Estimated read time: 10-11 minutes
RICHFIELD — Carie Monroe grew up a while ago, but she can play tetherball and tag with the best of them at Pahvant Elementary School.
She participates in recess every day to get to know as many students as possible at the K-5 school.
"I'm building relationships, not just with the kid that struggles every day, but that kid that might come tomorrow and say, 'You know what? My pet died last night and I'm really sad.' They know I'm a safe place because I've put in the work and the time to be everywhere and to be seen," said Monroe, a refocus coordinator who works for Sevier School District.
The school district, which serves about 5,000 students in south-central Utah, strives to intentionally connect with every one of its students every day.
In ways big and small, these connections are made in classrooms, on school buses, in cafeterias and school hallways.
It can be as simple as learning a child's name and showing genuine interest in things that are important to them. It means meeting them eye to eye and kneeling or sitting down at their level to talk to them.
It means giving them a snack or a drink when they've "lost their lid" as a regulating strategy as opposed to a reward.
It's about creating a safe environment so they can regain control and learn to regulate their emotions. Perhaps most important, it means staying with them, especially when a child tells them to leave, because proximity matters.
These are strategies taught by Jody Carrington, a child psychologist and author of "Kids These Days," which has become a touchstone for Sevier School District employees, whether they are the district's business administrator, a school bus driver or a custodian.
Everyone plays a role
The district has become so invested in connection building that Superintendent Cade Douglas recently asked all Sevier School District employees to join him at a training on a Saturday. The employees were paid for attending the training led by Carrington, but it meant they had to sacrifice part of their weekend.
On that bluebird fall day in September, school bus driver Dawn Bittner was in the Richfield High School auditorium learning how to better connect with kids. It can be especially challenging for bus drivers because their interactions often occur via a mirror while they drive.
"I was looking for more opportunities, more information to help me make our drivers better and help them to manage their students better. I think one of their biggest frustrations is how to manage the kids in an environment that is really tricky. So that's what I was looking for and I got some good ideas," said Bittner, who also trains bus drivers.
The school district's business administrator, Chad Lloyd, and Brandon Christensen, head custodian at Ashman Elementary School in Richfield, were there, too.
While the vast majority of Lloyd's professional interactions are with adults, Lloyd said he attended the training to get a better bead on what's going on in schools and how the district can target its resources.
"I'm not around the kids on a day-to-day basis, so any time I can just have perspective of what our students are going through or what their needs are, I think that's important when it comes down to making financial decisions," Lloyd said.
Unlike Lloyd, Christensen is often the first adult to greet the children when they arrive at the school each day.
Some smile as they walk in the door, happy to see him, their friends and excited about what they'll learn that day.
Others appear to have struggled to make it to school on time. They might be in distress or on the verge of tears.
They view Christensen as a trusted adult. His job might be to keep the school sanitary and safe, but Christensen takes a broader view of his role. He's there to connect with kids, too.
"I want every kid that comes into the school to feel safe and loved coming to school, want to be there and not be scared of coming to school for any reason at all," he said.
Show, don't tell
Learning to self-regulate emotions is a life skill that will help students long after they graduate. In the school setting, a student who is unable to self-regulate can't focus on his or her studies, said Douglas, the Sevier superintendent.
Later in life, not knowing how to regulate one's emotions can damage relationships, upend careers or result in contacts with police or the criminal justice system.
"So we need to help kids self-regulate," Douglas said.
For children to learn how to do that, they need to feel safe enough to "flip their lids" as Carrington describes it. And then a trusted adult needs to show them how to regulate.
As Carrington explains in her book, "You can't tell a kid how to 'calm down'; you have to show them. And kids don't learn the things we want them to learn from people they don't like."
Carrington talks a lot about the importance of young children developing maintaining close relationships with caring adults, Douglas said.
"Every single child is one caring adult away from becoming a success story. Every child needs someone who's crazy about them, loves them and is on their side," he said.
"Once they have that strong relationship with a caring adult — most of the time, it's a parent or grandparent — but a lot of times it's a teacher or another trusted adult, we can help them process through moments of dysregulation, so to speak. When they 'flip their lid,' they can learn how to regulate. It's awesome stuff," Douglas said.
Why it matters
Carrington says those connections pay other dividends.
"Generally, if an adolescent has a secure relationship with just one adult, we see some remarkable differences in their choices compared to kids who struggle to find one regulated person to lean on regularly. The data is solid. With secure relationships, they are less likely to engage in violent behavior, there is less experimentation with substance abuse and risky sexual behavior, and they have greater capacity for managing frustration," she writes.
Youth with secure relationships with an adult tend to be more popular yet less influenced by peer pressure.
"When you have somebody in your world who can get your lid on, who can teach how to regulate emotion, you have access to making good choices," she wrote.
That's important in any setting but perhaps more so in Sevier County, which suffered a spate of student suicides starting in 2018. When Douglas addressed state lawmakers in February 2019, four students had died by suicide in the previous 10 months. That was followed by the death of two more students by suicide and then none for two years.
"We did have one in March, unfortunately, but the trends are looking much better. We are having some success," Douglas told Utah lawmakers earlier this year.
Since then, the school district has taken a multipronged approach to address the mental health needs of students. Reading Carrington's book, attending her training and putting the concepts to work is one more tool in the toolbox for educators, Douglas said.
Douglas said it's his opinion that Sevier School District employees are the best in the state, if not the nation. "They're just good people who care about kids so it makes it easy. But man, if you have good people and you give them tools, it makes it a great system," he said.
Putting lessons to work
Janalee Salin, an instructional assistant at Monroe Elementary School, said she's used Carrington techniques successfully with students.
In the past, she tried to redirect one student whom she describes as smart but sometimes unwilling to do his schoolwork.
Normally she would say, "Get to work," but recently she noticed the boy was sitting back in his chair and he was really quiet.
"I was about to just get on him and say, 'Get back to work.' I just took a minute and thought 'Let me just check in real quick.'
"I got down on eye level with him and I said, 'How are you today?'"
The boy teared up and Salin asked if everything was OK and he shook his head "No."
She asked him if he'd like to talk about it. He told her his grandparent was very ill, couldn't eat and was expected to pass away.
"So we talked about that for a minute and kind of addressed that," she said. Then she suggested that he take his mind off of that and work on a computer for a while.
"You could physically see him, he actually took a deep breath," Salin said.
"She (Carrington) actually talked about that. When you finally have them take the deep breath, you know you have them," she said.
Salin said the biggest takeaway of the training is to "connect with the kids ... watch out for those kids and build those relationships so that we can teach, and the learning can happen."
It's equally important for the school staff to look out for one another's emotions, she said.
"She (Carrington) kept telling us if the big people are OK, the little people will be OK. I think our teachers get overwhelmed with what they have on their plate," Salin said.
National state of emergency
Although Sevier School District's focus on students' mental health and wellbeing started well before the pandemic, there is growing evidence nationally that child and adolescent mental health care needs have intensified as a result of the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and ongoing struggle for racial justice
Earlier this week, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children's Hospital Association jointly declared a national state of emergency in children's mental health.
The associations' declaration says in part:
"The pandemic has struck at the safety and stability of families. More than 140,000 children in the United States lost a primary and/or secondary caregiver, with youth of color disproportionately impacted. We are caring for young people with soaring rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities.
"We must identify strategies to meet these challenges through innovation and action, using state, local and national approaches to improve the access to and quality of care across the continuum of mental health promotion, prevention and treatment."
Space to refocus
Sometimes, a student needs to step out of the classroom to collect themselves. That's where Monroe, as a refocus coordinator steps in.
Monroe, who has a teaching degree, can cover a class while the teacher takes a moment to walk the halls with a struggling student to give them time to build their relationship and to give the student time to reset.
This also provides a minute for the classroom to reset from the interruption.
"When we're in fight, flight or freeze mode, we're not always quiet. So it can be very disruptive to all the students, unfortunately," she said.
Monroe said she recently saw an instructional assistant take a student on a walk inside the school building after telling him, "You know what? I really feel like our relationship is struggling, and I want to work on that so I want to get to know you outside of the classroom. ... She just took the time to connect with him and it's been so powerful. ... When she is trying to teach him things he's more willing to learn them. It's been awesome."
Monroe also staffs a refocus room where students can go when they need to regulate their emotions. The room is furnished with bean bag chairs, and sometimes Monroe guides a student in a conversation or they play a card game like You Know that asks thought-provoking questions that reinforce a positive self-image.
As time has passed, the refocus rooms are getting less use because fewer students need the room as employees strive to make meaningful connections with them and show them how to regulate their emotions, Douglas said.