Oakdale Joint Unified is doing more than just educating students. The district is now, more than ever, looking at ways to aid students with their mental health.
The STEP UP program, launched this school year at the elementary schools, is one such effort. STEP is an acronym for: Say the problem; Think of solutions; Explore consequences; Pick the best solution.
“STEP UP is really just empowering kids to be able to handle the social and emotional difficulties they experience,” Andrea Barnett, District Mental Health Clinician, shared.
“It’s been rough coming back, so we wanted to make sure as a district we put our emphasis in educating all of our kids,” Barnett said of the importance of the program. “Let’s do a quick reset. Let’s all get on that same shared page, so we all have the same language to problem solve.”
Working with the K-6 students, Barnett partners with district trained instructors to visit the four campuses empowering kids, understanding how the brain works, role playing. Using these techniques students are being taught problem solving strategies and how to calm down in difficult situations.
“Part of this is understanding the brain process and understanding that before we can problem solve, we have to be able to calm down,” Barnett said.
The mental health clinician additionally shared when they visit the classrooms the teacher stays during their segment of instruction. They work with the students on the playground as well.
“We’re pushing into the classroom and we’re teaching everyone,” she said, noting teachers, yard duty, health clerks, and administrators are also being included in the STEP UP program.
“We want to make sure that this information, doesn’t just stay in the classroom,” she said. “It’s great that they’re learning in the classroom, but how do we reinforce in all the other areas.”
Part of the learning is also focused on behavior expectations of respect, responsibility and safety throughout the district.
Barnett said it starts with teaching empathy and that it’s not ‘just about us.’ How do we look at the situation and looking at the body language for clues.
“We have to learn that skill and that’s a tough concept to learn,” Barnett shared. “When we start teaching the kids, we have to teach them that piece of empathy and how to remove ourself and look with that helicopter viewpoint.”
Using a scientific perspective to help the students understand the brain, catchy songs to help with memorization and guiding the students on calming themselves before responding are some of the techniques reviewed with the students.
“We can’t get to problem solving when our emotions are up. It’s not a skill set that comes naturally to all of us,” Barnett said. “COVID taught us that we’ve got some big emotions. COVID took away a lot of outlets that we had.”
There are many layers to helping the students understand their emotions and a variety of ways the program peels back those layers.
“Using this to reflect on our behavior so we can learn a lesson,” Barnett said of teaching the students respect, responsibility and safety as the core foundation. “We’re not taking away any discipline. We’re talking about how can we use what we’re doing to making better choices in the future.”
Ultimately Barnett feels STEP UP is empowering the students to have healthy choices to manage the emotions.
“Also, I just want our kids to know, we can get through obstacles,” she concluded. “They don’t have to define us. This is just a little moment. Some moments are harder than others, but we just keep moving on.”