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Hermitage schools launch mental health initiative
The Herald - 9/24/2022
Sep. 24—HERMITAGE — The excited students gathered in the Ionta Elementary School gymnasium Thursday afternoon had the energy of a pep rally, as they eagerly answered questions and even helped wrap their homeroom teachers in colorful streamers.
But instead of cheering a sports team or singing songs, Principal Eric Trosch asked the students a series of questions, such as how mental health affects someone or what it feels like when someone thinks they don't belong.
Even the fun activity of wrapping up their teachers, aside from winning a pizza party for the fastest group, helped reinforce topics such as gratitude, empathy and perseverance.
The event, signified by the students' bright red "Character Strong" shirts and similarly-themed yellow shirts worn by teachers and administrators, served to kick off the Hermitage School District's "Character Strong" initiative, which aims to address gaps in social and emotional learning.
"It makes people feel safe to come to school," sixth-grader Page Tonti said of the program.
Trosch said the "Character Strong" program came about after the district's teachers were surveyed at the end of the 2021-22 school year.
The teachers reported that many of the students seemed to have difficulty adjusting after returning to in-class instruction after periods of remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Some of the kids that were coming to school seemed withdrawn, or they seemed depressed or acted out," Trosch said.
Although some students experienced issues even before COVID-19, school counselor Mary Mild, who serves Delahunty Middle School and Ionta Elementary School, said the pandemic worsened some students' issues while creating new problems for others.
This affected not only how the students performed in school, but how they interacted with each other.
"Students had a difficult time managing their emotions," Mild said. "They weren't thinking before saying or doing things, they were less engaged in their work, or they weren't making responsible decisions."
To address the issue of the students' social and emotional learning, district officials researched and vetted different curricula, ultimately settling on the "Character Strong" program.
While Thursday's event was geared toward fourth- through seventh-graders, Mild said "Character Strong" is a course for kindergarten through 12th grade that can be tailored to different age groups.
At Ionta, fourth- and fifth-graders have a "Character Strong" class twice a week, while the sixth- and seventh-graders at Delahunty have "Character Strong" once a week.
Compared to a traditional subject that involves periods of learning followed by tests, Mild said "Character Strong" emphasizes group discussions where students can share their opinions and personal experiences.
These discussions can cover different competencies such as self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making.
"A question we had in Ionta was, 'what was something different you could have done when having an issue with a friend?'" Mild said.
"And one kid said they just had an argument with a friend where they went away angry, and the kid said they could have told their friend something so they weren't sad."
Tonti and fellow sixth-grader Dylan Gardner both said they felt nervous coming back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic, and it took some getting used to being in regular classrooms again.
However, Tonti and Gardner said they enjoyed the "Character Strong" lessons so far, and looked forward to continuing the discussions and activities with their fellow classmates.
"It's something that can help everybody," Gardner said of the program.
Aside from the activities Thursday afternoon, there were also "Character Strong" decorations throughout the school and students had an opportunity to sign a "Character Strong" pledge.
Followup events are planned for later in the school year, and Trosch said that having such events, along with the "Character Strong" lessons each week, would help reinforce the program's message with students more effectively than a once-a-year event or speaker.
Mild added that it would benefit the students as they grew up with the program, and that "Character Strong"'s lessons would serve the students even after they've graduated high school.
"Academics are very important, but knowing how to talk to people and build relationships — these are skills that get people hired," Mild said.
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