For one Dallas school, addressing kids’ mental health needs starts in the classroom
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The hallways of Momentous School in Dallas are relatively quiet for the second week of school. Around every corner, kids in the elementary school classrooms are taking the MAP test, a standardized test that teachers use to gauge students’ learning level at different points in the school year.
There’s a steady hum of focused energy down the hallways. Third-grader Prisha Patel, 8, took the math MAP test earlier that day. But she really wants to talk about breakfast.
“I had waffles for breakfast,” she said. “It was so good. Waffles, they’re hard. I want them soft, but they still taste good.”
She wasn’t stressed at all about the test, which she said was fun. At the start of the day, she talked with a partner about what would encourage them in the MAP test, going over what tricky questions might show up.
The class also incorporated breathing exercises—big inhales and exhales to get energy out and regulate their nervous systems.
“When we're like, excited after we talk with our partners, it helps us calm down,” Patel said, “and then we start our day.”
Social-emotional learning at Momentous School
The breathing exercises are just one part of Momentous School’s social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum. The school approaches SEL from a mental health perspective, which executive director and clinical psychologist Jessica Gomez said is all about people’s ability to understand themselves and the world around them.
“I had to go to graduate school to learn all those skills,” she said. “But our children here, they start that [in] Pre-K. They're learning about their brain, about their emotions, about relationships.”
SEL instruction includes lessons on how the amygdala processes anxiety and emotions, and how the prefrontal cortex processes experiences and plans actions. For example, Gomez said, a mental health professional might give a presentation to fifth graders on healthy relationships, where kids would apply that lesson through a group activity.
“It's not a technique you pick up off the shelf, and then you do for five minutes of the day,” she said. “We really believe it's part of who you are.”
SEL also allows teachers to approach behavioral problems from a place of curiosity, Gomez said, rather than something that’s disruptive or needs to be punished.
“We call it ‘chasing the why’ versus making an assumption,” she said. “Oftentimes, we find that all behaviors communicate an unmet need. And so, our job is to figure out what it is to meet it.”
The framework for social-emotional learning started back in 1968, when James Comer piloted a school project in Connecticut through the Yale Child Study Center.
According to an article in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, Comer found that some schools in New Haven were performing poorly because they weren’t focusing “on the child’s development,” and needed to help kids learn “life lessons that are necessary for success in both school and life.”
He and other researchers helped the elementary school staff focus on the “whole student,” which involved conflict resolution skills and self-esteem.
This eventually led to the foundation of the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) in the 1990s, a nonprofit that evaluates and standardizes SEL curriculum across the United States. About 90% of school districts have some form of SEL, and CASEL partners with districts to implement SEL in classrooms.
More than 20 districts across the United States, including three in Texas—El Paso, Austin and Dallas—are also part of a collaborating district initiative through CASEL to scale and study SEL impacts on teachers, kids and families.
Mental health impacts of social-emotional learning
Gomez said Momentous School’s SEL curriculum, called Changemakers, connects emotional health to academic outcomes.
“Learning cannot happen if the brain is not online,” she said. “When the brain is depressed or anxious, you cannot learn what you're supposed to learn: reading, math, science, writing.”
SEL also addresses students’ experiences with adverse childhood experiences that might impact their ability to learn, like housing insecurity, community violence and other traumatic events. It’s something Gomez knows firsthand.
“I was one of our students, growing up in the South Side of Chicago in a community that didn't have equitable access, where I didn't know if I was going to make it to school because of the gun violence in my community,” she said.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 40% of children and teenagers will exhibit mental health symptoms by the time they turn 18. The most common diagnoses are anxiety and depression, and between 2011 and 2019, suicide was the second-leading cause of death among people between 10-29 years old.
The rates of mental health challenges and death by suicide only increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, which led the American Academy of Pediatrics to declare a “national emergency in child and adolescent mental health” back in 2021.
“I think it is critical to see students as whole humans, and not just robots that have to learn math, science and reading,” Gomez said.
SEL helps lessen the intensity of depression and anxiety distress in the short-term, said Gomez, and avert worse mental health outcomes as kids age.
“We spend so much on responding to mental health problems already, [like] when someone needs to be hospitalized, or imprisonment,” she said. “What would happen if we started to fund earlier prevention?
“SEL in schools is prevention work.”
Social-emotional learning impacts on students’ families
As the family engagement coordinator for Momentous School, Monica Arellano helps parents and families learn how to apply social-emotional health lessons at home.
“It's a shift in how you look at your children,” Arellano said. “You see this as an opportunity to grow in one of those SEL skills.”
She works with parent coordinators to plan activities throughout the year that tie into the school’s curriculum. For her, families coming together and building community is also part of SEL.
“It's a space where we can be honest and real,” she said. “Parenting is hard. There’s not one way to do it, but it's supporting you with tools that you can pull in. We're all growing and learning.”
That’s been the case for Erika Arcos, who works with Arellano and has three sons who are currently and previously attended Momentous School. She said it’s a way to give her kids the skills she wishes she had growing up.
“I think I'm healing my own childhood, and it probably sounds weird, but just seeing myself in those stages and thinking, ‘Wow, this is great, I'm able to give them tools that I never even knew existed,’” Arcos said. “I think it helps my whole family be stronger and healthier.”
She said it’s important to her as a parent that her kids learn how to communicate their emotions and have healthy relationships with the people around them. It has helped her do the same.
“Being able to say, ‘You know what, I didn't handle that well yesterday,’ and not feel that guilt or shame that moms constantly feel,” Arcos said. “Because another mom will tell you, ‘Well, I did that last week, but I apologized.’ So, you know, steps.”
The future of social-emotional learning
While Momentous School has been in Oak Cliff since the 1990s, in the past few years social-emotional learning has come under intense focus from some conservative groups.
These groups previously called for bans of critical race theory, a theoretical framework in legal studies that examines how race and power show up in American society, in elementary and high schools.
It’s not a part of educational curriculum outside of colleges, but Texas passed two laws in 2021 prohibiting it from being taught in public schools. Proponents of the ban argue it’s another way the educational system is indoctrinating children by teaching them about racism and identity.
The same arguments against critical race theory are now being applied to social-emotional learning across the United States.
The Florida Department of Education rejected textbooks last year because of SEL topics. School board meetings from North Texas to Virginia Beach have become sites for litigating any curriculum dealing with identity and emotional support.
While Texas passed a law in 2021 that incorporates self-management and interpersonal skills into school curriculum, bills in this year’s legislative session that focused on expanding mental health resources stalled in committee. The legislative session took place about a year after the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, and after Gov. Greg Abbott’s pledge to increase mental health professionals in schools and improve school safety.
The bills Abbott did sign into law dealt with increasing the presence of armed officers in schools and installing silent panic alert buttons in classrooms.
Executive director Jessica Gomez said while she knows there are misunderstandings about what SEL is, it’s not a huge concern for her or other educators at Momentous School.
“Ours is based on psychology, mental health, and what is developmentally appropriate for children,” she said. “It is what we call life skills.”
Gomez said the benefits are clear.
“The confidence they have in themselves, of their value as a human that can contribute positively no matter their circumstances, that to me is the installation of hope,” she said.
This approach, said Gomez, makes school a place where kids feel safe to grow, to make mistakes, and learn how to be in community with one another.
Third-grader Prisha Patel said she likes Momentous School because the teachers and the students are nice. She thinks it’s because of their “core values,” like respect and humility.
“Respectfulness means how people can help other people, even if we don’t know them,” she said. “And help them if they are hurt and do stuff that would give them joy.”
And what brings Patel joy? Breakfast foods, math, gymnastics, reading, jumping on her bed after school, and Taylor Swift karaoke. She wants to be a singer when she grows up. Her favorite Swift song is “Love Story.”
“I like to sing it all the way to the end and keep singing and singing and singing until I get in trouble,” she said. “Because the music just keeps getting louder and louder and louder.”
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