Each morning, students at Salina's Heusner Elementary School pick a "zone" on which they attach a clothespin bearing their name.

If the student attaches their clothespin to the green zone, it means they feel happy, calm, focused and ready to learn. The yellow zone indicates frustration, worry or feeling some loss of control. The blue zone reflects sadness, sickness, tiredness or boredom, while the red zone means the student is feeling angry, mean, terrified or out of control.

Each morning, individual teachers call "morning meetings," where the kids greet each other, talk about how they feel that day and perform a group team-building activity before starting the day's lessons.

"The morning meeting is all about community building and establishing a relationship between the staff and the kids," said Julie Clayson, a family support worker at Huesner. "By talking about what 'zone' they're in, it gives children the ability to talk about emotions, that it's not bad to feel sad or mad because they can get the emotional support they need and learn coping skills."

If a child is feeling angry or out of control, they might go to a "peace zone," a designated area in classrooms where the fluorescent lights are muted, and they can relax and relieve their stress through therapy putty, a stress ball, sensory bottles or a Hoberman sphere.

"When it comes to behavioral issues, early intervention makes a big difference," said Lori Munsell, principal of Heusner Elementary School.

Early intervention is the goal of social-emotional learning, one of the talking points of KansansCan, a vision for education spearheaded by the Kansas State Board of Education in Topeka. Social-emotional learning is the process through which students acquire the knowledge, attitudes and 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.

 

Integrated approach

KSDE is collaborating with the University of Kansas to provide implementation of a statewide, integrated tiered approach for social-emotional support.

"It's become a renewed focus for the state of Kansas," said Shanna Rector, executive director of administration and student support services for Unified School District 305 in Salina. "It's a lot more than focusing on students with trauma. We want to make sure all students have the skills they need to be successful, productive citizens. It's about giving students a skill set they can use whenever problems come their way, whether perceived or real."

Programs being explored to integrate into classes, beginning in elementary school, include focusing on developing students' core values and their applications to everyday life decisions; connecting service in the community with academic coursework; training students to help guide other students in resolving conflicts peacefully; addressing matters relating to bullying and harassment; developing strategies to help students understand and manage their anger; teaching students the dangers of drug, alcohol and tobacco use and abuse; and developing skills for managing conflicts, building positive social skills and practicing the importance of acceptance, respect and empathy.

By focusing on character development and coping skills from an early age, Rector said students will more easily be able to navigate positive and negative social situations, avoid falling into isolation or depression and be able to better handle academic pressure in middle or high school.

"Anything we can do to help give students the opportunity to feel successful is important," she said. "That's why we've increased the number of elementary school counselors over the last couple of years, as well as in middle schools, and increased the number of social workers we have."

 

Social-emotional specialist

The Salina school district also has hired a full-time social-emotional specialist, Sarah Lancaster, who has been in place about a year and a half. Lancaster said her role is to help schools create time in their day for intentional relationship building with students, including those with behavioral or trauma issues.

"In an effort to create behavioral change and not just enforce a punishment, mediation can be utilized when there are issues between students, or between a student and teacher, to help process the problem," she said. "Creating time for intentional relationship building with all students builds the foundation for students to feel safe at school, to know they have adults who genuinely care about them and to have a connection with their peers. Having these elements in place is critical in order for academic learning to take place at its highest potential."

Integrating social-emotional and character building skills into the classroom might be done through written expression of feelings through journals, poetry and essay writing; reading and identifying how certain passages reflect emotions; using art or computer-generated models to convey emotions; or building skills through games, videos and role playing in group formats.

"There's no one program or solution to such a diverse, complex issue," Rector said. "One school's need may be very different than another's. But we're moving away from a more reactive approach to a more proactive approach to social-emotional support."

 

Addressing mental health

But what about students who have experienced trauma or have mental health issues that might need stronger proactive intervention?

Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of USD 501 in Topeka, has spearheaded a tiered level of support to address mental health services in her school system. A mental health committee that she chairs provides support and training that addresses acute and chronic traumatic events involving students and staff.

To support staff in developing a deeper understanding of trauma, Topeka Public Schools has partnered with the Houston-based Child Trauma Academy to offer Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) training. The academy has developed a set of training courses to help school counselors, administrators, teachers and support staff understand student behavior and performance, based on students' brain development and developmental trauma.

The district also has partnered with the University of Kansas to develop a Comprehensive, Integrated, Three-Tiered (Ci3T) model of prevention, constructed to address academic, behavioral and social issues by maximizing available expertise through professional collaborations among school personnel.

"All of our schools have had training, with a focus on behavioral, academic and emotional support," Anderson said.

Anderson said curriculum materials also are being introduced into the classrooms by counselors that address social-emotional issues that include anti-bullying and suicide prevention, which Anderson said is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 through 14 in Kansas.

There also are 15 therapy dogs available in the district's middle schools for student use, she said, as well as mental health rooms that allow students to excuse themselves from class and "let off some steam" to regulate their emotions with the assistance of available counselors.

"We're giving a strong message that (mental health) is of the greatest priority," Anderson said. "You look nationally at school shootings and find individuals with mental health issues from an early age. Kansas has a high rate of teen suicide, and that is often related to depression. That's why we've approved adding student mental health as part of our strategic plan."

Anderson said she hopes the mental health strategies that Topeka is piloting will expand statewide.

"We hope the state can use this to further implement quality mental health services for students in Kansas," she said.