Vision: We Started with a Wellness Wheel

VAIS Vision Emagazine Issue 8 Winter 2020 

By Sherrie Page, RN
Health and Wellness Coordinator, St. Catherine's School

The health and wellness of our students, always paramount, has become an even greater focus. The concerning national trend of increased mental health concerns reported in children and teens has made this a call to action. The National Council for Behavioral Health reports that 1 in 5 teens lives with a mental illness, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-24. Even more concerning for our all-girls school, Twenge’s (2018) landmark meta-analysis of two national surveys of adolescents in grades 8 thru 12, shows the increase in adolescent depression and suicidality between 2010 to 2015 was exclusive to females. Twenge hypothesizes that the increase in screen time and social media associated with depressive symptoms is even more detrimental to girls versus their male counterparts. Of corresponding importance, Twenge’s research revealed decreased depressive symptoms in adolescents who spend in-person, non-screen time involved in social activities, print media, sports/exercise, and attending religious services. This finding gives us hope, as it represents our campus life. By virtue of being a church college preparatory school, built around an interactive green, with multiple clubs, social events, libraries, and a nationally recognized athletics program, our School supports mental health resilience on multiple levels. However, these variables have always been a part of our school’s fabric. Yet, just like reports all over the country, our students increasingly report feeling more stressed and overwhelmed. In an effort to address these national trends and proactively institute measures to safeguard student health, St. Catherine’s created a new position, Health & Wellness Coordinator, to work alongside Health and Wellness Advisors in each division. Together, this team, in conjunction with other school-based health experts, works to review, evaluate, and implement wellness programming. To assist with these efforts, we created a 5-spoked Health & Wellness Wheel Model (see Health & Wellness Wheel for visual graphic) to assess the following areas: Intellectual, Emotional, Spiritual, Physical, and Social. These five components show the interrelationship that comprise the health of the whole person. If one area of health is compromised, all areas of health are affected. The better a student’s health in all facets represented on our Wellness Wheel, the greater the chance she will reach her fullest potential. We then applied our “wheel” to the School’s offerings across all grade-levels to assess strengths and opportunities for improvement.

Our immediate focus was mental health. Using Twenge’s research as a guide, we asked ourselves: Do our students currently have the age-appropriate understanding and tools needed to reduce stress? Do they know when stress symptoms become worrisome, crossing the line into concerning anxiety or depression? Are we teaching enough digital wellness to help students use technology and social media in the healthiest way possible? Are students forming behavior patterns that support a lifetime of health, well beyond our campus? The ultimate answer to all of these questions was to add more mental health and stress-reduction education, across grade-levels, to combat this growing epidemic. Our first step was to build on existing programming. We increased mental health education in our Lower School, Middle School, and Upper School health classes. Then, we scheduled more guest experts to speak on these topics to students, faculty, and parents. Knowing social media has a strong effect on females, our Technology Department researched digital wellness programs to support a positive relationship between our students and technology. We are set to begin implementing a new digital wellness curriculum this January in grades 4 through 12.

Through an all-hands-on-deck approach, we added mental health programming in multiple areas. Aside from health classes, Yoga and mindfulness offerings increased in our P.E. classes, athletics programs, chapels, after-school offerings, and student-led clubs. We are currently taking detailed inventory of our curriculum to ensure that at every grade level, students are taught a stress-reduction tool as part of the established curriculum (see side-bar for some of our favorites). Finally, we are adding more wellness programs for faculty and staff so that they have the understanding and tools to role-model positive mental health and overall wellness.

Helpful Hints:
1) Lower School: Keep it fun and simple. By 4th grade, students can understand the mind-body connection, noticing their individual somatic stress symptoms to apply the tools they learned in previous grade levels to reduce stress.
2) Middle School: Creativity Rules! This age loves hands-on, experiential learning. Our Seventh Grade Overnight Wellness Retreat, in the mountains of Virginia, has been a huge success. Students start the day with chapel, then immerse themselves in nature with trail hikes, candlelit labyrinth walks, camp fires, and outdoor mindful group activities, all while totally unplugged from technology.
3) Upper School: Base mindfulness and stress reduction on scientific research and incorporate student feedback and representation. It needs to feel authentic for new wellness programming to be accepted by Upper School students.

Sidebar: Coping Strategies per Division
Early Lower School: “Beanie Baby Breaths” Place a favorite stuffed animal on your belly and take deep breaths. Watching the animal rise and fall refocuses the mind, and deep belly breaths activate the parasympathetic nervous system.
Later Lower School: Hand Model of “Flipping Your Lid” Students learn to understand the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.
Early Middle School: “Gratitude Diagrams” Drawing gratitude diagrams is an easy way to focus on the positive.
Later Middle School: Make “Breathing Beads” Create a short keychain-like lanyard, by stringing three beads onto leather string. Use these breath beads to inspire and guide three deep breaths when feeling stressed.
Early Upper School: Understanding the Science of Mindfulness. Students learn how to activate the parasympathetic nervous system through mindfulness and breathing exercises.
Later Upper School: Planning for college. Each student should be able to recognize their individual stress symptoms and coping strategies, know the signs of when additional help is needed, and understand how to access mental health services.

Twenge, M., Joiner, T., Rogers, M. and Martin, G. “Increases in Depressive Symptoms, Suicide-Related Outcomes, and Suicide Rates Among U.S. Adolescents After 2010 and Links to Increased New Media Screen Time.” Clinical Psychological Science (2017), 1-15.

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