The Walker County school system is in the process of adding classrooms specifically designed to meet the mental health needs of students.
Early this year a trauma-informed classroom or "calm camp" was created at Sumiton Elementary School to serve as a place for children to leave the classroom, if necessary, and safely explore their emotions and learn strategies to properly manage their feelings.
The classroom at Sumiton Elementary was made possible through a partnership between the Walker Area Community Foundation and Youth Advocate Programs (YAP) in Jasper. Anthony Sellers, a behavioral interventionist with YAP, was assigned to work with students in the classroom and serve as a calming presence.
Fast forward nearly a year, and more calm camps are being created in Walker County schools to implement the Whole Child Initiative.
Walker County Schools Mental Health Director Misty Whisenhunt explains, "You're just trying to meet the needs of the whole child."
The Whole Child Initiative was conceptualized by professor Dr. Greg Benner of the University of Alabama and is designed to help students reach their "full potential," according to information on UA's website about the initiative.
"Through a comprehensive method for supporting students and teachers, streamlining existing programming, and establishing strong school-community partnerships, we redefine policies, practices, and relationships to ensure a positive, lasting impact on all youth within a community," as stated on the website.
Whisenhunt said, "He calls it 'whole child, whole school, whole community.' You first start at the district, which is the stage we're at right now, and we're just meeting as a district and trying to align some of the initiatives that we have — see what's working, what's not working."
In working toward the implementation of the Whole Child approach, calm camps have now been placed at Parrish Elementary, Oakman Elementary, Valley Jr. High and Cordova Elementary.
Whisenhunt said the goal is to have a calm camp in each K-4 school in Walker County — a total of eight classrooms.
Each calm camp has "zones of regulation" graphics displayed for students to recognize the emotions they're feeling.
"As soon as a student comes in the room, they do a quick check-in on what zone they're in and, based on what zone they're in, there are different strategies they can use," Whisenhunt said. "For example, if a kid is on red and angry or hyperactive, there's a trampoline in the room to get some energy out. That would be one strategy."
Each room also has a swing, calming music, activity blocks, and other items intended to occupy children while an adult is there to have a conversation with them and determine why the child may be experiencing a particular emotion, such as agitation or sadness.
Each new calm camp has been made possible through funding the school board received this year for coronavirus relief. Some of the funding could be designated for meeting mental health needs.
Whisenhunt said Sellers now travels to all schools in the county to work with students identified as needing additional mental health support, but as the Whole Child Initiative continues, school counselors and others can use the same strategies as Sellers — in the calm camp rooms — to help students.
The Whole Child approach isn't restricted to calm camp classrooms. Whisenhunt, Sellers and others have been working to encourage teachers to introduce the zones of regulation to their students, including those at the high school level, to understand how students are feeling.
Whisenhunt said one teacher sent her high school students a zones of regulation survey through Google Forms to ask what emotions they were experiencing. Some students did respond, and the teacher learned that many of her students felt like they "needed a break." So at the end of class one day, she took her students outside for 10 minutes to play a game.
"They laughed and had a good time," Whisenhunt said, adding that the teacher made a video where the students shared how they felt during the short break out of the classroom. "One girl got teary-eyed and said she had not laughed in a long time and that was so needed."
She added, "These little strategies, they're meant to help the teacher."
Teachers, administrators, and others continue to receive training on the Whole Child approach, and the school district is working toward becoming a trauma-informed school district, meaning school employees can recognize when a child is expressing emotions indicative of having experienced trauma.
Whisenhunt said she recently attended a meeting with other school mental health coordinators across the state, and some statistics were shared regarding the mental health of children and trauma. According to Whisenhunt, one in four children have had or will experience mental health issues — approximately 25 percent of students.
In addition, suicide is the second leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 18.
Whisenhunt said the mental health programs that have been implemented in Walker County Schools are working and that the Whole Child Initiative will hopefully be fully implemented in one year.
Walker County Schools Superintendent Dr. Joel Hagood said it became clear when the school system crafted a strategic plan last year that meeting the mental health needs of students is a top priority. Hagood said he is proud of how much the school system has been able to accomplish in meeting those needs in such a short period of time.
"The opioid issue is a reality, and we have to own it and understand what a lot of our kids are exposed to and the trauma they're exposed to," Hagood said, "whether it be physical, verbal, drug abuse, or a combination of all three."
Hagood said he is thankful for all of the community partnerships that have made the expansion of mental health services possible.
"It's a true community, collaborative effort. Putting these trauma-informed classrooms (calm camps) out in our schools was one of the steps involved in that process," Hagood said. "It's a great thing for those kids to be able to be removed from the classroom and be able to work with a certified child psychologist in Mr. Sellers."
He added, "It's huge in helping those students to self-regulate and to have an outlet. It helps a lot."