SADDLE BROOK, N.J. – Three months ago, the Saddle Brook school district was making steady progress toward social and emotional learning as part of a district initiative.
In-class yoga, mindfulness mantras and coping strategies for anxiety were part of the daily routine.
Then came the pandemic.
Virtual learning separated children from schoolmates and teachers as the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other health experts noted a surge in stress and depression. Next came the killing of George Floyd and racial tensions that heightened anxiety for many families.
“I’m glad that we were in front of social and emotional learning, that we had this wellness initiative in place, because we had already been talking about it and doing it,” Superintendent Danielle Shanley said.
To address a complicated new reality, the entire faculty worked together to keep social and emotional learning at the forefront.
“My concern was the kids need to be OK," Shanley said. "If they’re not OK, they won’t be able to learn anything – they can’t be focused. None of that is going to matter.”
Saddle Brook schools began online instruction in mid-March. Communication and rapport between the teachers and students were desperately needed during this time. Teachers were required to do a live face-to-face with students once a week.
“That was really to check on their wellness, so that students and teachers could make eye contact," Shanley said.
Some students flourished in the virtual environment, but others struggled.
“That loss of human connection on such a grand scale is really troubling and really impacted some of our faculty and some of our students,” Shanley said.
Meghan Walls, a pediatric psychologist with the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it’s important to understand how stressful the pandemic is for families. Disrupted routines are especially troubling for children.
“One of the things that sustains anxiety is having this lack-of-control feeling,” Walls said.
What the district did for students
After schools closed, students took part in virtual Mindfulness Monday and Fitness Friday. Across the district, students practiced yoga positive affirmation, repeating a mantra to themselves: "I am responsible, I am kind, I am strong."
It mirrored activities children had done in classrooms, such as deep belly breaths and cupping their ears and replicating the sound of a buzzing bee through a long humming sound.
Activities during remote learning included writing a journal. Students were asked to give feedback on their favorite activity, in the hope that they would find practices they can continue during the summer.
Jillian Shadis, president of the New Jersey School Counselor Association, said mindfulness and wellness practices are strong preventive measures.
They "provide kids with skills, resources and coping mechanisms that they need, so they know how to handle the anxiety that is inevitable in life," Shadis said.
The killing of Floyd on May 25 added urgency to the district's efforts to confront issues of racism as part of social and emotional wellness practices.
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Toni Violetti, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, urged teachers to integrate diversity into their lessons and teach "how to confront the racial injustice that continues to occur in our world and give our students the skills and mindset to think critically and be culturally responsive."
A physics teacher did a lesson on minorities in the sciences. "She wanted to have them start to think critically and realize that there is so much underrepresentation of minority groups in all their textbooks," Violetti said.
Other teachers assigned students to write essays in the voices of underrepresented groups. The message was "put your privilege aside for a moment and climb inside the head and the heart of somebody else – how might you see this differently?" Shanley said.
"We are trying to promote some empathy and understanding and tolerance and action, maybe a little bit of rage," she said.
Before school closed, Violetti and the Social and Emotional Learning Committee had a day of professional development for teachers. They focused on the "five competencies": self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision-making, social awareness and relationship skills.
Violetti and the committee created a social and emotional learning bingo board for students, with squares containing social competency activities, such as: write down 10 things you are grateful for, check in on elderly neighbors, get the family together.
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She said students told her it was exactly what they needed. Educators from North Jersey and beyond have asked to use the bingo board
"It's very exciting," Violetti said.
Shanley said mindfulness is being considered as part of summer assignments.
"We are putting in for summer hours for all of our guidance counselors," she said. "We anticipate there will be a need, at the elementary level, in particular."
Emma Byrne, the counselor at Helen I. Smith School, said, "Students carry this invisible backpack, and we don't always know everything they are going through.
"Our goal is for them to feel calm and safe."
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Coronavirus: How 1 school district tends to students' emotional health