Coping with stress, regulating emotion a growing focus for schools

More Miami Valley children are coming to school without the social and emotional skills necessary to deal with stress or adversity and properly learn, local experts say.

The change witnessed by educators and mental health professionals over the past decade is attributed to more exposure to adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, according to Ken Cannon, director of outreach services at Eastway Behavioral Healthcare.

“We are seeing younger and younger kids with just very poorly developed social skills and coping skills,” Cannon said. “Our largest referring group of kids are probably kindergarten, first and second grade.”

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The opioid epidemic may play a role in why schools are seeing these issues more in their incoming 5-year-olds, according to Shannon Cox, superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center. Kids that age are more likely to have been in a home that is chronically stressed by drug use, poverty and other ACES, she said, because the height of the epidemic locally was 2016 to 2017 when they were 2 or 3.

Things like divorce, parental drug use or incarceration, witnessing violence, experiencing abuse, or not having enough to eat are all ACES that contribute to stress in childrens’ lives and impair their ability to absorb lessons in school.

“Millions of kids in the U.S. are experiencing at least one of these,” said Mary Beth DeWitt, pediatric psychologist at Dayton Childrens Hospital. She said parents today are also dealing with more stress and have less ability to talk with their kids about emotions.

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“It’s difficult for them to model appropriate coping and teach appropriate coping … if you’re in survival mode, you have to focus on those basic needs before you can focus on those high level needs,” DeWitt said. Technology has also lessened the amount of social interaction kids get at young ages and should be moderated, she said.

Eastway and other agencies are contracting with more and more schools to provide counselors for the most impacted children. Schools are also working to incorporate more social emotional learning into their every-day lessons.

In response to growing concern from teachers and school leaders about a lack of these skills in kindergartners on up, the county ESC developed a curriculum called SELLA: Social Emotional Learning Language Arts.

Integrating with state standards

One of the important goals for the ESC was to make sure any social emotional learning programs didn’t add more for teachers to do in a day. That’s why they combined the activities with existing reading and writing standards.

Students read books on their own, and together with their classmates, that not only enhance their comprehension and vocabulary skills, but prompt discussions about regulating emotions, for example, or dealing with stress. They write answers to prompts in journals that help them process emotions while also practicing their composition skills.

“The journals are the student favorite,” Cox said. “They hang on to them and they value them.” The ESC originally planned to create a digital journal, but the students who piloted the program loved the physical notebook versions.

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Maria Schreiber and Julie Knapke’s fourth-grade class at Northmoor Elementary School in Englewood has been participating in the program since last spring.

Last week the students read a quote from author Jodi Picoult about being singled out for differences. They then talked with their teachers about their own differences and how they feel when others are mean or supportive.

After the group discussion they individually answered follow-up questions about the value of differences in their journals. The whole activity took about 20 minutes of the class.

The curriculum focuses on five competencies which the Ohio Department of Education recently added to its K-12 learning standards: self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making.

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The competencies were developed by The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and teach the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions.

“The skills associated with social-emotional learning provide the foundation for effective communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, resiliency, perseverance and teamwork — all of which are necessary for individuals to be successful in a technical or career field and post-secondary work,” according to the ODE strategic plan.

The ESC’s curriculum also added a sixth component — future self.

“If a kid cannot see themselves in the future as having hope, it doesn’t matter,” Cox said.

Seeing results

Teachers at Northmoor have seen the lessons bring kids out of their shells, build empathy in their classrooms and create a tighter bond between student and teacher.

“They’re talking and being more open,” Schreiber said.

They have noticed kids who normally don’t raise their hands doing so. They attribute that to the fact that the journals don’t look like typical school work assignments or worksheets. Plus it’s stressed that there is no right or wrong, so kids feel confident in expressing their thoughts and feelings.

Schreiber noticed a student doing a breathing exercise she’d taught to deal with stress as they prepared to take a test in another subject.

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The first pilot included sixth-graders and lower grades were added each semester. The kindergarten and first-grade curriculum are still being written and should be ready to go by the end of this school year.

The teachers are excited to see the difference it will make when kids have these consistent lessons kindergarten through sixth grade.

“It’s important that they stay with it,” Knapke said.


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