His grades are dropping.

His seat’s often empty.

He got in a fight.

So he ends up in Payson School Vice Principal Yvette Harpe’s office.

“I do this with kids who are in trouble: I check grades, attendance, when I’m dealing with discipline. I’ll say, ‘look, what’s going on? Your first semester grades were good — and they’ve dropped,’” said the education veteran.

Usually, there’s definitely something going on — especially after two years of pandemic pandemonium, stress and change.

“There’s a lot of home stress. Parents are busy. Separation. Divorce. A death. Death of a grandparent. A lot of grief. Sometimes friends have moved away. Parents going to jail,” said Harpe.

“We’re talking about a small percentage of our population, but these things have a big effect,” added Julia Randall Elementary School Principal Kim Yates during a recent session with top administrators and counselors talking about the district’s ramped up effort to deal with social and emotional learning that can spell the difference between success and failure for many students.

But even kids who don’t have to cope with major traumas at home — face a barrage of social media trauma and changes that make it hard to give their full attention to reading, writing and arithmetic.

And that’s why Superintendent Linda Gibson has made a multi-pronged attempt to help kids master the social and emotional skills they need to succeed — not just in school, but in life. This includes the districtwide AVID program, the tenants of Capturing Kids’ Hearts, new student support groups, and intervention teachers at each campus specializing in social and emotional needs.

One national meta-analysis of 213 school-based studies involving 270,000 students found big benefits in the kind of Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) curriculum Payson has embraced. The programs boosted student test scores by 11% while also improving students’ emotional skills, attitudes and behavior, according to a report on the findings in the journal Child Development. The studies generally didn’t include enough follow up data to estimate how long those benefits persisted.

Nationally, students faced an array of challenges, even before the upheavals of the pandemic. One national, pre-pandemic survey of 148,000 students in grades 6-12 found less than half showed social competencies in empathy, decision-making and conflict resolution. Only 29% said they considered school a caring, encouraging environment. About half became chronically disengaged from school. About 30% engaged in multiple, risky behavior — including substance abuse, sex, violence, depression and attempted suicide.

The district’s new support groups, staff training and integrated curriculum aim to develop five core competencies, including:

Self-awareness: Understanding your own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they drive your behavior.

Self-management: Manage your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively to achieve your goals.

Responsible Decision-Making: How to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions depending on the situation.

Relationship Skills: Learn to maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to cope with diverse individuals and groups.

Social Awareness: Learn to understand others and empathize with people of diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Kids today need such skills more than ever, say educators, given the challenges of the world they’re growing up in.

Harpe — an educator for 28 years — said, “kids have such different experiences compared to when I started. There were no cell phones. Not so many life distractions. No social media. Now you’ve got fifth graders worrying about their cell phone — is someone going to put a picture of them up somewhere? If you don’t have kids in the system now, you don’t know what they’re dealing with. If adults are going through something — then the kids are going through it too.”

Gibson added, “when they look at social media — they see this person has a million likes. She looks so beautiful. Students say, ‘I deleted it. That was making me feel less-than others.’ They are so self-conscious. They say, ‘only three people liked my picture — that means I don’t have any friends.’ There’s just all these bizarre things kids are getting hold of.”

That has spurred the district to seek creative, consistent, engaging ways to provide students with those social and emotional tools they need to cope.

One of the most recent innovations comes in the form of student support groups, which all require parental permission. The district has invested some of its pandemic relief money in training teachers, counselors and other staff in the techniques needed to lead such groups. The intensive training lasts three days.

The groups offer a safe and nurturing place for students to talk about problems they’re facing. The groups meet once a week for 25 minutes in the lower grades and 38 minutes in the upper grades. Each group has no more than 10 students — and remains confidential. Students pick the group that interests them. Sometimes it’s fraught — like grief, divorce, bullying, anger management or social skills. Sometimes it’s enriching — like dance. Some tackle whatever topic comes up. Students don’t have to stick with the six-week session — but can shift to a different class.

The longer school day stemming from the shift to a four-day school week has made it possible to work in extra sessions for enrichment, tutoring, re-learning and now the support groups.

Lori Standifird, an intervention specialist with a long career in the classroom, said, “I’ve had quite a few kids go home and take the lesson and do it with their family. I’ve had parents come back and say, ‘Bobby walked us through — this is awesome.”

The program has grown, thanks to word of mouth among the students and a steady increase in staff trained to conduct the sessions.

“Last year, it was ‘how do we fill this seat?’ This year it’s ‘how do we find enough slots?’” said Harpe.

Yates said the sessions have built strong relationships between the staff members who conduct the sessions and the students. “The next day when they see Lori in the hall, they run to her. That’s a common thing to see. They run to her.”

Standifird said just the three-day training proved life-changing for her. The training sessions help the moderators experience what students might go through in the sessions. “It’s liberating. Very liberating. It’s intense. For me, it was absolutely life-changing.”

Harpe said, “We see many struggles. Several students have lost a parent. The dynamics of the household have changed. So they’re finding themselves. In the group, they realize they’re not the only one. Life feels confusing when you’re struggling with these things. They support each other through an understanding they’re not alone.”

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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