Camas schools prioritize wellness

Wellness strategy supports students, teachers, parents

If You Go:

What: Student Wellness Series for parents of local students

When: Teens and anxiety talk is from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Wednesday, March 7; electronics and the teen brain discussion is from 6:30 to 8 p.m., Monday, March 26

Where: March 7 at Camas High School; March 24 at Hayes Freedom High School

Hayes Freedom High School students from left to right, Darian Holmes, junior; Emma Carroll, sophomore; and Katie McNeil, sophomore, take one minute to do nothing but breathe at the start of their class led by teacher Monica Winkley.

Monica Winkley keeps zen gardens in her classroom at Hayes Freedom High School. The students in her world history and mindfulness classes have made their own mini zen gardens.

Monica Winkley, social studies and mindfulness teacher at Hayes Freedom High School, often starts her class by asking students, “What are you present to? What are you bringing into the room?”

By asking this question, Winkley said she is doing a formal check-in with her students to understand where their minds may be, while also giving the student a way to hear themselves and be acknowledged by others.

A part of the classroom routine for these high school students also includes taking a minute to just breathe.

Winkely said she started to incorporate this breathing technique to set aside just one minute for students and herself to not have any other expectations other than just breathing as deeply and completely as possible.

While these actions are small, they play a role into a larger idea called the Camas Wellness Strategy.

Camas School District assistant superintendents Dr. Charlene Williams and Lisa Greseth, along with Jennifer McMillan, the district’s social-emotional liaison, recently gave a presentation on the strategy and said the district can and must support each student on a path to a hopeful future by building a system of learning and supports for students, families and staff.

“When a child is well socially and emotionally, they feel connected, valued and they have the agency and skills to navigate school and social relationships,” Williams said. “We’re able to look beyond their academic performance and know that they’re going to be OK as people and are on a good path to be good adults and have healthy relationships and a healthy perspective of self.”

McMillan added that it also means students will have the skills to weather the ups and downs of life, and see that they are able to manage.

“Because they have hope, they see their place in the world and they have hope for what their present and their future looks like,” Greseth said.

In the classroom, the strategy may come to life through these small exercises, but also through teachers building a safe environment for students.

“There’s relationship-building that has to happen and that’s the groundwork for all teaching,” Winkley explained. “Students who feel safe — with a way you designed a room or a set of experiences that make them feel safe — will participate, and kids who generally don’t feel safe anywhere won’t yet.”

McMillan, who began in her role as the the first social-emotional liaison for the district at the start of this school year, said teachers in the district have ongoing training about adverse childhood experiences, also known as ACEs.

According to the U.S. Department of Health, an ACE describes a traumatic experience in a person’s life that occurred before the age of 18, which the person remembers as an adult.

These experiences might include a childhood spent in poverty, abuse, parents who divorced or substance abuse in the family, and they have the ability to change how a students brain responds, McMillan explained. With training, teachers are more likely to recognize that a child may not be misbehaving, but displaying a completely logical response within the context that the student is living.

When Winkley first heard about ACEs through a podcast, it immediately caught her attention as a teacher and she has since done reading and research on the topic herself.

“There’s a lot of trauma that cuts across socio-economic groups,” she said. “What demographic you’re in does not insulate you from a variety of economic experiences.”

The idea of ACEs is based around something real and relevant, Winkley said.

To build up students based on their own personal set of ACEs you have to do more than just tell students to be proud of themselves, Winkley said. Instead, teachers need to give specific compliments with details.

“This practice allows teachers to build relationships with students, but it also allows teachers to recognize if students are experiencing a situation outside of school work that hasn’t been resolved yet,” Winkley said. “If a student is not getting their basic needs met then trying to teach them about MLA format or other lessons is a waste of time.”

In this case, Winkley said she triangulates resources to help students’ individual situations.

“Having food in the room, having cough drops in a bowl, having stuff out and available that you don’t have to ask or feel like you’re a burden, there’s just all of these materials to support your learning,” Winkley said.

In Winkley’s classroom, many of her practices aim to give students choice, build resilience and have the opportunity to be seen and heard.

In a K-12 system, it’s important to give students a preview of where assignments and lessons are going, Winkley said. Rather than allowing students to opt out of assignments, these previews allow students to recognize that an assignment, such as reading a certain book, may be a different experience for everyone.

“We aren’t educating anyone if we go with that, ‘Oh, you’ve had some hard things so you don’t have to do this work or earn credits.'”

For example, Winkley’s class reads the book, A long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, in which the author, Ishmael Beah writes about his experiences as a child soldier.

Winkley has had students who found the book challenging to read, but said she also has had former students contact her after graduation to tell her that they were glad they read it, because although it was tough, they eventually realized that the story was about hope and resilience.

“As students read these types of books, it may give them the opportunity to build resilience,” Winkley explained, adding that she also allows them to make their own choices as a way to help build confidence.

“If your choices in the past weren’t respected or honored, then it’s pretty easy to become convinced that it doesn’t matter,” Winkley said. “It sounds so simple, but it helps build the ethicacy that you exist in the world and that your voice matters, and that whatever choice you make is great and it’s the right one for you.”

One of the district’s goals within the strategy is to increase students’ internal assets, McMillan said.

“An asset is like a core characteristic, something that you have inside of you that helps you be your best self,” McMillan said. “Those characteristics that we know about ourselves like persistence, resilience and curiousity, all those things are assets.”

Adults who work with children, McMillan added, are tasked with helping those students develop these assets.

“We get the privilege of informing that narrative all the time as teachers, counselors and people who work with kids,” McMillan said. “We get to throw a bucket of fire on those positive ideas that they have about themselves.”

The Camas Wellness Strategy emerged last spring from a collection of activities that were already happening across the system, Williams said.

“We had principals who teamed up with members of the city and they formed ‘Camas Cares’ a while ago. And then we lost a student in the spring, and every time an incident or a tragedy happens we revisit what we are doing and what more can we do.”

Greseth, McMillan and Williams meet with each other periodically as well as with staff throughout the district to discuss and develop ways to better strengthen a students social-emotional wellbeing.

“We’re just trying to get our arms around what the best ways to serve and support students are and not just in a reactive way, but a proactive way,” Williams said.

The Camas Education Foundation raises money from the community in order to be able to support mini and major grants and this year the fundraising is focused on the Camas Wellness Strategy, Greseth said.

The funding for the strategy will help in the development and sustainability of programs for students, staff and families in the Camas School District.

Wellness for students

A portion of the grant from the Camas Education Foundation will be dedicated to mentor programs, Greseth said.

Expected to begin next school year, students making the transition from elementary school to middle school will be paired with an older student mentor.

“We want kids to know what it feels like to be in a valued position,” McMillan said. “To be somebody who is able to give up themselves in a way that is really needed and necessary for somebody else, and as a mentee, you get to hangout with someone who’s older.”

At a younger level, the elementary school students participate in community circles where students are able to explain and articulate the way they are feeling to teachers and classmates.

“It helps us get more intentional about how we connect with students on a social and emotional level,” Williams said.

These conversations are ways for students to indicate their needs to adults.

“We don’t want to react,” Greseth said. “We want to think forward about providing experiences and then being ready to respond when more needs appear.”

The guiding principles for the wellness strategy are professional learning, school-family-community partnerships and cultural responsiveness.

“When parents get calls from the school, it’s most likely when something is wrong, and so there was an intentional shift by teachers this year to send positive messages to families,” Williams said. “(We’re) reaching out and being proactive and letting them know that I see you. Because that plants that seed and layers on that desire of wellness, and it also lays down the path to have stronger conversations if need be and hopefully more productive conversations.”

Wellness for parents

McMillan said the Camas Wellness Strategy has allowed her to listen to teachers and parents, lead staff trainings and workshops specifically for parents, which evolved into a parenting series.

The idea for the Student Wellness Series is to give parents a chance to listen to speakers talk about topics that resonate with them.

In the fall, parents with students in all grade levels were invited to a showing of Screenagers, a movie about teenagers and technology.

The series will continue on Wednesday, March 7 with a talk by Kevin Ashworth, renowned teen anxiety clinician and author, on the topic “Understanding Teen Anxiety,” from 6:30 to 8 p.m. in the Camas High School North Commons.

Also in March, Yshai Boussi, from the Portland Therapy Center, will talk about how electronics are affecting student brains, on Monday, March 26, from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at Hayes Freedom High School.

The speakers are funded through the Camas Educational Foundation grant that supports the programs in the Student Wellness Program within the district.

Wellness for teachers

While teachers like Winkley often take part in trainings outside of the district, they are able to share their knowledge through professional development trainings within the district in a program titled PD@CSD.

Through PD@CSD, teachers are able to share their knowledge with other teachers in the district through after-school class sessions.

Winkley said that PD@CSD is convenient for teachers because it’s free and near their workplaces. District educators and staff teach the classes, and Winkley has led a class of 25 teachers in a course called, “Trauma-informed practices: taking care of students and ourselves.”

McMillan said the district has provided trainings to teachers and staff at every grade level to learn about brain health and encouraging people to pay attention to themselves and being aware of their own stress indicators.

Greseth, McMillan and Williams all work together and with the counselors, principals, teachers, parents and health practitioners throughout the district to collaborate on strategies to improve support for both staff and students.