Students in the Dallas Independent School District go back to class Sept. 8., but this year will be anything but normal. In Dallas ISD, back to school means learning from behind a computer for the first four weeks of the semester.
The district said it's ramping up its efforts to provide mental health services and social emotional learning (SEL) to help students cope with the massive changes in learning this year.
SEL is set of skills that helps students manage their feelings, be more emphatic and help build positive relationships with others.
“We have many departments that are coming together to make sure that we’re meeting the needs of our students. We know this is an uncertain and difficult time for so many, so we’re weaving in this support to as many different areas as possible," said Dianna Smoot, executive director for mental health services for Dallas ISD.
She said the district is working with teachers to incorporate daily activities to connect with students on a personal basis and with counselors to help identify students who may be struggling and connect them with mental health services.
The district is also providing teachers with tips and tricks to help engage their students in the virtual space. Plus, they plan to provide "brain breaks" to let the students step away from the computer and recharge.
"We know that the mental health of kids is really the framework in which they’re going to come into the classroom. We know that any worries or concerns or problems that a child is having that they don’t just check it at the door, or in this case or logging into Zoom, we’ve got to support our students to make sure that their health and well being is supported so they can access the academics," Smoot said.
Kindergarten and first grade teacher Alejandra Ramos Gomez, said SEL is something she's practiced before the pandemic and is very important to her.
"The first thing that I do is always set a safe space for the kids, teaching them different strategies to manage those emotions but more than anything, to understand the emotions that they’re feeling," Ramos Gomez said.
The Walnut Hill Elementary School dual language teacher has spent seven years in the classroom. Last year was a challenging time for her students too after they moved to a new location after a tornado damaged their school.
"What we noticed was how important it was for the kids to express what they were going through and how they were feeling through the transition. What we noticed was that we really couldn’t get to the academic without taking into account how they were feeling," Ramos Gomez said. "And just giving them the time to understand those emotions I think was very very important."
"We worked through what we call 'The Leader in Me' habits, so we teach them to think with an end goal in mind, to also have empathy for each other and to understand each other experiences, and I think it really helped them to understand them that we’re all in this together. So when the pandemic happened, there were a lot of things we couldn’t control, but we knew that being part of a community and having that space to listen to each other was always there," she added.
She said she tries to help her kids live in the moment and has what's called a "sharing circle," in which she'll ask questions and give students the time to connect with others.
"I teach students that being mindful doesn’t have to be a meditation and in complete silence, but it’s more than anything just being aware of the things that are around us. It can even be eating mindfully, just taking the time to be in the moment without thinking about all the things that we can’t control," Ramos Gomez said.
She said she also shows students how to use breathing techniques, and uses a sound bowl to help calm everyone.
"We know that the start of the school year looks different, but we’re also ready for the difference, we’re ready for our kids to come back, we know this is going to be great year," Smoot said.
Smoot said there would be counselors and therapy services available for families who need it. To read more on how to get in touch with Dallas ISD Mental Health Services, click here.