CHS Sensory Room

Students, staff and community members tour the new sensory room at Cullman High School following a ribbon cutting in May at the campus.

As students struggle to deal with the loss of a parent or guardian, it’s often up to the teachers, staff and administrators at their schools to help them navigate through their grief. An estimated 175,000 children in the United States have lost a parent or guardian to COVID-19 putting them into a higher risk for dangerous behavior, mental health issues and dropping out of school, according to the National Institute for Health (NIH).

Cullman High School Principal Kim Hall said the Cullman City Schools were increasingly addressing mental, behavioral and social health of students prior to the pandemic, but COVID-19 “catapulted” those efforts forward.

“I think we’re getting much better about talking about it,” Hall said. 

She noted the work of the Stephen K. Griffith Memorial Fund to raise awareness of mental health and improve access to mental health services in Cullman County. “They’re really focused on eliminating the stigma about talking about mental health,” said Hall. “It’s a more open conversation.”

Neither Cullman City schools nor the Cullman County school system provided information on the number of students that have lost parents or guardians in the past year, but the Cullman City school district did address how they respond to help students dealing with grief and anxiety.

Dawn Nesmith, student services coordinator for Cullman City Schools, said the system takes a “whole child approach,” to providing services to students. The system added mental health specialists, including licensed child care workers, to work with not just students, but their parents or guardians as well. 

According to the NIH, children’s lives are permanently changed by the loss of a mother, father, or grandparent who provided their homes, basic needs, and care. Loss of a parent is among the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) linked to mental health problems; shorter schooling; lower self-esteem; sexual risk behaviors; and increased risk of substance abuse, suicide, violence, sexual abuse, and exploitation.

Susan Hill, lead author for the study published in “Pediatrics,” said, “All of us – especially our children – will feel the serious immediate and long-term impact of this problem for generations to come. Addressing the loss that these children have experienced – and continue to experience – must be one of our top priorities, and it must be woven into all aspects of our emergency response, both now and in the post-pandemic future.”

Nesmith said the school system provides immediate support for students who have experienced the loss of a loved one, but they also address the longer-term social and emotional health of students through counseling and support groups. “Grief isn’t just one day,” she said. “It can be up and down all in the same day.”

Students who are feeling overwhelmed by grief or anxiety can make use of the high school’s sensory lab, which features low-lights; projections on the wall; chunky, comfortable furniture; and different textured materials across the space. 

Sensory rooms have become a popular and creative concept in recent years, acting as a creative space with a variety of equipment that provides students with special needs, anxiety, and social/emotional challenges personalized sensory input. 

“You can be going through the day just fine and then get hit with overwhelming sadness,” said Nesmith. “If that happens, they have a place to deal with it in a safe place.”

Teachers and counselors also try to identify students who they believe may be ready to participate in student support groups. “That way they can be with other teenagers who have lost loved ones,” said Nesmith.

Everyone handles grief, loss and anxiety differently, and Hall said she’s talked to the students - and teachers and staff - about the fact that even those who have not lost a person in their immediate family have experienced loss and anxiety due to the pandemic. “Everybody’s lost something,” she said. “We try to focus on supporting each other.”

And that isn’t limited to the high school. Across the district, there is more focus on mental well-being. 

“It’s a whole new level of support,” said Hall. The district uses a Multi-tiered System of Support (MTSS) to proactively identify students with behavioral or academic needs. Teachers who believe a student needs help can refer them to the MTSS committee, which can recommend resources for students and their families.

Students can also “self-report” through an app that assesses the social and emotional state of an individual and provides activities to lessen anxiety. 

“It takes an assessment of how you’re feeling that day,” said Nesmith. “It’s like taking the temperature across the class or the faculty.” The app also provides the counselors with data and helps identify students who may be more at-risk.

“We’re excited about what we’re able to do to maintain social, emotional learning through that tool,” said Nesmith. “It gives us real data on kids.”

At Cullman Primary, students can indicate their emotional state through colors that correlate to how they’re feeling. Red, for example, is angry; blue is sad; and green is “all good.” 

Studies have shown the impact mental health has on educational outcomes and Nesmith said that’s the goal of the system’s mental health initiatives, to “take that social, emotional learning into positive academic outcomes.”

Amy Henderson can be reached at 256-734-2131 Ext. 216.

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