THS staff studies anxiety to help students

THS staff studies anxiety to help students
Posted on 10/14/2019
In the past year, there was a common thread among what Tahoma High School students and staff members asked of administrators -- additional training and time spent learning how to better help students facing anxiety and other mental health challenges.

Data from the annual Healthy Youth Survey and from a year-end response in ninth-grade health and fitness indicated that students wish their teachers had a better understanding of student mental health. “Our staff said the same thing: We don’t feel fully equipped,” said Judy Beliveau, an associate principal at THS. “It scared us, the idea of tackling this, because we don’t want to do it wrong. What if we don’t have all the answers?”

Administrators decided that they would start with anxiety.

“One of the biggest reasons was the suicides ... It really brought to light to us as a school community that kids are struggling,” said Beliveau, referring to the deaths of three Maple Valley teenagers in the past two years. “We want to be as equipped as we can be to work with parents to help kids grow into Future Ready beings.”

The emphasis began last spring, when the high school staff watched the documentary “Angst.” (Note: Details for a community showing of “Angst” are being arranged, and will be shared when they are firm). This summer, they participated in an August inservice featuring a former student, currently attending the University of Washington, who has diagnosed anxiety. The student shared what it was like for her in high school, and talked about what was and wasn’t helpful for her while at Tahoma. Her parents also spoke with staff members about how they struggled to help their daughter while working with mental health professionals and the Tahoma staff.

Administrators also reached out to the district and asked for additional tools and resources for teachers and staff. Marianne Sager, who is the Special Services Coordinator and oversees the district PBIS and MTSS work, provided a “Tiered Toolbox for Anxiety,” featuring Tier 1 (instruction and supports that all students can benefit from) options. Here are a handful of examples:

*Look beyond the lesson plans and consider the social/emotional/behavior factors that need to be supported in order to help the student find some successes in your environment.
*Put yourself in the student’s shoes and consider how they perceive your learning environment.
*Get the student’s perspective. Talk to them and ask them about their viewpoint.
*Talk to the student’s family.
*Be willing to adapt what you are doing in class to meet the needs of the student who is struggling. This doesn’t mean making it easier; just adapted to reduce the stress in a creative way.
*Check in with the student frequently about assignment barriers or stress.
*Never assume that a student is “old enough to know.” If they knew how, they would be doing it. Also avoid assuming that the student is being “lazy.” Check in with the student to find out what is going on. Ask without judgement or blame.

The toolbox also provides Tier 2 (supports that benefit some students who need additional intervention) choices such as:

*Be open to learning about the student from other experts. *Ask the family about the student’s needs. See if there are outside agencies that have suggestions for supporting the student. Ask the student about what would be supportive to them at school.
*Speak up when you know that the student’s needs are not being met. Be prepared to adjust and adapt to meet the student’s needs. (Support your colleagues with this, too).
*Identify the unique barriers that are blocking the student’s success.
*Hold a team conversation to identify the function of the student’s behavior, and develop a general ed intervention plan that matches the function of the behavior specifically.

Counselor Sharon Wright said that the staff development is having a positive impact. “Our department has noticed that more students are coming in our doors feeling anxious, and some are coming in with a diagnosis of anxiety,” Wright said. “ … Our teachers are eager to learn strategies to help our students in this way. This intentional focus is vital for our teachers, our counselors/support staff, our community and, most importantly, our students and families.”

This fall, more than 30 teachers and staff are participating in a book study outside the hours of the school day about the book, “What Made Maddy Run,” by Kate Fagan. Beliveau initially heard about the book through her daughter, who is a senior in a nearby nursing program. After she read it and found it valuable, she brought it to THS, and Principal Terry Duty, some counselors and other staff members read it.

The book study is a great conversation starter for staff members, Beliveau said (and, could be a wonderful tool for families who would like to open a dialogue with their teens as well). It tells the story of Madison Holleran, who ran for the track team at the University of Pennsylvania. Holleran outwardly seemed to be thriving, but inwardly struggled with anxiety, stress and depression. She died by suicide in the middle of her freshman year of college.

Health and fitness teacher Mitch Boyer, who is participating in the study, said “This book is a glimpse into the minds of a family dealing with the impact of mental health. It is a snapshot into what may seem distant for many of us, but is far too common for us to ignore.”

“It hits close to home for those of us who experienced similar challenges last year. It is informative and incredibly relevant,” Boyer added. “It is a reminder to take time and truly get to know our students.”

The book study, along with the August inservice, toolkit for teachers and other elements are a good step for the school, he said.

“Educating our staff on anxiety and mental health is the only way to create the much-needed dialogue on the topic. We need to be more comfortable talking about this because it is increasingly prevalent,” Boyer said.

English Language Arts teacher Joscelyn Strasser said the book touches on the difference between social media and the internet as opposed to real life.

The author writes: “At the same time, existing online often feels less risky, less challenging, than existing in the real world, where things often become messy. Online, you can just plug in and edit everything. Plus, there is no body language that you’re forced to interpret. When you try and build a relationship in person, or meet a group of friends, you face the possibility of awkward pauses, confusing body language, and the disappointment of not saying precisely what you mean.”

“I appreciate Fagan’s observation about the influence social media can have on our ability to interact in person,” Strasser said. “This idea of the messiness of real interaction is necessary, I think to our growth as human beings.”

The book study has helped her keep the August training in mind and also to keep thinking about the world students live in, she said, referring to a quote from page 84 of the book: “And I needed her to validate my other layers of self-worth.”

“I love this idea that, as adults, it’s our job to help our students be, learn and build multiple layers to who they’re becoming,” Strasser said. “One of the reasons Maddy suffered is because she was always an athlete – that was an essential part of her identity – and then what (that) meant and looked like shifted when she experienced college. I think it’s important for all of us to remember to help our students cultivate a well-rounded sense of self.”

In the book, Fagan mentions that college sports complexes have training rooms, trainers and doctors ever-present for physical injuries, she said, but that most don’t have services for mental health. “I would love to see both the high school and the district take note of this division and make caring for mental health a more visible part of our environment and community. … I hope that both the high school and the district continue to make tending to one’s mental health visible.”
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