December 12, 2019

Expanding emotional wellness across America’s schools

An initiative that helps schools address stress and trauma and create positive learning environments for teachers, staff, and students is expanding dramatically.

Rachel Sherwood, principal of Bemiss Elementary School in Spokane, Washington is committed to promoting mental health among her staff and students.

What would you do if you were in charge of a school in a community struggling with high levels of generational poverty, domestic violence, and other profound social challenges?

This is the situation that principal Rachel Sherwood and her staff at Bemiss Elementary School in Spokane, Washington, face every day. Many of their students are struggling with the impact of adverse childhood experiences — traumatic events that include abuse, neglect, or household dysfunction that can affect a child’s ability to flourish and function well into adulthood.

Their students are not alone. In the United States, 64% of children experience at least one ACE before the age of 18, and 13% experience 4 or more ACEs.

“Most of our students are living in highly stressful environments, and they bring that with them to school, along with an inability to regulate emotions, problem solve, or handle conflict,” said Sherwood. “Our teachers are charged with the task of helping them learn, and also of trying to help them rewire some of their neurons so they can be calm and not hypervigilant about what might be stressful or scary around them.”

Resilient schools require resilient staff

While there are no easy answers, thousands of educators across the country now have access to an array of resources to support their own emotional needs in order to better promote their students’ mental health. Kaiser Permanente’s Resilience in School Environments initiative places a unique focus on the health and wellness of teachers and school employees. RISE, which is a part of Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools initiative, launched in a number of schools throughout California, Colorado, and Georgia in 2017.

The front of Bemiss Elementary School in Spokane, Washington on a sunny day.

Bemiss Elementary is one of thousands of schools across the country benefiting from the Resilience in School Environments initiative.

A new partnership with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and Discovery Education will help RISE to scale more quickly across the country, allowing thousands of schools, including Bemiss Elementary, to access a combination of on-site and online resources at no cost. The goal is to reach more than 25,000 schools nationwide by 2023.

Assessing strengths and opportunities

RISE isn’t a one-size-fits-all initiative. Participating schools start by answering questions in the RISE Index, a digital tool that assesses what each school or district is doing well and where they can make positive changes to their policies, practices, and environments.

After completing this initial assessment, schools can choose from a variety of offerings that best suit their needs, including on-site coaching by program managers, customized virtual tools, and other online learning modules. As of November 2019, more than 500 schools in 30 states are using RISE resources to guide their activities.

“We learned from the RISE Index that there are a lot of things we’re already doing well,” said Sherwood. “Our teachers are well-trained in trauma-informed practices and attachment theory, for example. But one thing I’d like to focus on is improving the physical environment of our school, to make it feel warmer and less institutional, so both students and staff feel good when they enter the building.”

Childhood trauma can be devastating, but the presence of at least one caring adult, often a teacher at school, can have a huge positive impact on a child’s well-being and ability to flourish.

“What initially interested me was the idea of staff well-being and taking care of teachers,” said Sherwood. “We have amazing teachers, but compassion fatigue and the vicarious trauma they experience from hearing our students’ stories makes it a very intense job. I want them to have their own buckets filled so they can give to students and continue to do the good work they do for a long time.”