Inside Brunson-Lee Elementary School in central Phoenix, students kicked off the school year with a new classroom ritual known as daily “meetups.”
Here, kids are encouraged to share their emotions, including the highs and lows of their day, in a built-in support group to practice expressing their feelings with one another.
“It really just helps other grown-ups understand what their students are feeling, (so) they could just help them out,” said Ryan Saldana, a third grader.
Paula Harper is the new social emotional academic development, or SEAD specialist, working to educate both the students and staff on how to best address emotional health.
In a few short months, Paula has become a staple in the school as she implements trauma-responsive practices with the understanding that children experiencing high levels of stress cannot learn unless they feel safe and loved.
“We have kids who have significant challenges in their young life,” Paula said. “We have kids separated from their families in foster care, children in single-family homes or who have the challenge of food insecurity. We want to be a support because when bad things have happened to these young kids, one safe caring adult can make a difference for that in terms of helping that child heal.”
A UnitedHealthcare Empowering Health grant helps uninsured and underinsured populations fund the new SEAD position to help educators learn these trauma-informed approaches. More than 90 percent of children at Brunson-Lee Elementary live in poverty. Many are refugees or are experiencing homelessness.
“We need to do this now because we are in crisis,” said Leticia Castro, Brunson-Lee Elementary principal. “Let's be proactive so when our children become adults, they can deal with conflict, collaborate in the workforce and be productive citizens.”
One in five teens, ages 13 to 18, either currently have or will have a serious mental illness, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Pilar Vargas, Psy.D., children’s health care administrator for the UnitedHealthcare Community Plan of Arizona, is hopeful the new SEAD specialist position can serve as a model that could be executed in schools nationwide.
“Our kids have a lot of stress in their lives now. These are dire statistics that we just simply can't ignore,” she said. “UnitedHealthcare is really committed as a health care company to addressing needed behavioral health interventions. We have done a lot of education to our staff, providers, to the community at large on the effects of trauma on children and families.”
In the first year of her new role, Paula leads staff and teachers in creating social-emotional support and behavioral interventions. The school’s efforts are part of the Balsz School District’s mission to also offer family support services, with events like community meetings, connecting families to resources.
The hope is to collect data on attendance, suspensions/discipline and academics to see how the social and emotional interventions impact students over the course of the year.