COVID-19 is fueling innovation in Utah schools to help students focus and cope

Supporters say social-emotional learning helps students manage stress while reducing disciplinary problems, boosting grades and morale.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Olivia Harmon waves her arms with her class in movement exercises, at the beginning of Nicole Deaton's 8th grade health class at Shoreline Junior High in Layton, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

Editor’s note • Through a grant from the Walton Family Foundation, The Salt Lake Tribune is reporting in-depth on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on education.

In classrooms across Utah, students are taking mindful minutes before tests and asking for 10-minute breaks so they can refocus. Elementary students are learning how to name their emotions during circle times in the mornings, while teens delve into relationship skills not just in health class, but also in advisory periods and even driver’s ed.

This type of curriculum, called social emotional learning, is being added and expanded at Utah schools this year, helping students understand and manage emotions, build positive relationships, make responsible decisions and show empathy for others.

And there’s no time like a pandemic for students to learn resiliency, goal setting and how to breathe or move through stress and anxiety.

If they were tiptoeing into social emotional learning before the coronavirus, now educators are racing to implement programs that have shown evidence they can reduce disciplinary problems, boost grades and improve morale.

“COVID just ramped everything up as far as what we needed to do,” says Kathleen Chronister, Davis School District’s social emotional learning director. “Everybody needs to have some skills to manage this new and changing environment.”

The state Board of Education encourages social emotional learning. And most districts are teaching it, accelerated in part by $27 million set aside by the Legislature in 2019 to create mental health programs to improve student safety, engagement, culture and academics.

Here are some programs and pilots underway:

Opening wellness centers inside schools

A classroom at Monte Vista Elementary in the Jordan School District has been transformed into a Wellness Center, where students who feel sad, anxious, upset or distracted find a space to take a breath, identify their emotions and choose a tool to help them refocus. That may be building with Legos, sitting alone in a tepee or reading a book.

(Photo courtesy of Douglas Flagler) The wellness center at Monte Vista Elementary.

After 10 minutes, the South Jordan students head back to class, calm and ready to learn.

“It’s never a way to get out of work. It’s a way to help them better prepare to get the work done,” says Jodee Packer, the school’s social emotional specialist who oversees the center.

Such centers are gaining in popularity in Utah. Canyons District is creating wellness rooms in 18 of its schools. Davis, Salt Lake and Jordan districts use them as well.

Monte Vista’s center opened in the fall and already is showing results. Principal Nanette Ririe estimates that 10 to 15 students had been referred to her office for aggressive behavior this school year, compared to around 50 last year — a “phenomenal” drop that happened even as she and teachers are seeing students who are uneasier than ever because of the pandemic.

Students pick up on their parents’ anxieties, over finances and politics and fear of the coronavirus. “There’s more anxiety,” says school psychologist Lisa Stillman. Students may notice a missing friend and wonder, “Do they have COVID and are they going to die, are they coming back?”

As of mid-January, the center had averaged 22 students a day, for over 1,200 visits since mid-August. By mid-February, it had reached just over 1,500 visits, Packer said. Children can ask to go to the center, or a teacher can refer them if they notice a fidgeting, distracted or wound-up student who seems to need the break.

Packer asks them to identify their emotions coming in and going out. Almost half report feeling sad, depressed, tired, sick, bored or disappointed coming in, followed by a category that includes distracted, annoyed, embarrassed or nervous. Nearly 100 percent report feeling better (happy, proud, calm, content or thankful) and ready to learn at the end of their visit.

The goal is to get the students in the center before they escalate to feeling angry, stressed, aggressive or out of control. That requires helping them learn how to recognize their emotions and what those emotions feel like in their body (racing heartbeat, getting teary, clenching fists).

The school teaches students about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and decision-making. It uses its own curriculum based on tools from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning and a curriculum for sixth graders bought by the district after a series of suicides at Herriman High School in 2018.

At the beginning of the year, first graders who visited would come in missing their moms, Packer said. Through the lessons on emotions, they now come in saying, “I’m stressed out about math or Chinese [the school includes Chinese immersion] or whatever it is and that is making me miss mom and I need help,” Packer says. “That is amazing that first graders can identify the transfer of emotion.”

Asking questions to support positive discipline

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Nicole Deaton leads her class in movement exercises, at the beginning of her 8th grade health class at Shoreline Junior High in Layton, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

Sixth grade teacher Cindi Dunford never would have gotten to the heart of why a student was causing disruptions in her class if she had reacted in the standard way and asked him to stop it or else go to the office. Instead, she pulled him aside and tried the positive discipline skills she is now teaching others to use at Granite Park Junior High in South Salt Lake.

Dunford pointed out to the student that he seemed distracted and anxious and asked what he could do to help himself focus. He acknowledged he missed his mother, who was working double shifts at the time, so he never got to see her. Using “results-based coaching,” Dunford asked him what he could do about it. Empowered to find a solution, he decided to call his mother at lunch each day.

“Students are trying to communicate to us through their behavior,” she says. “There are ways we can communicate back to them that are more effective than rewards and punishments. … I wanted to have a better approach that’s more respectful to my students and their differences.”

With help with her colleagues, Dunford earned a grant from United Way of Salt Lake to implement her ideas, which use methods in the books “De-Escalate: How to Calm an Angry Person in 90 Seconds or Less” by Douglas E. Noll and “Positive Discipline in the Classroom” by Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott and H. Stephen Glenn. They’re offering book studies and workshops for some teachers and counselors at her Granite District school in this pilot year.

Already the program is contributing to a plummet in the number of major problems referred to the principal’s office, from 901 to 237 in the first semester. That’s occurred as the number of students attending in person has remained the same as last year, because sixth grade was added to the school.

Dunford said rewards and punishments can work in the short term to get students to complete tasks. But they aren’t the best way to build the intrinsic motivation that drives students to want to learn.

She tries to find the why behind such problems as seeking attention or avoiding work, while giving students the language to label their feelings and the tools to fix their behavior. Recognizing different perspectives is important in a school like hers, where a large number of immigrants and refugees attend, she said.

For example, one student who was suspended for fighting explained he came from a culture where disagreements were handled with fights, and then the quarreling students were able to move on.

“This approach can address equity issues,” Dunford says. “If we’re looking at each child as an individual with their own private logic about why they’re doing this, it will make it easier for us to differentiate their instruction to meet those needs no matter who they are.”

Using Second Step curriculum

When children on the playground at Midvalley Elementary School in Midvale disagree about whether a ball went out of bounds, they don’t fight or seek a recess aide for help. They play roshambo, (another name for rock, paper, scissors) and get back to the game, knowing that “being friends is more important than being right,” says Principal Tamra Baker.

And when a first grader recently was hurt by something a classmate said, she and her friends formed a circle to work through their feelings. “The brilliance of it is they don’t go back to it,” Baker adds. “They’ve healed the relationship.”

The peaceful negotiations are the result of a variety of measures taken by the Canyons School District to boost social emotional learning. They include circle time/morning meetings to check in with each student as a group, along with the national Second Step curriculum developed by the nonprofit Committee for Children in Seattle, which the district will have implemented in all elementary and middle schools by next year. A high school curriculum is in the works, too.

Second Step also is used by the Murray, Jordan and Salt Lake City school districts, and the program provides weekly lessons to teach skills for learning empathy, problem-solving and emotional regulation.

Midvalley Elementary has used Second Step for four years. The school tackles a concept each month, with whole-school assemblies to bring all students on board. The school recently finished lessons on emotion management, helping kids name their feelings and find ways to calm down, like belly breathing.

Teachers often include the month’s concept in their morning meetings, where every student is greeted by name and each has a chance to share what’s going on in their lives, from being upset that a cat died to being super excited about a new baby brother, says BJ Weller, director of the district’s responsive services.

He says students who can express those emotions early in the day are able to focus on school and learning. The curriculum includes catchy songs explaining big concepts like empathy and compassion that students hum in the halls, Baker says.

“One of the keys to having a healthy school is having healthy relationships,” she says. “Second Step excels at teaching kids the skills they need to build relationships with peers and with adults.”

Trying telehealth

The pandemic has exacerbated anxiety and depression among some children and teens, who can feel lonely and confused about what’s happening. That’s why the Salt Lake City School District expanded its partnership with Odyssey House to offer telehealth therapy to all students.

The web-based therapy sessions started in the summer and have continued through the school year, for the state’s only district in which all of the students were attending school online before a shift began in January. But even as students return to the classroom, telehealth is expected to remain an option for those who prefer the convenience, removing another barrier to accessing mental health care.

Grants allowed Odyssey to hire four mental health professionals to build on the services provided by counselors and social workers who work at every city school. Odyssey staffers have met virtually with 77 students in 17 of the city schools.

Cami Clark, Odyssey’s director of youth services, says students whose parents have sought treatment may be depressed, anxious or angry. Even though counselors aren’t able to meet in person, they are establishing strong relationships online to help struggling students.

“They get very creative as far as engaging even 6- and 7-year-olds,” she said, with therapists asking parents to have art supplies at the ready for them to do “expressive therapy” online.

Stacey Lindsay, district counselor specialist, said staffers are being asked to watch for students who may be struggling and need additional help as they return to the classroom after almost a year of remote learning.

“I would describe the pandemic as a traumatic event in all of our lives. There’s been some loss whether you’ve lost a parent or lost some freedoms or your ability to predict what’s coming next,” she said. “If you’re not putting in these supports to help kids feel safe, feel calm, feel supported and connected, then their learning is really impacted.”

The Jordan District also offers telehealth counseling. And school counselors have been trained in BRISC, or brief intervention strategy for school clinicians, to offer four to six intensive evidence-based counseling sessions. If students need additional help, the district refers them to counselors in the community for up to eight sessions paid by the district through a state grant. If parents can’t afford more, the district will pay for up to eight more sessions.

“School counselors are making referrals on a daily basis,” says Stacee Worthen, Jordan’s secondary counselor specialist.

The district’s 100 counselors have logged more than 17,000 meetings with students for mental health, on track to surpass the nearly 28,000 visits last school year. Worthen attributes the growth to the ways the pandemic has upended teens’ lives, from whether or not their school is closed or they are in quarantine, to how their traditional outlets like sports and extracurriculars have been canceled or altered.

Add political unrest and “there is a lot of uncertainty. Helping them to be resilient and giving them solid coping skills is dependent on the adults in the building,” she says. “There are some studies that show outside of parents, your school counselor is the person those kids are going to talk to about some of those issues.”

Adding mindful movement

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Alexis Black traces her fingers as he practices mindful breathing at the beginning of Nicole Deaton's 8th grade health class at Shoreline Junior High in Layton, on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

When the Davis School District decided to implement social emotional learning, it focused first on adults, knowing that it needed to help staffers — from educators to secretaries to bus drivers — work on self-care, because their jobs are so demanding. Plus, adults who can prioritize their own health and well-being are better able to help their students.

The district implemented Pure Edge, training staffers how to use breath and movement to calm their minds and focus their attention. The timing couldn’t have been better — before the pandemic hit and stress skyrocketed, says Chronister, whose goal is to make social emotional learning “something we do everyday, all day … to develop a culture and climate that is respectful and inclusive and creates the best learning environment for our students.”

Students can be given a “mindful minute” at the start of the school day to check in with themselves, mindful breathing exercises to settle as they transition between classes, and a brain break during longer lessons or before a test. And Pure Edge suggests a one- to two-minute gratitude reflection as they end the day.

“Even those little brain breaks make a huge difference,” says Nicole Deaton, a health teacher at Shoreline Junior High in Layton. She implements the breathing and movement work in her classes as well as during the school’s advisory periods, where students also learn a curriculum called Move This World, which incorporates movement, too.

Students report using some of the techniques, like “starfish breathing” (where they trace the outline of their hand as they breathe) to settle before doing homework or a test.

“It’s not just the content we teach,” Deaton says, “ ... we’re teaching a child, and we need to teach the whole child.”

Heather May is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City and can be reached at heathermayslc@gmail.com

Correction, 9 p.m. Feb. 21, 2021: This story has been updated to correct the number of student visits to the Wellness Center at Monte Vista Elementary.