As youth mental health crisis rages, Michigan schools work to bolster students’ sense of connection
This story was reported and published in partnership with MindSite News, a new nonprofit digital publication that reports on mental health.
The bell rang a little after a gloomy dawn. As a trickle of A.P. Spanish students settled into their wooden desks, teacher Zachary Daniels powered up his smartboard. Behind him, the classroom wall was covered with translated verbs – Explico (explain), Escribe (write) – written on a large, white scroll.
For this morning’s lesson, Daniels asked the students to use a different kind of language, to look within and name a feeling. Did they walk through the doors feeling humiliated? Guilty? Peaceful? Were their outlooks tainted by hopelessness or brightened by hope?
It was late March and the world outside Paw Paw High School, located in a rural stretch of western Michigan, seemed increasingly threatening. The war raging in Ukraine was dominating airwaves and news feeds. A school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, had left four students dead. And Covid continued its inexorable march.
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As Daniels spoke, he passed out a worksheet filled with 29 colorful, cartoon images of children’s faces, each expressing a unique mood. The worksheet guided the students to rate the intensity of their feelings on a scale of 1 to 10, and they jotted down their answers quietly.
“The way we think and feel and act affects the next situation that comes up,” Daniels told the class. “And that creates a cycle that can really impact the way that our days go.”
The mindfulness check has become a weekly ritual for the 650 or so students at Paw Paw High. Daniels wants his students to interpret their thoughts and feelings in a non-judgmental way. Mastering this skill will take consistent practice.
A mental health crisis intensifies
Teachers have been trained in the subjects they teach, but not in ways of helping students control their emotions or rewrite the stories they tell themselves. But since the mid-1990s, multiple studies have shown the benefits of social-emotional learning (SEL), a strategy that trains educators to nurture student wellness by helping them feel connected, engaged and supported while cultivating skills in self-management, social awareness and responsible decision-making.
As the Covid-19 pandemic brought shutdowns and quarantines, making students’ lives less stable and connected, it intensified a long-festering youth mental health crisis and left schools searching for answers. Making matters worse was a longstanding shortage of counselors and social workers. As the pandemic began, Michigan had the second worst student-to-counselor ratio in the country, with 671 students for every counselor, more than double the recommended caseload.
To address the problem, many Michigan schools adopted a homegrown social-emotional learning curriculum created by TRAILS – Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students – a program that borrows techniques from cognitive behavioral therapy and was developed at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 2013. In the aftershock of the pandemic, its popularity has grown and is now being taught in over 600 schools statewide.
Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has included funding of $150 million to expand the TRAILS program in her proposed budget for the 2022-2023 fiscal year. The Legislature is now debating the budget and typically tries to pass the education portion by July 1, when the fiscal year begins for school districts.
The program includes a three-tiered approach. Twenty brief lessons, geared toward K-12 students and rooted in the techniques of mindfulness, focus attention on thoughts and feelings to help a child choose to act with care. Elements of cognitive behavioral therapy help students disrupt the cycles of negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors they go through when confronting a difficult situation.
Decades of scientific research has shown an emotionally healthy learner is a better learner. But school leaders, well before the pandemic, lacked the tools and capacity to tackle a student mental health crisis head on. “They did not feel they were equipped to manage the sort of severity and volume of mental illness that was coming through the doors of counselors, social workers and school psychologists,” said Elizabeth Koschmann, a former school psychologist and adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan Medical School who founded the program.
The goal of TRAILS, said Koschmann, who serves as its executive director, is not for teachers to dole out unwanted therapy to students. Nor is to replace counselors and social workers. Rather, it’s a way to help foster wellness inside schools and coordinate care for students who need extra help or treatment.
Schools are saying, ‘We also need to take care of students’ mental health’ - Elizabeth Koschmann, TRAILS founder
TRAILS’ lessons about feelings and self-management are supportive and often fun. But across the nation, a campaign against social-emotional learning has fomented anger among a vocal sector of parents, state lawmakers and conservative groups with ties to dark money, as MindSite News reported last month.
These groups have labeled SEL a masquerade for critical race theory (CRT), another culture war flashpoint, even though CRT is almost never part of a K-12 curriculum. The opposition led a school district in Utah to end its SEL initiatives earlier this year. Florida’s top education officials rejected over 50 math textbooks because their pages made references to SEL and what they describe as CRT. And a Minnesota group lambasted the district’s SEL lessons as a “child-indoctrination scheme.”
In Michigan, some parents have spoken out at school board meetings against the teachings of SEL skills, and one teachers’ union in Hartland is fighting the pushback.
“It’s a complicated moment in American education,” said Koschmann. “There’s a larger debate about how are we educating young people about questions like race and racism, and privilege and power in the country, at the same time, that schools are saying, ‘We also need to take care of students’ mental health.’”
Despite the backlash, educators and parents overwhelmingly support the teaching of SEL skills, one recent poll found.
In the past few months, however, a growing number of Paw Paw parents expressed fears over the teaching of social-emotional learning. Some worried the curriculum pushed critical race theory. In response, the district has hosted in-person and virtual community forums to clarify the curriculum’s purpose. Last month’s in-person forum attracted over a dozen parents. District leaders are not planning to abandon TRAILS and are being proactive as fears arise, said Corey Harbaugh, director of curriculum for the Paw Paw Public School District.
“There is a high level of concern from people who tie social-emotional learning to certain political agendas, even though we know that politics is not our business. Our business is taking care of the needs of students,” Harbaugh said. “Our parents and our community have to be at ease and support what we’re doing; otherwise, we’re fighting about it rather than working together.” He wants parents to understand, he said, that SEL “isn’t tied to any political agenda beyond giving kids what they need to feel connected, engaged, cared for.”
TRAILS training in the Upper Peninsula
Kristy Alimenti, a mental health services coordinator with the Delta-Schoolcraft Intermediate School District in the Upper Peninsula, said her district has facilitated training for over 60 teachers in TRAILS since last year. The limited preparation time required, ease of applying SEL skills to academic lessons and strong research base of the curriculum made it appealing to administrators.
In a rural area where access to mental health services is low and rates of anxiety and depression among students are rising, Alimenti said TRAILS gave staff more tools to tackle challenges before they escalate and may require deeper intervention.
“It allows us to also de-stigmatize the conversation around mental health and provide lessons that address a lot of what the students may be facing or experience in a more proactive and preventative way,” she said.
Visits to two districts, Paw Paw Public School District in rural western Michigan, and Ypsilanti Community Schools, an urban district, offer a sense of what these programs look like in practice.
Learning from Simon Says
It was a quiet, rainy morning at Erickson Elementary School in Ypsilanti, a diverse, low-income city near the Huron River that has shed thousands of manufacturing jobs. In room 127, the fifth-graders were getting a lesson on thoughts, feelings and behaviors. Halfway through, they stood up as teacher Nikki Krings laid out the rules of a reverse game of Simon Says.
“Simon Says, move forward!” Krings directed.
The students shuffled a few steps backward.
“Simon Says, thumbs up!”
The students flashed their thumbs down.
“Simon Says, make a really happy face!”
Some students grimaced, while one couldn’t help but give a goofy grin.
Krings and other Ypsilanti teachers were trained in TRAILS at the onset of the pandemic in 2020, at a time when they were fretting over whether they could preserve close connections with their students over computer screens from home.
Krings said the tools she learned helped her deescalate some students’ mental health problems, instead of relying on a social worker in the building. It also helped build a culture of empathy and understanding in her classroom, giving kids space to navigate their feelings.
As Covid risks eased and students flocked back to classrooms this year, Krings and other teachers at Erickson saw their students’ fears of the unknown grow.
In a city where people need more money, jobs, and affordable housing, many of the students were already in survival mode. The students at Erickson are predominantly Black, and most are economically disadvantaged. Some don’t always have food at home. Others bounce from home to home because their families can’t afford to stay where they are.
Black children disproportionately endure the pains of poverty and illness, and the mental health impacts that result. More than a third of high school students said in a national survey that they’ve been treated poorly or unfairly because of their race or ethnicity. Even before the pandemic, the mental health crisis plagued Black youth. Over the past decade, the firearm suicide rate more than doubled among Black, Latino, and Asian teenagers.
Krings has made room 127 a place where students can try to escape their troubles and be themselves. In addition to TRAILS, she teaches students about race and encourages discussion and acceptance of diverse gender identities. “It’s important for me, for them, to feel safe,” she said.
Alayah, a girl with tight cornrows and dangly braids, and Alex, wearing green and black glasses, gleefully followed each step of the reverse Simon Says amid a sputtering of giggles. (MindSite News is identifying them by their middle names to protect their confidentiality).
The two are good friends. Alayah likes Alex because he’s fun. Both want to get good jobs when they grow up. Alayah said her mom believes in her dream of starting a business. One day, Alayah said, she hopes to buy her mom a house and a car.
“People say they don’t want to go to school,” Alayah said later. “But I’m like, ‘You need school, so you can get a better education and a better job. So you can get somewhere in life.’”
After a few more commands, Alayah, Alex and the rest of the class sat down at their desks and listened closely.
“I want to challenge you,” Krings said. “When you’re feeling a really big emotion, something really bad, really frustrating, really scared, really embarrassed, I want you to think, ‘I’m going to pause real quick, and…recognize my feelings…I’m going to take it back and say, let me see (if) I can do the opposite.’”
Learning to avoid ‘thinking traps’
In a classroom off of Paw Paw High School’s long main hallway, English teacher Allan Blank was delivering a rapidfire lesson on the perils of “thinking traps” – the moments when our minds jump to the wrong conclusions or ignore the good. On a wall, posters with memes of the teacher’s likeness include a headshot superimposed on the body of a surfer. The teacher relishes the light-hearted, Gen Z humor.
Blank asked the students to work in groups and come up with everyday dilemmas that foster thinking traps.
“Your friend stops texting you back,” one student said, then sketched out the negative thoughts that coursed through his mind: “They don’t want to be my friend. They didn’t text me back. They don’t like me.”
Blank gave each group two minutes to identify the feelings they outlined in their scenarios, and how those feelings inspire less loving actions. For example, thinking someone doesn’t like you can trigger feelings of sadness or tiredness.
“We don’t want to be stuck in the traps,” he told them. “We want to be able to reframe stuff positively, so we’re getting to a better place. And maybe our behaviors are changing as well.”
Then he gave them 30 seconds to reframe these hypothetical situations in an affirmative light.
Perched on a winding street, Paw Paw High School is located in a small town of mostly white, middle-class families. Lakes and small farms dot the countryside outside of town, and a historic winery stands in Paw Paw’s center square.
Despite the bucolic scenery, the district has been accused of fostering a culture of racial hostility. Six years ago, a group of local Native American activists called for the renaming of “Redskin,” the school mascot. Some in the community reacted angrily, even as accusations about a history of racist incidents in the schools emerged. In 2019, the ACLU filed a federal civil rights complaint against the district. A year later, the district dropped the controversial mascot name, eventually changing it to “Red Wolves.”
In the aftermath, the tensions over the mascot renaming created some rifts within the school community.
“During the divided times of the mascot change, one of the things we learned was that we don’t always know how to talk to one another, across divisions,” said curriculum director Harbaugh. He said social-emotional learning can also strengthen communication and relationships between the district and families.
Paw Paw public schools implemented TRAILS district-wide for the first time in the school year that ends this week. The lessons go beyond mindfulness to teach empathy and understanding of each student’s unique identity and background.
As curriculum director, Harbaugh has overseen the implementation of TRAILS and hopes it can transform Paw Paw schools. He encourages staff members, including janitors, secretaries and cafeteria workers, to buy into the concept, and the district pays stipends to those who get additional training. He believes the approach demands a team effort and must be consistent in order to be effective.
“Every adult (that) any child comes into contact with has been trained and has been asked to prioritize students’ social-emotional learning and health,” he said.
The need is real. Last year, Tammy Southworth, Paw Paw High’s principal, talked with her staff about social-emotional learning after reviewing data that revealed an alarming truth: Students were more anxious and overwhelmed than ever, stuck in a realm of discomfort reinforced by social media.
“The way they were relating to each other, as well as to us, was different,” Southworth said. “When I was a teacher, I would say, ‘Whatever’s going on outside, whatever is happening at home, this is your safe space. Come to school, leave those things at the door.’” But now, she said, “they can’t get away from texts, alerts on their phones, reminders of what’s happening. So I think that just puts a whole different pressure on kids.”
So far, the rollout of TRAILS has meant working through some important challenges.
For some teachers, the lessons went beyond the scope of their jobs and the curriculum felt jarring. A few told Southworth they weren’t comfortable with TRAILS and didn’t want to take classroom time away from academics. Others were afraid.
“Honestly, there’s a fear, even for adults, to feel like you have to share your feelings with a group of kids,” Southworth said. “There was definitely a fear that kids were going to start opening up and sharing too much personal information, and the teacher was going to be like ‘I don’t know what to do.’”
Southworth told teachers they don’t have to encourage students to vent all of their emotions but could share their personal rating on a scale of one to 10.
Getting teachers to help students navigate their troubles and manage their emotions represents a vital shift, said Paw Paw Superintendent Rick Reo.
“It’s just a different way to think about things,” he said. “We assume kids are on board and ready to go, or at least, ‘they can put their mind to it.’ You know, it’s not necessarily true. We need to do some things to make sure we’re giving them the best opportunity to succeed.”
The district is figuring out how to track the lessons’ impact on academic outcomes. Southworth hopes TRAILS will help improve student attendance. Harbaugh said the lessons have already helped bolster students’ self-efficacy. In a recent district survey, more students said they “believed in their ability to tackle difficult school work.”
“This is just another way to let kids know that you’re here, that ‘I got your back’” - Teacher Allan Blank.
Blank, the English teacher, said the focus on mental health has helped him connect with students more intimately. Recently, he noticed a student being quiet and disengaged. After class, he asked the student if they needed any help.
“This is just another way to let kids know that you’re here. You care for them,” he said. “And when you can build those foundational relationships, and let them know that ‘I got your back’ sort of thing, they’re gonna be more willing to work with you, open up with you about things that may be happening in their lives.”
Learning to stop when you’re mad
Back in Ypsilanti, Alayah, Alex, and their teacher, Nikki Krings, left room 127 and walked to the school’s library, where colorful books line the shelves and windows offer a view of the playground. The three sat at a brown table to talk more about what they learned.
The exercise in reframing taught Alayah and Alex to rethink things, they said. “It’s helped me quite a bit,” Alex said. “Like when I’m mad, sometimes I just feel like I want to hit something or someone.” Now, he is able to stop himself.
Alayah said she better recognizes her frustrations and powers through. The other day, she started doing her math homework and got stumped on a problem. She didn’t know what to do.
“I came to school and asked for help instead of saying, “I’m not going to do it,” Alayah said. Before this year, she probably would’ve stayed quiet and answered the questions randomly.
Alayah and Alex are new to the school and to social-emotional learning. Alex said he has been moving and changing schools for as long as he remembers, each time starting over.
“It’s just hard for me to socialize,” he said. It’s also hard for him to keep friends “because I know I’m probably never going to see that person again.” He compares the experience to characters dying and coming back to life in a video game.
Attendance turbulence often leads to more behavioral challenges, which can affect all students trying to learn.
For both Alayah and Alex, the weight of grief has already taken hold, even before they’ve reached their teen years. “A lot of stuff happens in my family,” Alex said. “Like, I’ve lost two people.” His beloved dog also passed away.
“It’s just hard for me because I can’t think about the present,” he said. “I think about the future and I know the people I love will be gone.”
Alayah lost her father when she was 9. Last year, just before the school year started, her older brother passed away.
“It was hard for me to do, like, anything,” she said. Recently, she wanted to celebrate another brother’s birthday, to be there for him, bright-eyed and enthusiastic. She didn’t want to cry, remembering the other men in her life who were gone.
“I did cry on his birthday because it was so hard,” she said. “I’m pretty sure my brother and my dad didn’t want me to still be crying. They want me to go on.”
As they talked about these losses, their soft voices broke and tears streamed down their cheeks. School is a place where Alayah and Alex feel safe. When he’s there, Alex said, he tries to forget about home and be nice to everyone. For Alayah, it’s hard to open up, but she’s still trying to make friends.
The two fifth-graders grab some tissues to wipe their tears, and then walk with their teacher to the social worker’s office. On that quiet, rainy morning, naming feelings may have surfaced memories of trauma. But as they work through those memories, they know their teacher will be there for them.
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