By Linda Titel
May is Mental Health Month and the Shiocton school District works diligently to improve the mental health of their students.
Superintendent Nichole Schweitzer said, “One of our bold steps for our strategic plan is to look into what our mental health needs are and how they are growing and then how do we meet that growing need.”
The bold steps are one of their strategic plans that came out of a visioning process that they do with staff, administrators, board members and community members.
They review it every three to five years, where they bring everybody back together to discuss. The bold steps are a community district wide type of initiative that they work on together.
One of the five bold steps is mental health where the school district is putting a lot of effort into addressing right away.
Schweitzer said, “Special Education Director Kelly Thiel is the leading champion of the bold step with regards to mental health. Many of our children with specialized instructional needs also have mental health concerns.
“Thiel has worked in the Valley with many specialized instructional needs students that had components of mental health concerns that affected their learning and their academic success.”
Joan Helbing, a consultant from the Fox Valley and former special education teacher and diagnostician came in last year to the school and worked with the staff about identifying signs of concerns and how to help students that might be dealing with mental health issues.
Schwetizer said, “It’s about awareness and it’s about understanding because mental health is a disability that can’t be seen. Sometimes when we see someone who is physically or cognitively challenged we can understand there is a disability more readily than someone who struggles with mental health which is just as debilitating as the others.”
“We are looking to utilize our Title IV dollars next year to provide a universal screener for the upper elementary/middle level grades. The screener provides us information regarding a child’s mental and emotional well being, as well as drawing attention to areas of concern.
“That screener could give us some of the insight as to what the kids are thinking or feeling, what they are struggling with that they may not want to tell an adult. It’s going to be an ongoing and a growing effort.”
The Mental Health Screener, Connected Community Wellness Screen, will be with the middle school grade levels. Shiocton is collaborating with Samaritan Counseling for this.
Title IV is part of the federal Title funds provided to the State, which then is allocated to the districts.
Thiel said, “We started this initiative last school year when we went through our district wide visioning process and we identified mental health as one of our district goals, regarding additional support for our staff and students. As a result of that we are putting some initiative forward in dealing with mental health.”
She said, this school year fifth through 12th grade staff went through youth mental health first aid training. It was a two day training that involved having outside people come in and giving the staff an understanding of mental health concerns with the children and how to react and recognize it. They discussed depression, anxiety, and suicidal tendencies, how to identify the warning signs and how to help support students.
As part of the Safety Grant the school received this year the staff were required to complete a three hour training program called Trauma Sensitive Schools.
Thiel said, “Within the Trauma Sensitive Schools module they learned about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES).These are all the things that students bring to school with them, the outside influences that effect their day. It could be things going on at home, having trouble with their parents, hunger, homelessness, mental health issues with adults as well as their providers. We talk about those influences with the staff and we say that is because of this and then we look at what we can do to help support the student and help the situation.
“Another training program that the staff went through was called DOTS (Depending On Teachers and Staff). It really is that inner-connectiveness and making sure every student has a connection with an adult in the building, because evidence shows that if we can connect kids with an adult it helps with their emotions and mental health.”
They really looked at which students had a lot of connections with adults and then they looked at the students that didn’t. The staff worked on the latter group making those extra connections with the kids every day.
They reminded the staff to follow up with DOTS throughout the school year, for instance, Christmas vacation can be hard on some kids so the staff had DOTS candy in their mailboxes, to make connections with the kids before and after the breaks.
These breaks or vacations could also be stressful for some students because teachers are their constant, their routine, their stability and that goes away while the children are away from school.
Counselors are available for the students at risk and the staff really tries to address the core of the problem in order to know how to support the students.
Shiocton Mental Health bold step group created a flow chart for staff to follow the proper procedure for when a student verbalizes a physical act of potential suicide.
Schweitzer has also developed a flow chart for parents which will be on the school’s website in the near future of resources that are available to them if they think their child is a potential risk.
Thiel said, “The staff has been very busy improving and growing their understanding of mental health and the staff knowledge is invaluable.”