Coping with stress, regulating emotion a growing focus for schools

More Miami Valley children are coming to school without the social and emotional skills necessary to deal with stress or adversity and properly learn, local experts say.

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The change witnessed by educators and mental health professionals over the past decade is attributed to more exposure to adverse childhood experiences, or ACES, according to Ken Cannon, director of outreach services at Eastway Behavioral Healthcare.

"We are seeing younger and younger kids with just very poorly developed social skills and coping skills," Cannon said. "Our largest referring group of kids are probably kindergarten, first and second grade."

The Dayton Daily News’ Path Forward initiative is digging into issues impacting youth mental health — one of the biggest problems affecting our region, according to our readers.

The opioid epidemic may play a role in why schools are seeing these issues more in their incoming 5-year-olds, according to Shannon Cox, superintendent of the Montgomery County Educational Service Center. Kids that age are more likely to have been in a home that is chronically stressed by drug use, poverty and other ACES, she said, because the height of the epidemic locally was 2016 to 2017 when they were 2 or 3.

Things like divorce, parental drug use or incarceration, witnessing violence, experiencing abuse, or not having enough to eat are all ACES that contribute to stress in childrens’ lives and impair their ability to absorb lessons in school.

“Millions of kids in the U.S. are experiencing at least one of these,” said Mary Beth DeWitt, pediatric psychologist at Dayton Childrens Hospital. She said parents today are also dealing with more stress and have less ability to talk with their kids about emotions.

“It’s difficult for them to model appropriate coping and teach appropriate coping … if you’re in survival mode, you have to focus on those basic needs before you can focus on those high level needs,” DeWitt said. Technology has also lessened the amount of social interaction kids get at young ages and should be moderated, she said.

Eastway and other agencies are contracting with more and more schools to provide counselors for the most impacted children. Schools are also working to incorporate more social emotional learning into their every-day lessons.

In response to growing concern from teachers and school leaders about a lack of these skills in kindergartners on up, the county ESC developed a curriculum called SELLA: Social Emotional Learning Language Arts.

Integrating with state standards

One of the important goals for the ESC was to make sure any social emotional learning programs didn’t add more for teachers to do in a day. That’s why they combined the activities with existing reading and writing standards.

Students read books on their own, and together with their classmates, that not only enhance their comprehension and vocabulary skills, but prompt discussions about regulating emotions, for example, or dealing with stress. They write answers to prompts in journals that help them process emotions while also practicing their composition skills.

“The journals are the student favorite,” Cox said. “They hang on to them and they value them.” The ESC originally planned to create a digital journal, but the students who piloted the program loved the physical notebook versions.

Maria Schreiber and Julie Knapke’s fourth-grade class at Northmoor Elementary School in Englewood has been participating in the program since last spring.

Last week the students read a quote from author Jodi Picoult about being singled out for differences. They then talked with their teachers about their own differences and how they feel when others are mean or supportive.

After the group discussion they individually answered follow-up questions about the value of differences in their journals. The whole activity took about 20 minutes of the class.