Educators placing greater focus on student mental health

Educators are focusing on more than just academics this year and putting a spotlight on mental health.
Published: Aug. 23, 2022 at 11:18 AM EDT
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SPRINGFIELD, MA (WGGB/WSHM) - As school districts across the state work to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are focusing on more than just academics this year and putting a spotlight on mental health.

After navigating an unusual three years of learning due to the pandemic, students returning to the classroom this fall could face some expected emotional and mental challenges.

“I think that the pandemic just heightened it more and I think now it is becoming just as important as math, English,” said Larissa Thornton, Phoenix Charter Academy’s director of school culture.

“Career and college ready is not just the academics piece. It is also the social, emotional piece,” added Westfield Public Schools Superintendent Stefan Czaporowski.

Westfield Public Schools is taking steps to address the social and emotional well-being of their students by increasing the number of school adjustment counselors by eight, bringing the total number in the district to 30.

“For all students in the general setting, we provide social emotional learning and support that would help them to stay…have the ability to function and not need those extras and then students that have difficulty getting those supports would be referred…We have a partnership with River Valley Counseling Center and they provide the school-based services to our students through referrals that are made directly by the school staff to the parents,” said Susan Dargie, director of curriculum and instruction for Westfield Public Schools.

Czaporowski told Western Mass News since implementing these changes last year feedback from the community has been good.

“The positive feedback we’ve heard from families is they are appreciating it. That is the point of the school adjustment counselor: to make sure that students feel school ready and it has really helped some of our students overcome any barriers they have wanting to come to school and some of that is pandemic-related stress that comes with that,” Czaporowski explained.

Mental health is also a focus at Phoenix Charter Academy in Springfield, where social workers work with students once a week as part of their applied mindfulness program.

“We are basically teaching the kids coping skills to deal with stress and anxiety and how to navigate self-regulating themselves,” said Kyanna Samuels, a social worker at Phoenix Charter Academy.

Samuels works alongside Tatiana Moore as the two licensed social workers at the school teach students problem-solving skills that will help them in the classroom and beyond.

“Students don’t have the opportunity to talk about it at home. They don’t have the resources. They don’t know of the resources, the resources, parents don’t know the resources that are available to children, so if it is offered here, it is very beneficial for them and they look forward to it and parents are grateful,” Moore added.

The program began last year when teachers and staff saw students needing more additional support.

“During COVID, we kind of saw a decline. We were doing remote learning and saw students in bed still,” Thornton noted.

Returning to in-person learning has posed challenges for many, but Phoenix Charter Academy junior Jayda Murphy said the program has been effective.

“They let us journal things like our emotions and stuff that will help us learn to adapt to real world situations, like if we are going to a job interview, to be mindful of other people,” Murphy said.