Another school site with a mass shooting, more bullying, a rise in teen suicide rates—along with increased drug addiction: all global social crises that youth witness and must heal from emotionally.
The stress impacts all generations, but particularly youngsters with limited life experience and even less time to develop personal resiliency and problem-solving skills. It’s difficult to cope, while at the same time comprehending the unbelievable tragedies happening to their peers.
Along with their students, Kyrene teachers and administrators feel the impact and seek to strengthen the system of caring created at school, according to Dr. Jan Vesely, the district’s superintendent.
“The district is committed to a comprehensive approach to learning where students reach their full potential in school and in life. This includes social and emotional support and, while no one is born with coping skills, they can be learned,” said Vesely.
Reconfiguration adds positions at district schools
In the past school year, Vesely re-configured the district’s administrative staff to allow for more positions at the school level. This includes adding school counselors and a psychologist, Kelly Kimbrell, and increasing referrals for mental health services in the community.
Teachers also will benefit from in-house training to recognize warning signs in distressed students and how to assist them in receiving help.
Vesely used a recent staff presentation to the Governing Board to outline a new component of the district’s strategic plan, which integrates into overall goals and objectives the development of social and emotional learning, or SEL.
SEL is the process through which children and adults acquire and effectively apply 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.
Dr. Sandra Laine, director of exceptional student services, explained that SEL programming is based on the understanding that the best learning emerges in the context of supportive relationships, which make learning challenging, engaging and meaningful.
Multi-year intervention seen as vital
These social and emotional skills are critical to being a good student, citizen and worker. Research shows that many risky behaviors—drug use, violence, bullying and dropping out of school, among them—can be prevented or reduced when multi-year, integrated efforts are used to develop students’ social and emotional skills.
Laine says this can be accomplished through effective classroom instruction, student engagement in positive activities in and out of the classroom, and broad parent and community involvement in program planning, implementation and evaluation.
Staff introduced a new pilot program called “Second Step,” which addresses social-emotional topics such as values, friendships and peer conflict at the middle-school level. Currently, the program is being piloted at Aprende Middle School, with successful results, according to Renee Kory, the school’s principal.
“The response to the program is better than we expected,” said Kory. “The kids are excited by Second Step, which allows for discussion and developing interpersonal skills. “
Eventually SEL will become part of the curriculum for all students, according to Laine.
“The goal is for a social emotional program to be implemented in all middle schools by the 2018-19 school year. A program for elementary-aged students also would be implemented over two to three years, between 2019 to 2021.”
Other efforts include directly involving middle-school students in a program to learn tangible skills to help with the prevention of drug abuse, bullying and suicide.
A delegation of students attended a “Stand Up, Speak Up, Save a Life” conference at Grand Canyon University, where they were empowered to spread the word that it is okay to speak up and tell a trusted adult about another student, whom they know is in crisis.
Vesely outlines strategies to affect change
While emotional challenges may re-occur throughout a child’s life, Kyrene is focused on providing information to students and their parents, so they learn skills to adapt, to change and to cope with stress, according to Vesely.
“As superintendent, I am committed to working closely with our school leaders, parents and the Kyrene community to ensure that our most precious resource, our children, are fully supported—academically, socially and emotionally, to be the best they can be.”
The district website includes counseling resources available to Kyrene families to assist with emotional and behavioral challenges. It also includes links to educational resources, lists of local social-service agencies and information on special needs students.