ST. GEORGE — Just weeks into first grade, Declan Milligan was already telling his dad he hated school.
“You know, acts of defiance – when he got tired or frustrated, he didn’t know how to handle himself,” said Craig Milligan. “It was rough.”
This kind of aggression, anxiety and other mental health issues have become some of the toughest problems in Utah schools.
“The aggression we’re seeing at school, the outward behavior, is really interrupting learning time in the classroom on a level that we haven’t seen prior,” said Tami Curtis, social and emotional learning coordinator for Washington School District.
So last year, Washington County schools tried an innovative approach: Wellness Centers.
It’s a room where students can check themselves in any time they need a moment to collect their emotions. The lights are kept low, sights and scents are calming. And students can choose “tools” to help calm them or simply meditate.
“It’s important that they understand emotion and that it is okay, and they understand that there is a way to process through that,” said wellness coordinator Rachel Renner.
Sunset Elementary became one of the first schools to add a Wellness Center last year. Since then, behavior problems that landed kids in the principal’s office declined 85%, from 240 this time last year to 40. And instead of kids needing an average of two hours to calm down, most are now able to return to class within 10-15 minutes.
“We realized as a school, we had to address things differently,” said principal Anthony Horrocks.
Even first graders can offer testimonials that Wellness Centers helped them work through problems and return to learning.
“After the struggling, teacher let me go to the wellness center, so I could calm down and forget those struggles like they’re not even there,” said Declan Milligan.
“I think it is really important that these first graders are learning how to self-regulate when they’re six, so that by the time they get into the older grades, they’re already learning these skills,” said special ed teacher Heather Davenport.
Teachers also appreciate the centers, because they can now do more teaching and less behavior management.
Andrea Johnson used to have her class damaged from a temper tantrum nearly every week. This year, it hasn’t happened yet.
“This last year has been completely different,” she said. “There’s been a 100% different feeling in our school and the kids know they’re supported here.”
With success stories and encouraging data over the last year, Washington School District has expanded wellness centers from seven school to 25 to meet the need. They plan to put one in every school, including middle and high schools.
“We live in a culture where we’re under a lot of stress and we don’t always choose the most healthy ways to cope,” said social, emotional learning coordinator Tami Curtis. “We’re empowering them with a skill to self-regulate, which will help them throughout their entire life.”
Declan now knows what to do if he starts to lose control. That knowledge brings comfort to him and his dad.
“I’m just grateful as a parent that we have this available for our kids,” said Craig Milligan.