• Suzanne Nason

NJ School Districts: Resilience Through Integrated SEL Strategies

How can a school district ensure a rigorous academic environment without allowing high expectations to negatively impact its students? The competitive and demanding nature of today’s schools is unlikely to change, but districts can and do choose to equip students with tools to help manage stress and to ultimately develop strategies to ward off the increased anxiety that can lead to depression. Dr. Maurice Elias, Professor of Psychology at Rutgers University, stated that

“in the schools, we have the ability to create trauma-free environments, and that’s what our kids deserve.”

New Jersey’s West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District (WWPRSD) in Mercer County is doing just that: working collaboratively with student leaders, local agencies and community supporters on a comprehensive set of tools to create trauma-free schools. According to Superintendent Dr. Dave Aderhold, in the past few years, the young people of the Mercer County have experienced “an escalation of suicidal ideation and mental health concerns.” In a community-wide Call to Action, the superintendents of Mercer County held a forum where over 700 parents and community members attended.

The Pure Edge team partnered with the district to offer professional development to educators and student athletes. WWPRSD has since maintained an impressive level of energy and engagement around our trainings and has started to train its own staff. We have also had the privilege of meeting many brilliant kids who recognize the need to manage high stress levels and want to learn and share mindfulness skills. The students in a group called NüYü 2.0 aim to promote mindfulness for themselves and their classmates. Phanisree A., a student active in the group, shared, “Protecting your mental health is just as important as protecting your physical health. You need to understand the basis of empathy, the basis of SEL, and we can create valuable relationships going forward.” Social studies teacher Joe Bossio noted the high standards to which WWPRSD students are held and explained, “Lofty [expectations] are good until they can become potentially toxic.” This truth begs the question of how to foster academic success without sacrificing students’ mental health and how to center students’ well-being without compromising performance in school. At Pure Edge, we believe the answer lies in educating the whole child, and our mission is to provide the free resources to impact as many students as possible.

A popular approach to youth suicide prevention centers anti-bullying as the solution. However, a holistic approach understands that youth suicide cannot be attributed to a single cause. The National Violent Death Data Reporting System analyzed data on suicides of youth ages 11 to 15 and found that from 2003 to 2014, only 9 percent of cases cited bullying as a causal factor. However, over half of cases identified relationship issues as a factor leading to suicide, and over half also noted that the youth had mental health struggles. In 60 percent of cases, multiple causes were found. The many challenges faced by youth can compound and lead to terrible results. To educators and administrators like those in Mercer County, a whole-child approach is the most desirable model for suicide prevention.

Cranbury School District, also in New Jersey, has identified the need for a whole-child perspective as well. Board of Education President Karen Callahan shared that the district has noticed children “exhibiting signs of stress and anxiety at an earlier age.” After witnessing Pure Edge’s presentation on the neuroscience of stress at a national conference, Cranbury enlisted our help in bringing mindfulness practices to its students. We began working with school counselors, administrators, classroom teachers and P.E. teachers. Those staff members are now incorporating the practices they have learned into their own lives and sharing their knowledge with students. Counselor Joann Charwin described Pure Edge as

“really our introduction at Cranbury School to mindful movement, breathing and rest.” She added, “I think it has changed the lives of our teachers and students a great deal.”

 

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