Creating Healthy Learning Environments

Wellness centers, chill zones, and student-led initiatives create multiple ways for students to take charge of their mental health.
November 07, 2018

change to chill meetingIt's never been easy to be a teenager. There is a reason why adults look back at that time in their life with at least a bit of relief that it is over. Being a teenager in today's world isn't any easier, and some would argue it's harder. In fact, the most recent Minnesota Student Survey reported that anxiety and depression noticeably increased from previous years among junior high and high school students. This trend data includes both the larger state of Minnesota and the Hopkins Schools community.

Hopkins Public Schools believes that academic aptitude is only one measure of student success. Preparing students for a postsecondary world involves providing them with the life skills they will need to cope with everyday stress, recognize anxiety, and manage their mental health. From a student-led stress management campaign to after-school wellness centers, a number of programs and initiatives are being launched this year that offer students the support they need to reach their academic potential.

"This is a whole-child approach," said Brian Stanley, supervisor of special services for Hopkins Public Schools. "We understand that students need sleep and food in order to come to school ready to learn, and now we are incorporating the idea of mental and social well-being."

Stanley was instrumental in establishing the wellness centers at Hopkins High School and both junior highs. The centers are drop-in spaces that students can access after school to get mental health help and support. They were made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Hopkins Education Foundation (HEF), which made health and wellness the focus of its two-year special appeals grant. The grant received broad support from the community, and HEF raised a record-setting $95,000 at its 2018 Royal Bash.

Accessible to all students
The wellness centers are available to all Hopkins students free of charge. Unlike other school models, it does not take insurance, nor does it require any type of payment. It is staffed by a Hopkins High School social worker, a school psychologist, and a therapist provided by MoveFwd, a partnering nonprofit. Being internally staffed means students can build meaningful connections with the adults supporting them, which may make them more likely to access help.

"If students are feeling something that does not feel right for them, or if they are feeling overwhelmed, those are all reasons to come," said Sarah Granger, executive director of MoveFwd.

According to Granger, the wait time to see a mental health professional — which averages about six weeks — is a significant barrier to a young person accessing the help and support they need. The drop-in component of the centers makes it possible for students to talk to someone that same day. And because the centers are open after school, students won't have to miss class to seek support.

Although the centers are equipped to handle a range of crisis situations, the overall goal is to promote wellness by providing students with the tools they need to handle the pressures they face in their everyday lives. Students should not wait until an issue becomes unbearable, and the hope is that they won't.

"At the secondary level, we are preparing students to go out into the world and thrive," said Kelly Richey, social worker at Hopkins High School. "We want students to leave high school with the knowledge of how to create life balance. Why wait when you can master these skills now?"

Change to Chill
Hopkins High School is already reflecting on how it can create even more spaces that help students de-stress. Students are leading the way in developing strategies that promote mindfulness and wellness. This year, Hopkins High School was one of nine schools, and the only school in Hennepin County, that Allina Health selected to be a Change to Chill School.

"Change to Chill helps teens better understand and manage stress," said Holly Magdanz, coordinator of Hopkins One Voice. "What is really unique, though, is that teens develop the content."

The resources of Change to Chill are available to anyone for free online. However, because Hopkins High School is a partner school, it receives more intensive resources, school training, and even parent workshops. Over the summer, three Hopkins students ­— Lexi Riley, Nimo Gelle, and Karina Lara — participated in a Change to Chill internship with Allina Health, where they tested stress-management strategies and reported back on their overall effectiveness.

"There are many things that can contribute to your stress level," said senior Karina Lara. "Sports; social media and feeling obligated to post, like, and comment; tension from the political climate; having access to technology all of the time; homework — it all adds up. The tools that we learned about are helpful."

The three students are now part of a high school Change to Chill club that is charged with planning activities to build resilience through mindfulness, meditation, guided imagery, and gratitude practice. At the start of the year, the group engaged in its very first "Chill Week," which featured themes like Tech-Free Tuesday and Thankful Thursday. The students will expand these concepts and continue to plan intentional de-stressing activities around stressful times, like finals week.

"We want to promote healthy ways of dealing with stress," said Riley. "A lot of students don't realize that it is a problem until it is too late. Prevention is the best way of stopping unhealthy behaviors. If we can do that now, we can do that in our future too."

Change to Chill exercises are simple, but effective. The club wants to bring activities to the high school like after-school yoga, aromatherapy, and even the addition of service dogs during high-stakes testing. Other approaches, like eating healthy, practicing gratitude, and watching short meditation videos are strategies that can be practiced any time. The Change to Chill club would also like to start a mentorship program where older students mentor younger students. The power of the program is that it is created by students, for students.

"Because it is coming from students, it has a really strong impact," said Riley. "When advice comes from a teacher or another adult, you can feel the distance, but when it's recommended by someone your own age, you might actually try it."


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