Originally published Jan. 20, 2020 in the Monroe News.

By Caitlin Taylor

The Monroe County Intermediate School District’s Mental Health Initiative is a way to introduce specific trainings or professional development areas on behalf of classrooms throughout the county.

From sensory walks to calming corners, Sodt Elementary School has been a leader in providing mental health resources for its early childhood learners and staff.

Sodt Elementary School principal Tara Roe in the school’s staff mental health room. Caitlin Taylor photo

Within the past five years, the school has worked tirelessly to identify students’ social and emotional needs, developing new strategies aimed at keeping students successful.

As mental health continues to become a growing challenge among early childhood education, those programs are reason to celebrate, according to the Monroe County Intermediate School District’s (MCISD) Mental Health Services Team.

Sodt has been selected as the pilot elementary school for the MCISD’s Mental Health Initiative, a way to target specific trainings or professional development areas – from trauma to self-care to employee wellness – to be implemented in classrooms throughout the county.

“They’re not the same children I had 14 years ago. They’re not even the same children I had five years ago,” said Principal Tara Roe. “Although academics are important, you’re never going to get that through to a child if they don’t have those social-emotional skills.”

Sodt was the first school in the county to create a community resource table, a practice that’s since been implemented throughout Jefferson Schools and other nearby districts.

A service that began with Danielle Handler, a mental health consultant for the ISD, formerly a social worker at Sodt, the table offers resources such as domestic violence hotlines, food pantries and other community programs as a way to break barriers among those in need.

The resources may not only benefit students, but staff members and parents as well.

“Early childhood students are being exposed to so much more,” Handler said. “Whether that be at home or electronics or something else, they’re not having the time to process experiences.”

Along with a resource table, Sodt frequently implements mental health lessons in the classrooms, including weekly tips, mindfulness exercises, sensory-friendly items and “calming corners” for students who need a quick break from learning, Roe explained.

The hallways also are adorned with “sensory walks,” pathways in the school for students to decompress in between classes, to and from bathroom trips or as a way to let out some energy.

“It’s for students who need a break if they’re feeling frustrated,” Roe said. “Just so they can refresh their little minds before going back to class.”

The school’s newest tool is its staff mental health room. Similar to a break room, the space is reserved for teachers who need a few moments to themselves, Roe explained.

Rather than an area for teachers to each lunch or grab a cup of coffee, the mental health space – filled with soft lighting, comfortable seating and fuzzy rugs and pillows – is for staff members to enjoy a few minutes of calm to recharge before returning to the classroom.

Staff recognition and team bonding activities also are ways the school promotes positive mental health practices among its staff, she added.

Throughout the year, the MCISD plans to spotlight additional schools throughout the county that are implementing mental health services in their districts.

“I think we need to act more proactively than reactively,” said Jean Foster, MCISD mental health coordinator. “If we can teach (students) these strategies when they’re young, they’ll be able to take that with them to high school and beyond.”

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