts for a chance to join in the last hour.

But Ibarra has also revamped homeroom into an initiative she calls Cub Connection, named after the school’s tiger cub mascot, where students have one teacher who is keeping an eye on their progress in all subjects. This year, students are grouped together based on math proficiency, though Cub Connection teachers focus on homework help for a different subject each day of the week.

“Our advisory teacher is supposed to be the one person who is making sure that you're getting the correct tutoring for all the subjects,” Ibarra says. “Anytime we have parent-teacher conferences, it’s the Cub Connection teacher's responsibility to communicate that information to the parent. I feel like that is at the heart of what we do, because there should be at least one guaranteed adult who is going to be checking on the student.”

‘Two Major Battles’

Kelli Frazier, now a counselor at Bowie Middle School and colleague of Ibarra, was undertaking her counseling internship during the COVID-19 lockdown. When students returned to campus, she saw students struggling with anxiety, depression and making suicidal outcries.

“I know that the isolation of being at home and being on the computer all the time was really detrimental for a lot of kids,” Frazier recalls. “And I really saw firsthand how much kids need to just be out of the house and socialize, because a lot of kids don't have either adults at home to talk to or compassionate adults at home.”

Ibarra says that the middle school’s administrators worked closely with counselors to find ways not just to punish dangerous behavior but to prevent it from happening again. Namely, she says there was an uptick in assaults and vaping cannabis.

“Those have been our two major battles on the discipline front that go along with counseling,” Ibarra explained. “After Covid, we saw an increase in aggression. It was not a confrontation, there was not a mutual fight. It was: You were upset about something that happened at some point, you didn't have the processing skills to cope with it, and so you lashed out.”

When it comes to the use of vaping with cannabis variants like delta 8 and delta 9, Ibarra says students are self-medicating to deal with the issues Frazier mentioned: anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. With students facing harsh consequences if caught, Ibarra says the school is focused on making sure the substance never makes it onto the campus.

Part of that includes the creation of group counseling for any students previously cited for cannabis vaping during the previous school year.

“We have our dean of students who's checking in on them weekly, just to see how they're doing,” Ibarra says. “It's just to make sure that they are using proper coping strategies, and that they've come back from resorting to using drugs or alcohol.”

Ibarra’s campus has something else in common with Cole-Ochoa’s junior high: both schools piloted their districts’ use of an AI mental health app meant to give students an outlet available any time. Cole-Ochoa says when students interact with the app’s chatbot on their phones, the idea is for it to help them think through the issue bothering them or suggest ways to cope.

“If anything is serious, like if they make a suicidal outcry, then myself and my two counselors automatically gets an alert,” Cole-Ochoa explains, “and that's when we track down the student, we pull up his or her schedule, and then we bring them in to talk to the counselor to make sure that everything is OK.”

Cole-Ochoa says the goal isn’t to replace a counselor’s role for students, “but a lot of times, during the weekend or at night when they're alone, or after hours, that's when they need the support.”

He and the school’s counselors have responded to five cases this school year of a student making a suicidal outcry on the app, leading a counselor to intervene.

“These students were OK temporarily, and then when they got here, that's when we were able to say, ‘OK, what's going on? How can I help you?’” Cole-Ochoa says. “And that's when the counselors would do what they do best, which is talk to the students and assess the situation. And so it's working with the parents, working with the students to see what we can do to get this student help.”

It’s not just a feeling that has Cole-Ochoa believing that the culture of caring is working at his school — numbers are backing it up. The junior high had 1,200 student discipline referrals during the 2019-2020 school year, Cole-Ochoa says, which was cut short that March due to COVID-19 lockdowns.

For the past two years, Cole-Ochoa says the school has had about 200 discipline referrals per year — a whopping 1,000 drop in office referrals.

Truan Junior High is now a place where teachers greet students at the door before each class, and students can tap one of four emojis posted by the door as they enter: a face for happy, sad, meh and angry. If a kid signals that they’re having a bad day, Cole-Ochoa says that’s an opportunity for the teacher to find out what’s going on and if they or a counselor can help.

“Coming off of Covid, they're still kind of shy,” he says. “By doing these fun things for our students, by rewarding perfect attendance, by rewarding being a good citizen by giving them a Stinger Buck, that's giving them a good feeling to say, ‘Hey, they care about me at this school. They noticed noticed how I'm doing academically, socially, emotionally.’”

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