Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), Bullying Prevention, Mental Health, Suicide Prevention, Trauma-Informed Teaching 03.03.2021

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How El Dorado Schools Are Addressing Student Mental Health

Holly Billings MSW, LCSW, is Behavior Support Specialist and Mental Health Coordinator for El Dorado School District in Arkansas. Holly shared with us how the district has reached both staff and students with critical mental health training, and adapted with the pandemic.

Holly Billings

Tell us more about your district and the mental health climate in El Dorado.

The El Dorado School District has 4,192 students enrolled. We have approximately 360 teachers and administrators. We have 3 elementary schools housing kindergarten through 4th grade, a middle school housing 5th and 6th grade, a junior high with 7th and 8th grade, and a high school completes our district with 9th through 12th-grade students. There is an average class size of 18 students per class.

The demographic make-up is composed of roughly 48% African American, 37% Caucasian, and 10% Hispanic/Latino students. Approximately 64% of our students live in low-income households. El Dorado has a long history of generational poverty, culminating with a tremendous loss of jobs during the past 25 years. Major industrial downsizing and plant closures forced many laborers out of work. Multi-generational households are common. These issues have led to ongoing mental health challenges throughout the community at large.

The district is unique in that the Murphy Oil Company created an endowment that provides college scholarships for every student who graduates from El Dorado High School. This started in 2007 and has provided millions of dollars in scholarship funds. Numerous Advanced Placement classes are offered in High School providing college readiness. College discussion begins in Kindergarten and is reinforced throughout a student’s academic career in El Dorado.

The school district is a strong presence in the community. Because of this, the district has strong community support from a variety of local businesses and organizations. This allows for resources to be available to meet students’ needs holistically.

How did you hear about Kognito simulations? Why did you decide they were a fit for your district?

I attended the State of Arkansas School-Based Mental Health Coordinators meeting. At this meeting we watched a demonstration of Kognito. At that time, I thought it would be a great fit for our district. I thought the technology was highly user-friendly but edgy enough to engage the students. I also thought it would be a good way to reach a large number of students and staff in a relatively short amount of time.

The simulations give staff an opportunity to practice what they would say to a struggling student. This is helpful so that they feel confident and prepared when a student confides in them. Kognito is evidence-based. As a clinician, I found this important. I wanted a training that had data to support its process.

How did you decide to roll out At-Risk to the district?

Initially our district planned to roll out Friend2Friend to students taking health classes. This topic fit easily into some of the ongoing health curriculum. We planned to assign the At-Risk scenarios to staff as part of ongoing professional development. The plan was to have implementation start following spring break.

How did your district adapt in response to COVID-19? What did this mean for your Kognito implementation plan?

Obviously, when the pandemic struck our nation, we had to rethink our implementation issues. We returned to in-person classes in late August 2020. We have consistently had around 80% of our students choosing on-campus classes versus 20% choosing virtual classes.

I met with administrators of both the junior high and high school. We discussed how to effectively implement Kognito to the largest amount of students and staff. It was decided that the At-Risk scenarios for staff would be assigned as professional development.

The At-Risk scenarios can be completed in about an hour. This is a short amount of time to gain a lot of knowledge. Each school administrator assigned a champion to spread the word and spearhead the project for their respective schools. I worked directly with the champions to provide them with the tools and resources within Kognito. Utilizing the resources within the program was easy and seamless. It is great to be able to personalize this information and get it out quickly to the staff.

The Friend2Friend rollout shifted from the original plan in order to reach more students. Both the junior high and the high school added a lunch shift to accommodate for social distancing. This created an extra 30 minutes during 5th period that is used as a flex-time for teachers and students.

Teachers were given instructions for how to present Kognito to the students. They then spent three days total with the students. Day one was spent explaining Kognito and why it was important. On day two the students completed the scenarios. Day three was spent processing the scenarios and completing any that were not completed on day two. This method allowed for a larger amount of students to participate.

What reactions have you heard from your teachers, staff, and students?

I have received positive feedback from staff. An administrator told me that he thought he knew how to respond in a challenging situation, however, after working through the scenarios, he learned some better ways to respond.

Another teacher reported that it was helpful to be able to practice the responses without having a live student in crisis. She explained that this helped her to feel more confident about what to say and knowing about resources for the students. Another teacher stated that she wished she had known these techniques sooner. The feedback Kognito provided reports that over 98% of participants rated the simulations positively.

What’s ahead for training in El Dorado schools?

The El Dorado School District places a priority on educating the whole student. We will continue to provide professional development relating to mental health and social-emotional learning to our staff and students. These topics are woven into the curriculum. The school counselors are seeking ongoing training to equip them to provide for the needs of the students in their respective schools. The school counselors also are providing timely classroom lessons relating to overall student wellness, including topics of mental and emotional health, bullying, anger management, conflict resolution, and relationship skills.

I would encourage other districts to make mental wellness a priority. In this time of uncertainty, focusing on the holistic needs of students and staff proves to be good for everyone.

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