During the COVID-19 pandemic, the pivot to virtual programming and reduced expenses led to a one-time budget surplus that San Marino’s Partnership for Awareness’ board of directors voted to allocate as grants to San Marino Unified School District sites to support the social-emotional well-being of students who have endured significant challenges over the past two years.
After a rigorous application process, the PfA board voted unanimously to give grants totaling $9,149.40 to Carver and Valentine elementary schools for holistic social-emotional learning, or SEL, with a Second-Step Elementary digital program, that’s part of a proposal by for school counselor Stacey Beavers’ proposal.
Elementary schools utilize Second-Step Elementary classroom kits to offer an evidence-based approach to SEL, and the PfA grant will fund a three-year license for the latest version of the curriculum at both elementaries.
“SEL has emerged as a powerful lever for changing school climate and improving overall student success,” Beavers said. “Implementing a research-based, universal SEL program school-wide is considered foundational to creating a safe, supportive school climate. Teaching social-emotional skills to all students is also a recognized and recommended universal level support for students’ trauma and behavioral health needs.”
Students who have experienced trauma may struggle with regulating their emotions, behavior and attention in order to learn in school.
However, when schools implement SEL programs, the skills taught — such as perspective-taking, emotion management and problem-solving — can help address traumatized children’s skill gaps and improve their ability to benefit from school, Beavers said.
Decades of research shows the positive effects of universal social-emotional learning programs for children, she added.
“The consistent use of research-based strategies and common language teaching SEL can directly and personally benefit students, educators, and families, but it also can have a profound positive impact on school climate and communities. Schools that focus on a positive school climate find that it is one of the most effective ways to address classroom disruptions, challenging behavior, student safety and bullying. At the same time, focusing on SEL helps increase school connectedness and academic achievement, promote inclusivity, build relationships, and reduce teacher stress. There’s also broad recognition that benefits for students are even greater when children experience SEL throughout their day, across environments and throughout developmental stages,” she continued.
Additionally, PfA awarded a grant to Huntington Middle School in the amount of $7,753.38 for HMS School Counselor June Gonzalez’s “Zen Den” proposal.
The project will serve 625 middle school students in grades 6-8. The Zen Den Wellness Center will be available for students Monday–Friday during school hours and will house HMS school counseling interns, school psychologist interns and be available for additional counseling support services by the HMS school counselor and school psychologist.
“In the midst of a crisis, especially the one we are currently facing, our parents and students often look to the school to provide resources and assistance to help them navigate through these difficult times,” Gonzalez said. “Unfortunately, in the aftermath of COVID, many of our students are experiencing heightened levels of anxiety and stress making it extremely difficult for them to concentrate and focus on learning during the school day.”
She said middle school students are exceptionally vulnerable and considered by mental health professionals to be the most at-risk student group, for mental-health issues. Their mental health is being challenged daily with the psychological impact of COVID; anxiety, isolation, grief, depression, fear and insomnia.
“The psychological trauma of this pandemic is also exacerbated for our middle schoolers with the transitional changes going on with their physical, cognitive and psychosocial development,” Gonzalez said.
The school also created a “Wellness Lounge,” where students have access to a quiet and relaxing space to self-regulate, decompress and talk with a counselor or a counseling intern.
“Having a safe space on campus for students to self-regulate that does not look like a classroom or an office to help calm emotions; sort of a ‘Zen Den’ brings the calming effects of the outdoors in, will help our students return to the classroom feeling less anxious, emotionally refreshed and ready to learn,” Gonzalez said.
“The design of the room includes a variety of comfortable furnishings in soft and calming colors. It offers tactile fabrics and surfaces, has active seating where students can rock or sway, and provides seating that will encourage participation in collaborative social-emotional groups,” she added.
There are adjustable, low-lighting options for students when they need a break from harsh overhead lights, is equipped with items to distract from an anxious mind such as fidget toys, stress dough, stress balls, puzzles, games, coloring, drawing and writing materials, as well as access to whiteboard spaces for creativity, noise cancelling headphones, laptops, and a drop-down screen for virtual hikes and walks in nature, guided breathing exercises, and short video relaxation activities, such as yoga. Gonzalez said.
The mission of Partnership for Awareness is to increase awareness of critical issues challenging the health and well-being of San Marino youth; to identify and address such issues in cooperative partnership with parents, students, educators and community groups and to provide a forum to educate the San Marino community — both adults and children — with knowledge and skills to facilitate the successful navigation of these important issues.
PfA fulfills its mission by planning and sponsoring events and programs that bring experts together with the San Marino community so youth and parents may learn more about drugs, alcohol, tobacco, and other health and safety issues related to intersections of their identities including race, ethnicity, biological sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, socio-economic circumstance, national origin, immigration status, neuro-diversity, ability and disability, and physical characteristics.