Elementary teachers know a lot about their students, but if they need help beyond spelling and subtraction, teachers don’t always have resources to lean on.
Following repeated incidents of gun violence across the country, some districts have spent millions ramping up security and others are considering arming teachers, but there are still large gaps when schools need to secure mental health services for students in distress.
While much of gun violence in schools is committed by troubled teens, children begin experiencing mental health issues much earlier than that. According to the National Institute of Mental Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13 percent of children ages 8 to 15 experience a mental health condition, 50 percent don’t receive the help they need, and half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14.
The strategies used at the Momentous Institute may help mitigate mental health issues through early intervention and create safer schools as a result.
The small, nonprofit charter school in Dallas, Texas, serves 248 students from preschool through 5th grade and partners with other schools nationwide to share their approach through online school staff training and support.
They say the demand for teacher training has increased since many schools have limited access to a mental health professional on site.
“We’re looking at what’s transformational for families and children by focusing on the intersection of education and mental health,” said Maria Christiansen, director of early childhood education at MI.
Teachers are trained to use a social-emotional health curriculum with kids as young as 3 to learn about their brain, their body, and how to regulate them both.
“We help kids see themselves as the agent and give them coping skills,” she said. “They learn that life isn’t happening to them but that they’re part of it.”
The strategies are similar to those described as “mindfulness,” and the focus on “the self” is the same.
It’s like any other school except the day is punctuated by breathing exercises, there’s a reflection center and families in need have access to on-campus, free, ongoing therapy.
In a focus exercise, the students sit in a circle and pass around a little bell without letting it make a sound. They then talk about what that felt like in their body and what skills they had to use to keep it quiet:
“Did you notice what happened when you’re not focusing? Where else might you use that same focus?” asks the teacher.
In the reflection center, a child can break away from a moment of frustration to shake a glitter ball and watch the reflective flakes settle through the liquid toward the bottom, allowing the time to pause emotions.
Although there are still relatively few studies on the effects of mindfulness in elementary schools, the outcomes point to positive effects on decreasing anxiety and increasing cognitive performance.
It’s known the students at MI thrive.
They’re followed for seven years after they leave the campus, and although some are at increased risk of not graduating on time due to lower income and parent educational attainment, almost 100 percent of them do, and about 81 percent enroll in higher education.
Barriers to mental health services like cost, stigma, and access persist, but giving teachers the tools they need to help their students and having mental health services on site can be the first preventive tool for school violence.
“The children feel seen and heard and that’s really critical,” Christiansen said.
This story comes from Aspirations Journalism, an initiative of The Patterson Foundation and Sarasota Herald-Tribune to inform, inspire, and engage the community to take action on issues related to Age-Friendly Sarasota, Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, National Council on Aging and the Suncoast Nursing Action Coalition.