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How Denver is trying to help students’ mental health, 20 minutes at a time


By Evan McMorris-Santoro and Meridith Edwards, CNN

Eighth-grade teacher Amanda Winters keeps the main lights turned down in her room. Pink fabric covers the one fluorescent bulb in the ceiling that doesn’t turn off, and a string of Christmas lights completes the illumination.

Setting a calm and peaceful tone inside the classroom at the Denver Center for 21st Century Learning, a public school known as DC21, is important to her teaching, Winters told CNN, to help students grow emotionally as well as academically as the pandemic goes on.

Getting students back to in-person school was critical, but so too is dealing with the baggage they bring from a year or more of being out of the classroom.

“These girls were in sixth grade when they were last in school before this year,” Winters said of her eighth graders.

“Our sixth graders were in fourth grade when they were last in school,” she said. “They’re being asked to meet both that behavioral and developmental bar and that academic bar, and they missed out on both of them. It’s hard to meet the academic one when you’re still trying to figure out, ‘How do I stop being a fourth grader?'”

One positive to come from the pandemic, Winters says, was an increased focus on mental health and more of a willingness to seek help.

This year 20 minutes is set aside every day to give Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) to each of the 90,000 students in Denver Public Schools, Colorado’s largest district.

Halfway into a school year that’s as close to normal as anyone has seen in a while — classrooms are open to all their students five days a week — educators in Denver say they are just beginning to get their hands around what was broken in their students.

“We found that they came back a lot of times a shell of their former selves,” said Renard Simmons, the principal at DC21. “We have to be patient, we have to persevere and continue to meet kids where they are.”

Simmons gave one interaction as an example of how the stresses have impacted students. There was a boy who had previously done well academically and had a relationship with the principal, returning to the building after not getting out of the house much during virtual school.

“I’m excited to see the young scholar when they got back,” Simmons said, describing how he greeted the teen. “And I was met with an expletive!” he said.

Simmons welcomes students to school each day, always keeping an eye out for any problems, he says.

“You catch so much through that you can just sometimes just see in the kid’s eyes, ‘Hey, you’ve had a rough night, let’s not send you to your first period class, why don’t we send you to our mental health team,'” he said.

“It doesn’t make any sense to send a kid knowing they’re in distress, and now you’re gonna work on your math or your language arts. It’s not fair to the kids.”

Simmons said supporting students through challenges has long been a part of DC21, where all the children qualify for free or reduced lunch.

It’s being spread through the rest of Denver Public Schools as part of a healthy student life, says Kim Price, director of SEL for the district.

She’s aware of criticism from some parents at school board meetings around the country that SEL is less important than academics or is unwarranted “indoctrination.” But she rejects that. Academic performance, success in life, all of it, she says, comes from a strong emotional core.

“We truly believe that when we understand our emotions, understand our feelings, understand how we’re showing up in the world then there’s a readiness to learn and that’s what school is all about,” she said.

“We have to teach people how to communicate with each other,” she said.

SEL is being woven through the day and across grade levels in Denver. At Samuels Elementary, kindergarteners recently played a version of “red light-green light” that was really a lesson in dealing with anxiety.

“When we play these games sometimes, we might get those strong feelings. Like mad, or nervous. What can you do to help yourself stay calm?” teacher Ivory Jarman asked students as they lined up for the game.

“Take a belly breath!” the kids all said in unison.

Down the hall in third grade, show and tell was a daily ritual where students share what was good and bad about the day before. The class discussed what to do when something bad happens and celebrated the good things their classmates enjoyed.

At West High School, students might get yoga class one day or a place to talk. One day last month, Amy Thomton, the school’s student support coordinator, led a mindfulness workshop.

She walked the children through 20 minutes of breathing exercises and a lesson in how to meditate. Even in a room full of teenagers, there was some enthusiastic buy-in.

Thomton says not to expect a single breathing exercise to bring a kid all the way back to normal in these abnormal times. But she says the Denver focus on emotional health is the best way to bring them back eventually. Twenty minutes at a time.

“It’s a slow drip,” she said. “But for some of them it’s just having that safe space and that connection with a trusted adult and the connection with their peers, which they’ve been missing so much during the pandemic and during remote learning.”

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