The third episode in KET’s You Are Not Alone series, Whole Child/Whole School, takes a closer look at a paradigm shift in how school districts are addressing the health of their students. More schools are expanding their services beyond exercise and nutrition to help students with social and emotional development. KET visits Pulaski Co. schools to learn about their specific programs and also hears from counselors and administrators from around the state about their emphasis on youth mental health.
This program is part of KET’s Inside Youth Mental Health initiative, funded in part by grants from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky and the Kentucky Department of Education.
School Focus Group
A group of school counselors and administrators met at the Frazier History Museum in Louisville to discuss the various ways they assist students with anxiety, depression, and other conditions and what they look for in adolescents’ behavior when assessing mental health. Emotional difficulties can be present in all groups of students, even high achievers.
“Something we’re seeing more and more in our schools, our high-level students are anxiety messes,” says Lori Price from Pulaski Co. Schools. “The need to succeed and be successful has really resulted in huge amounts of anxiety for these students.”
“In a day of accountability and testing, sometimes we as a society spend a lot of time looking at that,” says Dustin Howard, a middle school principal from Clark County. “I’m not saying that it’s not important, I just don’t think it’s an ‘either-or,’ I don’t think you have to choose between academic greatness and social and emotional greatness. If you don’t teach the whole child, then you’re going to have an incomplete adult.”
Pulaski Co. School District
Jeremy Cole, a music teacher at a middle school in the Pulaski Co. district, was already familiar with the mental health needs of children through his role as the father of five kids, four of them adopted. He came to realize that many of his students were dealing with mental health challenges and made it a priority to take more time out of his class period to help his kids work through their problems.
“Our goal is to make every kid feel like they are important,” Cole says. “And we know that every kid is not a 4.0 student, and we know that every kid is not a great athlete. And every kid is not great at band. But you’re great at something. And we want them to see that there’s greatness there.”
Lori Price and Dusty Phelps from Pulaski Co. Schools are tasked with overseeing counseling services. The district utilizes a comprehensive student assessment and treatment program that is part of the Project AWARE (Project Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education) grant program. Price and Phelps have seen a significant increase in the number of students receiving school-based mental health services, which is partly a result of better training for teachers and staff.
“We want to create climates and cultures in our schools that facilitate a sense of psychological safety so that we’re able to relax and learn,” Phelps says. “Learning almost exclusively happens through relationships. It’s not just about information sharing, it’s about life sharing.”
Expanding the Whole Child/Whole School Model Statewide
Pulaski Co.’s movement to make mental health counseling part of its core services is one that could be replicated in every school district across the commonwealth. Kathryn Tillet, project director for AWARE at the Kentucky Department of Education, and Melissa Goins, director of family and youth resource centers at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services, talk about their long-term goals of making the “whole child” model that is common in public health departments just as common in public education throughout Kentucky.
“It’s an idea that has been embraced by schools and districts across the country pretty quickly, but a lot of them may not be following things in a very strategic and systematic way, they may just be picking up pieces as they can,” says Tillet.
“If you’re a parent and you are watching this and you’re thinking, ‘How can I get my school to do some of these things,’ I think that it starts with leadership,” Goins says. “I think you go to your leadership in your local school district and you say, ‘How can I help, what is our need, let’s access our capacity, let’s figure this out.’ There are all kinds of programs out there.”