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How Hall Schools plans to make minds not just smarter, but healthier
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Bethany Nix and Abby Hawkins, right, hand out school materials Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, to Mount Vernon Elementary students and parents who are attending virtual school. School begins on Monday for Hall County Schools. - photo by Scott Rogers

When Hall County schools' students return to classrooms on Monday, employees will have a significantly better handle on how to deal with mental health concerns than ever before.

Hall County teachers received an extra week of pre-planning this year, and the district chose to use part of that time to roll out a mental health awareness training program three years in the making. Around 3,000 Hall schools employees sat in on a presentation — developed internally by a team of district employees — giving them insight on what to look for regarding student mental health and how to deal with any mental health issues that may arise.

“What it was is just a kind of review, if you will, having to do with what is normal adolescent development,” Superintendent Will Schofield said. “What is typical? What is atypical? What are the signs that we ought to be looking for as educators that may signal that one of our youngsters is needing some additional support? The entire training is underpinned with a reality of our relationships with each other and with kids, and we spent a lot of time talking about the importance of healthy relationships.”

Work on the presentation began three years ago with a pilot program at Lanier College & Career Academy, according to Schofield. He said it started by simply talking to students in “conversation circles” and asking them about the traumas they experienced in early childhood.

Then, it moved to discussions with LCCA teachers about what they were seeing among their students and how they were handling any mental health problems.

“They knew what was going on with their kids,” Schofield said. “But a lot of the teachers would say I’m not quite sure what to do with it. I’m a science teacher. I’m a math teacher. I’m not a therapist. And so with that in mind, what we’ve come up with is really a training.”

The presentation was developed through consultation and research from many different sources in the community — including the Georgia Department of Education — according to Tamara Etterling, director of student services for Hall County schools and a member of the team that put the training together. Etterling said it includes four components.

The first component is an emphasis on building relationships with students, which Etterling said is “the No. 1 thing we ask of all our employees.” Educators with stronger relationships with students will better be able to spot the signs of mental illness, Etterling said. The second part of the training is understanding what mental illness is. Etterling said that portion of the presentation is about doing away with some of the stigma surrounding mental health issues, as well as learning what behaviors are normal and abnormal for adolescents.

Next comes a lesson on trauma, and the effect it can have on students’ brains and mental wellbeing. During this portion, Etterling said the goal is to learn how to identify and interact positively with students who have experienced traumatic events. Finally, the last part of the training focuses on resiliency, how to help students grow resilient to mental health issues and how to create a nurturing environment within schools.

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Hall County Superintendent Will Schofield leads a presentation on mental health awareness. Photo Courtesy Tamara Etterling

Etterling said the training was developed through consultation and research from many different sources in the community, including the Georgia Department of Education

“We wanted to look at what has happened to students, not what’s wrong with them,” Etterling said. “Understanding that helps us build even stronger relationships with kids.”

The presentation was administered to more than 3,000 Hall County school employees over the first couple weeks of August, and many of them found the mental health awareness training to be extremely helpful.

Angel Rodriguez, principal of Lyman Hall Elementary, said the training made such a strong impact on him that he attended it twice.

“It’s like a really good movie,” he said. “Why not go twice?”

Rodriguez said he’s seen the effect early childhood trauma can have on kids through both his time as an educator and the nearly 10 years he spent as a foster parent, and he was blown away by the initiative the school district has taken in teaching its employees how to spot and help students dealing with mental health problems.

He said mental health issues “exist in every school,” adding that he believes rates of stress and anxiety will be at an all-time high as students return to the class room amid the many concerns that come along with a global pandemic.

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Lyman Hall Elementary Principal Angel Rodriguez - photo by Scott Rogers

“With what’s going on, with the pandemic we’re dealing with, it’s a cumulative effect,” he said. “Whereas kids might have been holding it together more, this is going to cause a lot of individuals to fray at the edges.”

Morgan Whyte, a third-grade teacher at Chestnut Mountain Creative School of Inquiry, was also impressed with the presentation.

Although she has only been teaching for seven years, Whyte said she’s noticed the prevalence of mental health concerns among her students rising since she started her career. She was pleased to receive the training in how to better deal with issues that may arise among her students.

“It just can break our heart and wear us down when we see them going through this stuff,” she said. “But I feel like this really reinforced how Hall County really does look at the whole child. It’s not just test scores. It’s not just are we teaching the standards. Our first priority is do these kids feel safe? Do they feel loved? Do they have what they need?”

Both Whyte and Rodriguez mentioned how impressed they were regarding Schofield’s involvement in the project, speaking on how it sent the right message to educators and reflected well on Hall County Schools’ leadership.

“My heart was singing,” Rodriguez said. “Just because at this time, this is what we needed to hear.”

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