Merrimack seeks to ensure all kids are 'ready for learning'
MERRIMACK — School districts throughout southern New Hampshire are exploring ways to address and raise awareness of social and emotional issues — without overstepping their boundaries as educators.
“In order for kids to learn, you need to attend to their academic needs and their social and emotional needs,” said Julie DeLuca, assistant principal at Thorntons Ferry Elementary School in Merrimack.
While the Merrimack School District is not attempting to fix any mental health problems that some students may be struggling with, it is taking steps to ensure that all kids are ready for learning — and their overall wellness cannot be ignored, according to DeLuca.
After a story was published last week in the New Hampshire Union Leader about the work of a district-wide mental health committee and a separate initiative that could potentially implement a mental health component into the school district’s health and physical education curriculum after more study, a column written by Cornerstone Action education liaison Ann Marie Banfield, which was published on the Girard at Large website, identified Merrimack schools as a “mental health facility.”
“That is wrong. That could not be farther from the truth,” said Assistant Superintendent Mark McLaughlin.
McLaughlin says he is disappointed that the topic has turned political, stressing that the district’s struggling students are the driving factor behind the efforts.
“There are people who would say that is not the business of schools. Those folks aren’t wrong; that is their position,” he said. “But what we have learned now is that there is more to supporting the conditions for a learnable student than we used to think.”
DeLuca agreed, saying it is important to talk about mental health issues and an overall system of care that includes not just the local school system but also partnerships with community agencies, clinicians and other resources so that everyone is supporting the kids that need help.
“When they say that we are becoming a mental health facility, they are missing that whole component of what a system of care looks like,” she said, stressing that clinicians, referrals and consultations are all an integral part of the process.
The Hudson School District is taking a similar approach, as it is aware of adverse childhood experiences that are having detrimental impacts on child growth and development, according to Interim Superintendent Phyllis Schlichter.
Professional development for the staff in Hudson has included verbal de-escalation training, strategies for normalizing stress and anxiety, and work on how educators can address and prevent bullying, cyberbullying and relational aggression.
“As a south-central region of school districts, Merrimack, Londonderry, Salem and Hudson are working together to identify the incidence of social, emotional, behavioral concerns in our schools and to gather data that will lead to district and regional solutions,” Schlichter said in an email to the Union Leader.
Hudson now has a district committee from across all grade levels that is expanding its current school counseling curriculum to focus on the changing needs of students and families, and the school board has hired an additional staff member who functions as a student and family interventionist.
“While this just scratches the surface of our district and community work, I think it is evident that it takes a whole community to respond and support the (overall) needs of our students,” said Schlichter.
Two years ago in Merrimack, the Youth Risk Behavior Survey identified some depression and mental health problems in Merrimack youth.
The survey, which was again administered this week, is not a mandatory survey, and all students do have the choice to opt out of participating.
While the results of the survey are important in understanding some of the issues, McLaughlin said that school staff had already been seeing firsthand the social and emotional issues in the classroom.
“We have to kind of name it — we have to talk about it,” stressed DeLuca, who is active with the district-wide mental health committee that has been studying the issue for nearly two years.
Mental health training is not being provided to teachers, she said, explaining that other initiatives such as teaching students breathing techniques to help with anxiety, and ways to problem solve and to name their feelings, are all being explored as options to make sure students have the social and emotional skills and wellbeing to be ready to learn.
There is no curriculum in place to treat and fix issues such as depression, said Merrimack school officials.
Instead, the emerging health curriculum could possibly include ways that would help students find the words to talk about their feelings, which could assist teachers in preventing triggers from occurring — an initiative that could be incredibly beneficial in the classroom, according to McLaughlin. He added there will never be a survey administered to students that is coupled with an action by a teacher.
“We are not in the business of having ad-hoc counselors running around our district diagnosing and fixing things,” he said.
Instead, DeLuca said, the emerging curriculum could potentially include ideas on how to deal with stress, address conflict, make safe choices, communicate better and avoid distractions.
“These are skills that all kids need,” she said.
The New Hampshire Department of Education’s Office of Student Wellness is actively working with 15 school districts across the state, assisting them with various social and emotional issues impacting schools.
“Science tells us that early stages of brain development, particularly those between birth and age 8, are critical to future life success,” said Kelly Untiet, communications coordinator with the Office of Student Wellness. “When support for social and emotional development is provided, students often see increased academic outcomes, decreased discipline issues and strengthened relationships with their peers and the adults in their lives.”
Her office provides numerous learning and professional development opportunities on the topic, including a student wellness webinar series, in-person trainings, resource repositories, newsletters and targeted technical assistance.
“We are also collecting a toolkit of resources, tools and templates to be used by any interested school district,” said Untiet.