Listening Sessions Target Whole Child Support

MMS Hosts Whole Child Discussion
Posted on 03/06/2020
This is the image for the news article titled MMS Hosts Whole Child DiscussionBy Christian Ashlar
As seen in the Weakley County Press

In November of 2019, Penny Schwinn, education commissioner for the State of Tennessee presented a strategic plan titled "Best For All." Its main goal was, "to ensure that every student is on a path to success." The plan had several key points, one being the Whole Child Support initiative.

On Thursday, at the Martin Middle School library, representatives of the Tennessee Department of Education met with educators, administrators, concerned parents and students to discuss the initiative. These engagement sessions are part of a statewide effort allowing discussion and interaction between the community and its representatives. As the press release said, these sessions are to "learn what we can do, as a state, to meet the needs of students, families and school communities."

Leading the engagement session, Katie Houghtlin, chief of Whole Child Support, set a casual tone and encouraged input from those in attendance.

"Our overall goal, here, is that you understand a little bit more about what Whole Child is," Houghtlin began. "The way that we talk about Whole Child is really to make sure all needs are met, whether it be cognitive, physical, social or emotional. It really requires collaboration and partnership with other health sectors."

To illustrate the directive of Whole Child and how the physical and emotional needs of students intertwine, consider this. A hungry child is distracted and unfocused. When this particular need is met, the child tends to do better inside the classroom. If a child is being targeted at school, for whatever reason, they do not feel safe. A child who does not feel safe does not do well in what they perceive as a hostile environment.

Whole Child Support seeks to equip public schools with necessary tools to help them serve the academic and non-academic needs of its students. In simple terms, the program helps a school respond to a child's academic needs inside the classroom and their mental and physical needs outside. To do so would create a "whole child."

The collaboration aspect Houghtlin spoke of addresses the different agencies within the state that help with mental and physical needs of students. It is an essential aspect of Whole Child that these agencies and the different school districts are able to interact for the benefit of the student.

"Mental health is a huge and growing need in the country but especially in our state," Houghtlin stated. "If we're taking a look at national comparisons, Tennessee is 30th in the country for overall mental health; 46th in the country when it comes to students who have emotional disturbance; and 48th in the country when it comes to students who have private insurance that covers mental health needs."

In attendance were Martin Middle School eighth-graders, Lydia Thorsen and Samantha Bates, who spoke on the issues of student mental health. Thorsen said of her fellow students, "Confronting your mental state is something that takes a lot of courage to do. (Talking to adults) is sometimes scary because you're confronting yourself."

"I feel like students are getting better at hiding their sadness," Bates added. "Their number one response is, I'm fine, even though they may not be fine."

When asked how to address this in a much more direct way, Bates suggested following the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) method and incorporating the message into the overall student curriculum.

Addressing the mental health issues many students face is part of what Whole Child Support is advocating. "If they (students and children, in general) grew up knowing it was safe to talk about how you feel; even suicidal thoughts, we would not be in this situation right now," Thorsen added. "Scores would be way higher because concentration would be better."

Throughout the course of the engagement session, Department of Education representatives heard from assembled educators and administrators who suggested strategies for betterment of mental health. Each suggestion was met with discussion, which helped flesh out and expound on the suggestion.

At the conclusion of the session, everyone present was given a survey to assess the effectiveness of the event.
Director of Strategic Engagement, Hope Soriano-McCrary, thanked everyone for their attendance. Weakley County attendees seemed very appreciative of the opportunity to voice their concerns and to have those voices heard. The students in attendance seemed to feel the same way.

In closing, Bates said, "Advocating for pressing mental health issues is such a vital thing and I'm grateful that they asked for feedback from the students."

Further information on the Best For All program can be found at www.tn.gov/education.html.

More on Students' Response
In addition to educators, administrators and parents, two Weakley County students also attended. Martin Middle School eigth-graders Lydia Thorsen and Samantha Bates took the time, not only to attend, but to add their voices to those being heard. Both had very interesting points concerning mental health issues facing students.

For her part, Bates noted how students are not getting better at dealing with their mental health issues; rather they are getting better at hiding them. Part of the reason for this hiding is the continued stigma some of these issues carry.

"I feel like students take that (the stigma) back home with them," Bates said. "They kind of bottle everything that's wrong with them up. They can't express it to anybody because they feel like it's not right for them to be this way."

This comment began a short discussion about counseling and the lack of attention many students get from a counselor with limited time to work with them. One item of particular interest Thorsen suggested was a type of peer-to-peer counseling in which other students would be trained in how to listen, how to advise and how to help their fellow students. Such a program would require specific coordination with local providers and district school leaders.

Of the program, Thorsen clarified, "It's someone your age to listen to you; it's not exactly a professional talk. We should be teaching the peer groups to know how to deal with someone talking to them — not to talk over them and to know how to listen."

Thorsen said she researched mental health topics to understand her own situation better. "I have two parents who are together, very happy household, lovely family." The death of family members caused difficulties. "All I cared about was mourning," Thorsen said. "Some people are going through that, right now."

In similar cases, a peer-to-peer program might be the very thing to help other students deal with their own anxieties, fears and other issues when dealing with situations, which seem insurmountable. Students such as Thorsen and Bates helped those present personalize specific issues.
  
It was rewarding for the facilitators to have the voice of the students, as it helped them hear from their target demographic what could be put into place to best help them. Of the meeting, Bates said, "I feel like the community members got to express how they feel about mental health issues in Weakley County. I'm sure the representatives left with satisfactory information about how to better the state's policies."