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Where Kids Get the Best Mental Health Support

For many years I worked with a young girl who struggled with significant anxiety. By the time she ended up in my office, she was knee-deep in a system she developed to keep her anxiety hidden from her teachers and peers: Hold it together at school, go home and fall apart, then reorganize every drawer in the house to feel better. Repeat daily.

There wasn't one specific trigger for her anxiety, but academic stress did increase her anxious thoughts. She often showed me her notes from school and her homework. It was intense for fifth grade. We worked hard to develop adaptive coping strategies and, over time, she replaced her old system with a new one. Eventually, she didn't need me anymore.

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Although she often felt alone in her anxiety, she wasn't. In fact, many of the kids in and out of my office worked through similar issues.

Prior to opening my private practice, I worked as a school-based therapist for several years. I often think that school-based therapy is the best option for kids. Schools are on the frontline when it comes to mental health. When kids struggle with their emotional health, they have difficulty learning and making friends, and their overall happiness suffers as a result.

Kids spend more than half of their day with their teachers. Their teachers see the ups and downs.

When I worked as a school-based therapist, we took a team approach to helping the kids. Teachers, therapists, coaches, parents and administrators all worked together in the best interest of the child. We checked in regularly, and the kids knew that we all worked together. There was no stigma to address, because we were all a team. There was no "outside help" vs. "inside staff." We saw how the kids interacted on a daily basis, and we helped them on a more immediate basis. There were days when it felt like my pager never stopped beeping, but that was because I could get there right away. There was no waiting period.

It worked. Having therapists on staff in the school gave kids an outlet and helped kids with all kinds of struggles learn to cope with their emotions so that they were better able to learn and access the curriculum.

Kids spend more than half of their day with their teachers. Their teachers see the ups and downs. They see when a child is struggling academically, emotionally and/or socially. They are in the position to help kids right away, but often they don't have the resources to provide help.

I've seen the change in academics over the years. I've seen increased anxiety in children and adolescents. You can blame testing, you can blame the pushing down of academics, and you can even blame technology if you want. No matter the cause, it's here, it's happening, and we have to deal with it. We have to make the emotional health of children and adolescents a priority, so that they can become happy, confident and successful individuals.

A recent article in Mind/Shift shed light on a school-based mental health program gaining momentum in Minnesota. What began as a small pilot program is now in 645 schools in 71 counties. Through this program, children in need see therapists at school. Attendance rates are climbing and teachers are changing the way they interact with kids who tend to act up in class. It's working.

On site therapy is one way to help children thrive in the classroom, but schools can also implement other ideas and programs to focus on mental health.

1. Mindfulness programs

Schools are starting to build mindfulness programs into the curriculum. Some of those programs even align with the Common Core State Standards, making it easier to find the time to slow down and be mindful.

When kids are taught the art of relaxation through deep breathing and other strategies, they learn to calm themselves down and remain focused. This helps them access the curriculum, cope with anxiety and/or stress and relate with peers.

Building emotional health into the curriculum can only benefit our students.

2. Happiness projects

With all of the focus on success and college and career readiness, happiness seems to be a luxury for kids these days. The truth is that happy kids are better able to learn and thrive in the classroom.

Schoolwide happiness projects can shift the culture of the learning environment. I spend a lot of time in my office helping kids step back and consider what truly makes them happy. Once they understand their happiness points, they find ways to build those into their daily lives. Schools can do the same. By integrating happiness with learning, school becomes a safe and exciting learning environment.

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3. Mandatory brain breaks

Do you ever get so overwhelmed with work that you slip out for a cup of coffee just because you need to reset? Kids feel that way, too. Taking regular brain breaks throughout the day, preferably outside (weather permitting), helps kids hit the reset button.

Kids are sitting and learning for longer periods of time. They're also learning at an accelerated pace. Breaks are necessary. Teachers can show kids how to cope with the buildup of emotions than can occur in the classroom setting by building brain breaks into the curriculum. Get out and jump rope. Build an obstacle course with a few hoops, some basketballs and a few beanbags. Build paper airplanes and test them outside. Take a quick scavenger hunt around the school. The possibilities are endless.

Building emotional health into the curriculum can only benefit our students. If we teach them how to cope with stress and anxiety now, they will be better prepared for the future. That's a win/win.

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Image by Katie Hurley

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