Tools for Overwhelmed Students: the TRAILS Program

Like kids in so many cities and towns around the globe, the overwhelmed students in Michigan’s Van Buren Intermediate School District have been through a lot these past few years. The pandemic continues to disrupt classrooms, sicken friends and loved ones, and has left some district families jobless and homeless. In this district alone, there were three student suicide attempts since in-person school resumed in fall 2021, along with two student suicides last year. But with an infusion of federal COVID relief money and state funding this year plus a belief among local school officials that kids can’t succeed academically if they are struggling emotionally, every child in this district’s 11 schools is receiving extra help.

In a school year that was supposed to be a return to normal but has proven anything but, the district has launched an educational program based on a key component of modern psychology — cognitive behavior therapy. Principles of this method are embedded in the curriculum and are part of the district’s full embrace of social and emotional learning. Overwhelmed students in every grade are taught how thoughts, feelings and behaviors are linked and how learning how to control and reframe thoughts can lead to more positive outcomes. The program includes more intensive lessons for kids struggling with anxiety, depression or trauma, along with sessions on suicide prevention. All district employees learn about the concepts.

Overwhelmed studentsWhile schools in the U.S. and elsewhere are increasingly teaching social and emotional learning skills, many use a more piecemeal approach, creating a designated class for talking about feelings, or focusing that attention only on the most troubled kids. Many lack funding and resources to adopt the kind of comprehensive approach that Paw Paw and its neighbor schools are attempting, weaving evidence-based psychology methods into the curriculum and involving all students and staff. Effective social and emotional learning doesn’t happen “only at certain times of the day or with certain people,” it should be reflected in all school operations and practices, said Olga Acosta Price, director of the national Center for Health and Health Care in Schools. With disruptions from the pandemic so widespread, that kind of approach is needed “now more than ever,” she said.

As second-graders at Paw Paw Early Elementary sat crossed-legged on the floor on this December day, they received an introduction from their teacher and a video presentation, learning how to identify, manage and reframe “big” feelings like anxiety, anger and sadness. The youngsters were given an example: feeling angry and yelling at your mom because she forgot to buy your favorite breakfast cereal. That makes you more upset and your mom feel sad. Instead, remember that you also like waffles and could ask her nicely to make some, leading you both to feel happier as you begin your day.

At the adjoining elementary school for older grades, in a group session for more at-risk kids, four fifth graders practiced a mindfulness exercise, slowly breathing in and out while using a forefinger to trace up and down the fingers on the other hand. Behavior specialist Eric Clark, wearing a black face mask printed with the message, “Be Nice,” led the session, calmly accepting a defiant girl’s refusal to participate. Clark said that since school resumed, he’s seen kids with lots of anxiety, thoughts of self-harm and feeling “completely overwhelmed, they just don’t want to do it anymore.”

“I think we’re starting to see some of the effects of the past few years,” he said. “The extra stresses of not knowing what’s next and not knowing if we’re going to have school because we have too many cases or not knowing if another variant has come in or not knowing if somebody has a job still.” Clark said the psychology-focused program the district has adopted, dubbed “TRAILS” by its University of Michigan creators, is helping everyone manage the challenges.

“We can’t control what’s coming at us, but we can control how we respond to it,” Clark said. Studies have shown that social and emotional learning programs can improve academic performance, classroom behavior, and stress management. Research also suggests TRAILS lessons for at-risk kids can reduce depression and improve coping skills. Almost 700 U.S. schools have paid contracts to receive support and implement the program. Its website provides free online materials that are downloaded more than 2,000 times daily, and users come from all over the world, said Elizabeth Koschmann, a University of Michigan researcher who developed the program. Those downloads have skyrocketed during the pandemic.

She said schools contact her almost daily, asking how they can possibly keep up with overwhelmed students who are falling apart, staff who are losing morale and experiencing tremendous burnout, and just a pervasive sense of exhaustion, despair, and hopelessness. Evidence supporting the need for more attention to students’ mental well-being is plentiful. U.S. emergency rooms have seen a surge in kids with mental health crises including suicidal behavior, depression and eating disorders. Pediatric mental health therapists are scarce in many areas and kids often wait months for outpatient treatment. In a Dec. 7 public health advisory, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy cited research showing that depression and anxiety symptoms doubled among youth worldwide during the pandemic. Expanding school-based programs is among his recommendations.

The American Academy of Pediatrics is among groups that recently made similar recommendations in declaring children’s faltering mental health a national emergency. With teachers and students all struggling with the effects of the pandemic, more needs to be done for these overwhelmed students.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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