from Bill Hudson, head of school

If you’ve read my previous Panther Posts, you probably know that I am a big fan of David Brooks. Earlier in the year, I wrote about an article he penned for The Atlantic, “How America Got Mean,” that touched me deeply. It prompted me to purchase his latest book, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.”

I found it both sobering and inspiring. It is sobering in that more adult Americans are increasingly experiencing sadness, hopelessness, and depression. Sadly, our young people are not immune from this pandemic of declining mental health. The most recent data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 42 percent of high school students in 2021 reported feeling so sad or hopeless for at least two consecutive weeks in the previous year that they stopped engaging in their usual activities, up from 26 percent in 2009.

I am inspired because the antidote, concludes Brooks, is simple: we must become better at genuinely seeing others and ensuring one another is seen, heard, and understood. Brooks quotes psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk that healing from trauma begins by “knowing that we are seen and heard by important people in our lives can make us feel calm and safe.” I am inspired because I genuinely believe that ensuring students are seen, heard, and understood is something MPA does exceptionally well.

“As educators, we know that students are growing, learning, and developing new skills every day,” says Ashley Cooper, counselor for grades six through nine. “Students want to know they are loved and accepted even if they aren’t always perfect. I’ve seen teachers do this by providing positive encouragement, noticing when students make safe choices, take healthy risks, and show resiliency, and sharing words of gratitude for a student’s presence or contributions to the learning environment.”

At MPA, a whole-child approach to education includes our students’ social-emotional and mental health. Across divisions, we approach mental health from a multi-tiered system of support perspective. That means we understand that mental health is more than just the absence of disease; it focuses on prevention and enhancing positive development. We do this by integrating what we know to be best practices in teaching emotional, behavioral, and relationship skills into the academic learning environment. When the Minnesota ratio of school counselors is 1:654, MPA is fortunate to have an experienced team of three school counselors, two college counselors, a behavioral specialist, and a school psychologist with a ratio of 1:51.

There are specific programs at MPA that promote wellness. For instance, we are in our first year piloting The Social Institutes (TSI) social-emotional learning and digital wellness curriculum for grades 5, 7, and 9. Thus far, TSI lessons have taken place in Advisory and Seminar classes. We are also working on integrating TSI curriculum into MS Humanities and US Health for semester two. So far, students enjoy TSI’s gamified approach to their curriculum, while teachers enjoy the relevant and timely information in TSI’s Weekly Huddles and Live Lessons. Both teachers and students appreciate and enjoy how up-to-date TSI’s content is, as the newest trends in tech and social media are constantly changing.

Upper school counselor Jodi Hurley, assistant upper school director Jay Dean, and middle school counselor Ashley Cooper just returned from a trip to Colorado, where they received training from a national expert in peer helping programs. As part of a BOLD initiative, we plan on starting a peer helper program at MPA next fall. We know that some of our students may go to a friend/peer with concerns before they seek out an adult. This program will be a way for Upper School students to receive ongoing training on various skills and provide emotional support to middle and upper school students. Not only do we want to increase help-seeking behaviors and reduce the stigma of talking about feelings, but we also aim to provide tangible listening skills to our students to model and pass along to their peers.

I was struck a few days ago having walked by the PreK classroom and witnessed our
lower school counselor Jeanne Doyle conducting a social-emotional learning lesson with our youngest learners. “I like to start every class and every session with a mindful breathing exercise or a mindful movement routine,” Jeanne told me. “I am a firm believer in practicing calming breathing and mindful movement when we are already relatively calm so that we remember to use these techniques when we have big, uncomfortable emotions.”

In a recent New York Times opinion article, Dr. Darby Saxbe, clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, wrote that the most powerful means of improving student mental health include staffing schools with more trained counselors and therapists, giving students greater access to the traditional guidance counselor, creating more opportunities for young people to build relationships with adults. Small class sizes, decreasing the homework burden, and creating more opportunities for play, exercise, music, art, and community engagement are all empirically supported strategies for improving mental health.

In the words of one MPA parent, “My child’s relationship with teachers and staff have been the highlight of their time at MPA—to truly learn, kids need to feel safe and seen. While feeling safe and seen is not easy or always possible in Middle School, the teachers and staff at MPA do a great job trying to make that happen for every student.” At MPA, we hold firmly to the belief that the more students can feel seen and connected, the better the mental health and academic outcomes. “In my experience,” says Ashley Cooper, “when adults take time to regularly check in with students, respond to their concerns with validation, curiosity, and empathy, and follow through on necessary next steps in a timely manner, the more students will go to an adult for help in the future. MPA does a great job with this—it is something that seems so simple but cannot be highlighted enough.”


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