Like many children in cities around the world, the children of Paw Paw, Michigan, a small town in southwest Michigan have been going through difficult times in recent years. They are surviving in the midst of a continuing pandemic that disrupts school activities, leaves their friends sick and their families lose their jobs or homes.
School staff saw rising levels of anxiety, conversations about despair and thoughts of self-harm, even among elementary school students.
Eric Clark, a behavioral therapy coach, appears to be practicing breathing and mindfulness methods for fifth graders at Paw-Paw Elementary School.
Eric Clark says, “You know, kids are very anxious because they don’t know what’s going on at home, what’s going on at school. I see kids thinking about hurting themselves. They feel so overwhelmed. They don’t want to do anything else.”
In addition to the pandemic, there has also been pressure from everything from social media to a school shooting in Oxford, Michigan, some 289 kilometers east of Paw Paw, some time ago. A few days after the shooting tragedy, Paw Paw Middle School students put into practice a self-rescue plan in the event of a fire or shooting.
But thanks to an infusion of funds from the state government and the belief of local school officials that children will not do well academically if their emotions are disturbed, every student at a school in the city of Paw Paw gets assistance in the form of an in-school program.
In a school year that is not yet running normally, the school district launched an educational program based on the main component of modern psychoanalysis, cognitive behavioral therapy.
The principles of the method are incorporated into the curriculum and become part of social and psychological learning. Part of the curriculum is provided by the University of Michigan’s “Trails” program.
Students at every grade level are taught how thoughts, feelings and behavior are interrelated and how to control and make thoughts more positive.
Stellar, a 5th grader said, “Feelings are very important, and I think people should know that. So they don’t do things because of their feelings, which get them into trouble or hurt other people.”
The program includes more intensive group lessons for children struggling with anxiety, depression or trauma, including training in suicide prevention.
Nearly half of American teens say the pandemic is making it difficult for them to feel happy and maintain their mental health, according to polls conducted by AP-NORC and MTV.
Corey Harbaugh, director of school curriculum in the city of Paw Paw, said the school district was ready to provide social-psychological lessons for students. The curriculum received even greater priority after the pandemic. School bus drivers and workers in the school cafeteria have been given such training. [lj/uh]