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Scores Attend NYSIR’s Third Statewide Educators Symposium

Wednesday, August 12, 2020  

Nearly 150 teachers and administrators from schools across New York came together virtually recently to attend a two-day NYSIR symposium on the importance of strengthening mental health in the classroom.

The symposium, Destigmatizing Mental Health – Best Practices for Creating a Comforting School Environment, was originally scheduled Aug. 4-5 as an onsite forum in Westchester County, but was reformulated in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic to be conducted online as a series of six in-depth presentations by experts in their fields.

The conclave was opened by Amy Malloy, director of the of the Mental Health Association of New York State’s School Mental Health Resource Center, who told attendees that 48 percent of school kids aged 13-18 have demonstrated some criteria related to mental health issues. Social-emotional learning, she said, “is really a skill management” that can be encouraged through inclusivity and equity.

Educators then heard from Scarlett Lewis, the mother of a Sandy Hook school shooting victim who founded the Jessie Lewis Choose Love Movement, named after her son. Picking up on the social-emotional learning theme, Lewis told rapt Zoom® viewers that “When we choose love, we take our power back.” To do that, she said, teachers as well as students need to couple courage with gratitude, forgiveness and compassion in action.

Closing the circle

The first day was closed out by Bonnie Kane, Krissy Hill and Courtney Santasero, co-founders of the Niagara Alliance for Restorative Practices, an organization that emphasizes the use of in-person circles – literally, circles of individuals in need of restorative help who share comments and communicate with each other in a respectful and caring way. Circles can be formed for schools, families, community-building, general support and even to encourage racial justice, according to Kane.

“There is room to adapt and make the circles what you need them to be.”

Day two opened with a presentation by Angelina Maloney, superintendent of schools at Rensselaer County’s Brunswick Central School District and a member of NYSIR’s Board of Governors, who spoke about best practices and innovative mental health methods in the school community. She recommended starting with a baseline assessment of mental health support systems in a school or district from the standpoint of strategic planning, problem-solving, communication and collaboration.

“Districts can’t solve these problems alone,” she advised, pointing out the necessity of collaboration with parents, caregivers, boards of education, students and teachers. Her tips for eventual success included assigning a designated mental health program coordinator, working with community partners, applying for available grants and regularly reviewing the district’s policies and goals.

Erin’s Law

Erin Merryn, president of a social welfare organization called Erin’s Law, followed with a discussion about legislation in her home state of Illinois that requires all public schools to implement a prevention-oriented child sexual abuse program that helps students to recognize sexual abuse and tell a trusted adult, and teaches school personnel and parents about warning signs that may suggest abuse.

Merryn, herself abused as a child, noted that, on average, one in four girls and one in six boys have been sexually abused by the time they turn 18. Advocacy by her organization has led to the passage of similar ‘Erin’s Law’ legislation in dozens of other states, including New York.

The symposium’s final session, titled Creating Suicide-Safer Schools: Building Social-Emotional Wellness and Resiliency in Schools, featured a wide-ranging discussion by Alec L. Miller, Psy.D, a co-founder and clinical director of Cognitive and Behavioral Consultants of Westchester and Manhattan.

Miller told attendees that in any given year in the U.S., at least one in five children and adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder, depression, non-suicidal self-injury or thoughts of suicide. The causes, he said, can range from busier, digitally distracted lives to overuse of social media, over-protective parenting, and the perception of dangers such as school shootings, terrorism and, now, COVID-19.

School-based dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), which can help build social-emotional learning skills, has been shown to reduce thoughts of suicide in students, decrease symptoms of depression and alleviate feelings of hopelessness, according to Miller. Taught in groups and classes, comprehensive DBT programs have led to improved social and emotional functioning and academic performance, he advised, as well as fewer problem behaviors that often result in suspensions or psychiatric and medical hospitalization.

To download complete versions of the 2020 NYSIR symposium sessions, click here.

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