On a warm, sunny Wednesday morning a few weeks before the end of the semester, a group of 17 and 18 year olds ambled toward their Advanced Placement Literature class at South Pasadena High School. The day’s agenda included an analysis of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” using the Socratic method of shared dialogue between teacher and students, and tension filled the room. Understanding the psychological complexity of “Hamlet” is a challenge and for many students, speaking in front of their peers may have been causing additional dismay.
But this particular class began in a unique way when the teacher asked the students to go outside, form a circle, close their eyes, and soak up the sunshine. After a moment of reflection, a small group of students was asked to travel around the circle and tap the shoulder of students who embodied certain traits. Characteristics like courage, compassion, determination, and honesty were recognized that day. Every student received a tap, and all students were given the opportunity to highlight another student’s positive character traits.
And just like that, the group as a whole felt better, more empowered, and boosted by their peers. The day’s activities no longer seemed as intimidating and students viewed their classmates as friendly and supportive. The students felt so much better that they asked the teacher to repeat the same activity another day with different traits. This story is one example of how teachers implement social-emotional strategies for students during the school day.
When students returned to school this year after their shelter-in-place experience during the 2020-2021 shut down, they brought social-emotional and mental health needs that needed to be addressed immediately. Fortunately, SPUSD has expanded social-emotional learning, mental health and wellness supports and increased the number of students served, the number of hours of support offered, and the quality of the programs implemented. Educators, counselors, and social workers at both South Pasadena High School and South Pasadena Middle School provide multiple tiers of support through a program specially designed for South Pasadena Unified School District (SPUSD) students called Train Your Brain (TYB).
SPUSD introduced Train Your Brain at the beginning of the 2015-2016 school year, thanks to generous support from the South Pasadena Educational Foundation. At that time, it became evident based on results from the California Healthy Kids Survey, an increasing number of counselor referrals, and general feedback from students to counselors and teachers, that students were having a harder time generally getting through school, life, and the challenges of being a teenager. The District determined that additional resources were necessary to support older students’ social-emotional and behavioral wellbeing.
Before TYB was in place, students went through a formal process in order to be identified as requiring extra help and determined eligible to receive it, and this type of support could take months to put in place. The District instead wanted to expand its universal prevention strategies for all students and provide targeted interventions for higher-need students.
In addition, while educators were experts at recognizing different academic learning styles, it became clear that classroom teachers could benefit from ongoing professional development in the areas of accurately recognizing and effectively addressing different social-emotional styles. TYB integrates research-based prevention and intervention strategies drawn from three treatment models—1) Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS); 2) Neuropsychology, including mindfulness and self-regulation training; and 3) Cognitive Psychology.
“The Train Your Brain program is designed to be sensitive to and accommodate individual student differences, based upon the belief that, just as young people exhibit particular learning styles, they also demonstrate distinctive social and emotional styles,” said Dr. Dennis Lefevre, Executive Director of SPUSD Student Support Services. “We’ve put in place a number of practices to help students develop the skills that lead to improved attitudes about school, positive classroom behavior, and better academic performance.”
While the wellbeing of students has always been at the forefront of SPUSD initiatives, recent issues with mental health due to the pandemic presented the District with an opportunity to strengthen efforts even more by growing the TYB program. SPMS and SPHS each have a full-time TYB counselor—Natasha Prime and Natasha Stebbins—and the team now also includes two interns who are currently earning master’s degrees in social work. This increase in staff has translated to an overall increase in social-emotional support at each school site by allowing the TYB program to reach many more individual students, increase social emotional activities on campus, and support school administrators, counselors and teachers through a multidisciplinary team. The team promotes healthy coping, resiliency, and wellness by providing a spectrum of comprehensive, integrated, culturally sensitive services that support the academic achievements of SPUSD students.
“In tandem with our daily, in-person counseling, we have added social-emotional resources for students such as Effective School Solutions, which includes comprehensive mental health services and access to Chinatown Service Center which provides free, community-based mental health services,” said Lefevre. “The District also has developed a partnership with Care Solace which is a program for students, employees and their family members that offers 24/7 help finding mental health-related programs and counseling services.”
The types of services offered at SPMS and SPHS include counseling, parent consultations, crisis support, resource referrals, and class presentations on social-emotional topics. At the high school last year, the TYB social workers partnered with counselors, peer mediators, the ASB health and wellness officers and the Challenge Success representative to develop a TYB website as a virtual hub for mental health resources.
This year TYB specialists have been presenting the topic of cyberbullying to all SPMS sixth grade students and SPHS ninth graders. Typically, SPUSD students seek help with managing stressors, building coping strategies, enhancing motivation, building healthy relationships, increasing resiliency and increasing self-esteem.
In February, during lunch at the middle school and high school and continuing monthly through the end of the year, the TYB team plans to reacquaint students and staff with all of the services offered. Prime and Stebbins, with help from the TYB interns and the SPHS Peer Mediators and SPMS Updstanders, will be setting up decorative tables with games, free t-shirts, bookmarks, and stress-reducing squishy toys. All these activities and resources are designed to meet student needs in different ways.
To help guide educators in meeting student needs, TYB specialists also have led professional development presentations for teachers and staff on suicide prevention, self-care and LGBTQ+ competency training. Outside of school, the team also works on building community partnerships to increase mental health support with organizations like the City of South Pasadena and the South Pasadena Police Department, among others.
Students have been receptive to the new resources and responsive to accessing mental health supports on campus, as evidenced by self-referral and self-advocacy to access TYB services. Every two years SPUSD students complete the California Healthy Kids survey. Since the start of the TYB program, the survey data generally has shown reduced levels of anxiety and depression. The results ebb and flow, but the most meaningful data has been qualitative based on feedback provided from students directly to our Train Your Brain specialists. Students have expressed that TYB services are helpful, which has led to informing friends in need about the services available on campus.
Initially, a grant from the South Pasadena Educational Foundation (SPEF) funded the Train Your Brain program. After the first three years of implementation, financial support for the program transferred from SPEF to the District with funding provided by state and federal grants.
School districts like SPUSD do not receive funding for programs like this so support must come from grants to pay for the services. Districts with higher proportions of foster youth, low-income families, and English Language Learners, for example, receive significantly more dollars per student than districts with fewer students in those demographics. The Los Angeles County Office of Education also offers training/professional development, materials and information about effective student mental health programs and PBIS.