Erin Castillo also uses an affirmation station to encourage students to complement each other and improve their mental well-being.
It's been a tough year for everyone because of the pandemic and one high school teacher is taking extra care to ensure her students are okay. As students return to the first day of in-person school in over a year, Erin Castillo will be looking beyond academics to see if she can spot any signs any of her students are struggling. Castillo is an English and peer counseling teacher at John F. Kennedy High School in Fremont, California believes it's important for teachers to keep an eye on their students' mental health, and more so than ever on the back of a year that was gripped by a financial and health crisis.
"I think there's a big emphasis (among educators and parents) on learning loss and the academic side, but I don't think any kids are concerned about that," Castillo told Good Morning America. "The kids that I've talked to, what they're concerned about, and what I'm concerned about, is the social side of things... their health... and just the discomfort of going back to school."
Castillo has created a check-in chart with broad categories that helps her know who among her students need help. As the students are checking into class, they are encouraged to grab a post-it note, write their name on the back of it before sticking it next to a category that matches their feelings. Among the options are "I'm great," "I'm okay," "I'm meh," "I'm struggling," "I'm having a hard time and wouldn't mind a check-in," or "I'm in a really dark place." Castillo then checks the notes to assess their mental health and seek help for those who need it. Castillo has a word with students who tick the last two categories — "I'm struggling and "I'm having a hard time and wouldn't mind a check-in," or "I'm in a really dark place" — and also have a follow-up conversation with the counselor or the school psychologist on campus.
"When I created the chart, I wanted mental health to become part of the school conversation and to be tied into how we do things," said Castillo. "Students can't learn nearly as well when they're struggling with something." She posted the image of the chart online where it has gone viral. Other teachers, inspired by Castillo, are creating similar charts or improvised ones to help their students during these difficult times. The schools are also opening at a time when some set of parents and authorities are adamant about not enforcing mask mandates, endangering the lives of students and teachers. Misinformation surrounding vaccination and framing conversation around masks as a violation of personal freedom is causing the sharp rise in new Coronavirus cases. It has been confirmed that 97% of those being admitted to hospital are unvaccinated, reported NPR.
Some school districts have recognized that students could be fighting various mental health issues in the back of the pandemic year and have tried to add resources to help navigate this difficult time. More mental health counselors have been assigned to schools in Castillo's district. Each school in the district also has a designated mental health lead. "I'm sad that this is the way it finally came up but we're seeing that shift now of, okay, we really do need to have these [mental health] conversations and we really do need to talk about coping strategies in the classroom," said Castillo.
She has also created an "affirmation station" where students recognize their friends by writing them an affirmation note which is given to them. Kids have told Castillo that they hang the notes in their rooms. Another one of efforts of Castillo to help her students 'shred' negative thoughts by writing them down and putting them in the mini-shredder.
She is also encouraging teachers to take care of themselves. "I think the more that we take care of ourselves and the more that we're showing students that we're doing that the smoother this school year is going to go," said Castillo.
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