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Supporting the Mental Health and Well-Being of Michigan Students

To build a strong house, you first need a strong foundation.

Applying that principle to education, many proponents say social and emotional learning, or SEL, provides a foundation to build up resilient young people.

Curriculum focused on SEL equips children with strategies to manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, express empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships and make responsible decisions. When social emotional skills are a focus in the classroom, students have more capacity to learn and achieve success both personally and academically.

Recognizing the need for additional resources focused on mental health and well-being in K-12 schools, the Building Healthy Communities: Step Up for School Wellness program added SEL resources last year. The program is supported by multiple statewide organizations, including Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Department of Education, Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association, Michigan Fitness Foundation, Michigan State University Extension, and United Dairy Industry of Michigan.

“Reading and math are important,” said Paul Liabenow, executive director, Michigan Elementary and Middle School Principals Association. “Equally important to us is a child’s well-being and ability to do well in school and life.” MEMSPA will work with K-12 schools to implement Step Up for School Wellness programming.

In a national survey of pre-K-8 principals, students’ emotional problems and mental health issues rose to the top of a list of educators’ concerns. Liabenow said Michigan school districts that piloted SEL curriculum and teacher training had positive results related to improved student attitudes about school, reduced behavior issues in the classroom and better relational trust between students and teachers.

Social and emotional learning practices will look different in classrooms based on the need, Liabenow explained. Teachers might introduce mindfulness methods such as deep breathing to help kids focus on their assignments. For some kids, shaking off extra energy could provide the redirection they need to be ready to learn.

As school resumes in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Liabenow said SEL will be an important way schools can address the trauma students have faced by having their regular routine uprooted.

“We have to be prepared to help them come back or bring them back to some level of regular programming, consistency and coherence,” Liabenow said. “Focusing on social and emotional learning and helping kids learn and practice skills around resilience, coping, courage and kindness will be more important than ever.”

In addition to improved emotional and mental health for students, Liabenow believes teachers and even parents will likely experience benefits from focusing on SEL. He said teachers who have started their own mindfulness practice in preparation to teach students have found that it helps them better cope with daily classroom and life challenges. Just like aspects of Step Up for School Wellness programming focused on better nutrition and exercise have inspired students’ parents to make healthy changes, Liabenow suspects the same will happen with SEL practices.

“We believe that some of what the kids are learning, parents might start practicing as well,” he said.

Learn more about Building Healthy Communities: Step Up for School Wellness here. Applications for the 2020-2021 school year will be accepted through Sept. 30, 2020.

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Photo credit: fezkes

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