An elementary school in the Williamsville Central School District has a mental health team in place. WBFO’s senior reporter Eileen Buckley recently met with the group of teachers to discuss how they are working to meet the needs of their students.
The World Health Organization says half of all mental illness begins by the age of 14. That’s why it’s so important to provide support to students’ supports at an early age.
“It’s scary – it’s scary and the way the world is changing so fast – it’s becoming more and more of a problem every single day,” said Charlie Smilinich, Dodge Elementary principal.
Smilinich said his team remains proactive to ‘stay ahead” of any issues, providing a variety of methods and programs.
“Here we help our children incredibly and we do a ton for it with mindfulness, with breathing, how to calm yourself down – give them different techniques, but we are doing something almost every single day,” Smilinich explained.
The school team meets regularly to identify certain things they want students to achieve as they exist out of their classrooms – that includes being engaged, being a good person and a problem solver. Dodge Elementary houses more than 500 students in K through 4th grade.
Kindergarten teacher Jillian Weber tells WBFO News they teach students five social and emotional competencies.
“These are self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. Really we are focusing on a well-rounded child and really children need to be competent and to have tools to use to be able to be successful and learn and in order to learn they need to have these tools to identify what’s going on in their body,” Weber said.
Each grade level has a different focus for their age group. For example – school social workers and psychologists work with kindergartners. There are also lessons for team building across all grade levels. Teachers said this provides students with strength for learning in classrooms and in their own live.
Second grade teacher Sheri Curry says it is working.
“Well we are seeing when children are having anxiety or they’re nervous about something – maybe with something with the bus or something at home - we see them now starting to notice those feelings – notice how anxious they are feeling within – some of them automatically just put their hand on their heart and their belly and they start to take some deep breaths in and out and they can do it privately,” Curry remarked.
“Why are students having so much of a struggle,” Buckley asked. “It’s everything all around them. It’s everything from school to the news, to just everyday life – already anxious about something – so our job here a Dodge – we make sure those kids feel safe and they know how to take care of themselves when they start to feel any of those feelings,” Curry answered.
The school team goes into classrooms twice a year – teaching students how to take specific breaths to achieve calmness and prevent anxiety.
“One thing that I think that is very unique in our building is that sense of culture – that sense of awareness of us being here as a team,” stated Dianne Meyers.
Meyers is a third grade teacher. Teachers and staff provide students with a strong sense of belonging to their school family.
“One thing that we do each and every day at the end of announcements is our principal will ask ‘who are we’ and all the students and staff scream out ‘Dodgers’ – we are Dodgers through and through and really what we teach our kids is that they are super Dodgers and they have these super skills within them – the breathing and the mediation and things like that to calm themselves down whenever they need them, so really focusing in on these super powers they have with them,” Meyers noted.
This teaching team realizes students come from many different backgrounds and home life situations – some that could include trauma.
“It’s super important to make sure that we teach them these five competencies to help them deal with their external life outside of Dodge,” Meyers remarked.
“There is so much that they have to learn academic wise, but really these kids come in there’s so much going on at home and in their lives and they haven’t necessary been explicitly taught how to deal with the things and these new things that are coming and popping up that kids never use to have to deal with before,” Weber declared.
“Your breathe is the most powerful tool – so it’s inside – they have it – they have the tools, they just need to bring it out,” Curry responded.
And to provide encouragement for the school day – instead of a bell ringing - the principal plays music at 8:15 a.m. each morning to uplift students.