ST. GEORGE —There’s a mental health crisis among the nation’s youth, and schools in the Washington County School District are looking to address it, 10 minutes at a time.
Thirty-nine local schools now have wellness rooms where students who are overwhelmed can check in, assess their feelings and take a few moments to calm themselves.
The proliferation of these spaces, oases where kids can engage in emotional self-regulation, comes at an opportune time. In October, three pediatric health agencies – the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association- declared a national emergency, warning that children and teens are experiencing a rising amount of mental health issues like depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.
The coalition said pandemic-related stress, bullying and racial tension were among contributing factors.
Children in Utah are far from immune. In 2019, suicide was the number-one cause of death for kids ages 10 – 17 as well as among young people aged 18-25. That same year, five students in the Washington County School District took their lives.
A more recent death has underscored the importance of early intervention. In November, a 10-year-old took her own life. The girl, who attended school in the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, committed suicide after complaining to family that she was being bullied for being black and autistic.
Despite such tragedies, Paradise Canyon Elementary School counselor Stacy Howard says she sees hope and results in the district’s intervention programs, including the expansion of the wellness room program. The process is simple but powerful. Students who are frustrated, anxious or otherwise distressed tell their teachers they need to visit the wellness room. They’re generally issued a pass, with few questions asked.
“It could be anything,” Howard said. “Sometimes kids come to school, and they are already triggered. It could be something as simple as they’re just a little bit tired. Our goal is to teach them coping skills.”
An oasis for students
The wellness room at Paradise Canyon Elementary is dimly lit, with soothing music, comfortable chairs and a yoga mat. Other spaces in the district have meditative gizmos like colorful, bubbling lamps or essential oil diffusers. A few even have small tipis where a kid can hide away for a little while.
Visitors start by checking in with a paraprofessional staffing the room. The child or teen is asked what emotion they’re experiencing and the level of intensity. Younger students or those with disabilities often need help identifying what they’re feeling.
They’re asked to point to a chart with emoticons labeled with associated emotions. A picture of a thermometer can help kids gauge the severity of their discomfort, from 1 (“relaxed and regulated”) to 5 (“out of control”).
Students are then given an hourglass with sand set to drain in 10 minutes. During this time, they can choose to read, color, draw, play with blocks, fool with fidget toys or try calming exercises like yoga or deep breathing. Sometimes, kids just want to sit in a comfortable chair and zone out.
Once the sand runs out, students check in again with the paraprofessional, rating how they feel after their break. Occasionally, a student will need more support and ask to speak with the school counselor. Most often, however, they report feeling better.
“We want students to be able to recognize before they have a meltdown, before they get to where they’re not functioning in class,” Howard said.
Maria Gonzalez has taught fifth-grade dual immersion classes at Paradise Canyon for five years. She loves having the wellness room as an option.
“We have a lot of kids who need to be disconnected from the world. It’s good for them to have different skills and get free of their emotions,” Gonzalez said. “Last week we had a kid whose dog died, and he was feeling upset. So he just took a break and when he came back, he was ready. He just settled down.”
Gonzalez said she wishes she had enjoyed access to a wellness room when she was young, because the program is so effective at helping people learn to pinpoint and address difficult feelings.
“It gives them knowledge of their emotions. Before, they (her students) wouldn’t know what was going on and they would act out,” she said. “Now it’s more controlled. They’re pretty aware of how they are feeling and how they are in the world.”
Alyssa Layton is a special education teacher at Paradise Canyon Elementary School. She said the wellness room is very helpful for the children she teaches.
“I have a couple of students who have more severe disabilities, and they just need the time and quiet spot, and everything about the wellness room is set up for that,” she said.
Wellness rooms support social-emotional learning
Wellness rooms are used in concert with the district’s social emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. SEL is aimed at helping kids take their emotional temperature, identify the triggers that set them off, self-regulate through techniques like breathing exercises or sensory awareness techniques, and ask for help when it all seems like too much.
Washington County School District piloted its first wellness room at Sunset Elementary in 2018. Desert Hills High School created a wellness room soon after, following the suicides of two students.
Tami Curtis said initial data showed the program was helpful, inspiring the district to really invest in the wellness room concept.
“There is a growing need to provide that social and emotional support for students,” Tami Curtis, SEL coordinator for the district said. “Looking statistically, the state of Utah is in the top 10 of the highest suicide rates of the country.”
She talked about another national health crisis that has raised anxiety levels in a generation of kids who are already maxed-out.
“We all need some stress to do what we need to do and perform well,” she said. “When stress becomes intense and prolonged, that’s when it’s problematic. If you look at COVID-19, it (the ongoing pandemic) doesn’t have an end point. It makes sense that it’s increased all of our stress levels.”
Curtis said when someone experiences chronic stress, they become stuck in flight, fight or freeze mode. With a student’s sympathetic nervous system in overdrive, they become unable to perform higher functions like learning or making good behavior choices.
“That’s when we need our parasympathetic nervous system to come on board,” she said. “We have to regulate our heart, our breathing. Our emotional brain can become regulated through our senses.”
Every meltdown is different. One student might have a hard time shaking the disappointment of their team losing in P.E. Another student might be sent spiraling after rejection from their peers or a fight with parents. Some kids have sensory issues and can become emotionally dysregulated after being exposed to an excess of noise or commotion.
Howard said data collected from students’ wellness room visits can yield helpful information. For instance, say the wellness room attendant notices that a youngster starts coming to the wellness room every day at 10 p.m. After a chat with the teacher, they might discover that that’s the time the class has math. They can then work together with the teachers to make accommodations for the seemingly math-phobic student, including academic support to make the world of numbers less daunting.
Curtis said when kids figure out what makes them tick, or ticked off, they are empowered.
“We all have triggers,” Curtis said. “Whether we’re aware of them or not is the question. I would say becoming aware of our triggers is a lifelong endeavor.”
She echoed a regret voiced by many adults concerned with the social and emotional wellbeing of school children. She said it’s a pity her generation never learned daily coping skills in schools. It’s wonderful, though, that today’s kids do.
“We can teach it to everybody and give them more education on how their brain and biology impact their behavior. In order to regulate, we’re calming our nervous system.”
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