The Washougal School District (WSD) has become the first school district in Washington state to partner with the University of Oregon Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health, which provides educators with skills and resources to improve their students’ mental well-being.
“We are really excited about this partnership,” WSD Assistant Superintendent Aaron Hansen said during a Washougal School Board meeting held May 9. “I think that it’s important for us to continue to provide the resources and the structure and the learning about how best to support our students.”
Two WSD educators — Hathaway Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Sara Elmore and Columbia River Gorge Elementary School dean of students Erin Darling — are attending courses at the Portland-based institute thanks to scholarship funding from the Camas-Washougal Rotary.
“Courses this year have focused on teaching self-regulation to children, using trauma-informed support in the classroom, and developing and maintaining healthy relationships,” Les Brown, the WSD’s director of communications and technology, told the Post-Record. “These evidence-based interventions promote well-being in youth and prevent mental health problems from developing and worsening in our students.”
The University of Oregon announced the establishment of The Ballmer Institute for Children’s Behavioral Health in March 2022. The institute, made possible by a lead gift of more than $425 million from Connie and Steve Ballmer, co-founders of Ballmer Group Philanthropy, “establishes a new national model for the promotion of children’s and adolescent’s behavioral health and well-being by uniting the UO’s top-ranked teaching, research, and outreach programs, Oregon public schools and families, and community support groups in the creation and delivery of behavioral health promotion, prevention, and intervention programs that can be part of the daily lives of K-12 students,” according to the university’s website.
“I am grateful for the experience the Ballmer Institute and the University of Oregon have given me this year,” Elmore said. “I have expanded my teaching practices and look forward to continuing to see positive results with students in the classroom this year and for years to come.”
The coursework “builds skills in responding to mental health needs in youth, and provides tools that teachers can use in the classroom to create a structure where students thrive,” according to Brown.
“What I have been learning through the Ballmer Institute gives me hope for change,” Darling said. “The Ballmer Institute provides educators with a new skill set for current-day students and families. More specifically, it has taught me about recognizing the ‘why’ behind student behaviors and emotions. I work successfully with an educational team to create a plan for change when a student is struggling. I’ve learned strategies for forming trusting relationships with students who have a difficult time trusting others, how to fully listen and understand a student’s needs, and how to stop students from being re-traumatized, along with an endless list of critical skills for supporting students.”
The new strategies fit into the WSD’s multi-tiered system of support, a “team-driven” approach to providing a continuum of support for students, families and school staff, according to Brown.
“With all that children are facing these days, I was excited to learn about the latest best practices and newest research methods to help students experiencing trauma, adverse childhood experiences, and navigating home and school environments,” Elmore said.
“The favorite topic I have learned about is brain development in children. I specifically have been working on building my students’ executive functioning through the use of play and games in the classroom. The students really enjoy learning about building their executive functioning and actually seeing positive results before their very eyes. … By building brain capacity and elasticity through non-academic games, students are reaping the positive benefits of sportsmanship, compassion, positive self-esteem and increased academic ability.”
The Ballmer Institute also teaches its students about mental health literacy, Darling said.
“It is imperative that educational institutions recognize the numbers of neurodiverse students and the need for supporting teachers and students,” she added. “Children and adolescents thrive on consistency and understanding, both of which take time, patience and a lot of commitment on the educators’ part. Sometimes the mixture of what students need behaviorally and emotionally exceeds the amount of time a classroom teacher is able to provide to fully support students. The Ballmer Institute gives teachers the skills to manage tough relationships and is an invaluable resource.”
WSD officials hope to expand the district’s participation to include another six teachers and build a “train-the-trainer” model that creates capacity for all teachers to use the practices, according to Brown.
“Even with a full plate of long, stress-filled hours as dean and a fully-packed schedule outside of school, I knew the opportunity to attend a graduate program focused on children’s behavioral health would give me more of the tools I need to make a positive impact on students today,” Darling said. “Educators are lifelong learners who recognize when adjustments need to be made and how to best make them. In the three years I have been dean of students in Washougal, I have seen teachers running out of tools and support. Interventions that once worked are not enough to manage student behaviors impeding on classroom teaching and learning.”