As our US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy noted, we are in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, which the covid pandemic just made much worse. Pre-Covid-19, we saw rising rates of depression, anxiety, helplessness and thoughts of suicide amongst our youth and teens nationally as well as within our community, with 4 in 10 Lehigh Valley students reporting feeling depressed most days in the past year back in 2019. With the loss of routine, predictability, socialization, and opportunities to learn new skills – as well as fears and anxieties with their family’s health, safety, and financial security – caused by this two-year pandemic, this youth mental health crisis has worsened.
The Allentown School District, like many other large urban and underfunded school districts, closed down in March 2020 when Covid first hit, and then remained virtual only through Spring of 2021. Students were left to learn at home for close to a year, missing opportunities to socialize with other students, the relationship with a supportive teacher, and often in unsafe neighborhoods and homes where parents were struggling with food and housing security. Washington Elementary School teacher, Mrs. Jessica Connell, like many of her peers, was really worried about the social-emotional-mental health of her students. With the great shift toward online learning caused by this pandemic, Allentown School District provided all students with computers to attend classes from home, which inspired Mrs. Connell to wonder about ways to use digital technology to check in on her students’ social and emotional wellbeing and connect them with the supports they might need.
Mrs. Connell learned of a new SEL (social-emotional learning) application called WellCheq through a connection at Lehigh University, Jodie Miller. Although at the time, the app was only in its startup stages, Mrs. Connell was excited to try it out for herself. “When she [Jodie] introduced it, I thought it was fantastic–a great way for our kids to be tech-savvy. You know they all love those things now,” said Mrs. Connell. WellCheq is a daily check-in tool that tracks and collects data on a student’s emotional state. It’s a tool that helps teachers to understand their students better and provide them with the necessary support if needed.
For two years, Mrs. Connell piloted the app in her own classroom and then introduced it to the school’s administration. In 2021, the school’s administration approved WellCheq for use schoolwide.
Each morning, students are asked to identify their present emotions by selecting one or more feelings listed on the app and to rate their overall well-being on a scale of one through ten. Students can ask for more immediate help through the app’s “Cheq On Me” feature, which notifies their teacher and school counselor to get them the help they need.
In addition to the app, Washington provided students, teachers, and staff with additional resources to help them understand the effects of trauma and how they can work with students to improve their mental and emotional wellbeing. Staff was provided with trauma-informed care and adversity training through the Institute of Restorative Practices funded by United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley and with online school modules developed by Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21. Throughout their training, they learned to understand and identify trauma and how it affects a child’s brain and influences their behavior in the classroom. Resilient Lehigh Valley supplied Washington with- student emotional regulation kits to help them to cope with anxiety, stress or other “big” emotions they might be experiencing in the classroom. These kits included fidget and sensory stimulation toys, and coloring books and colored pencils, among other items that can also help them manage their emotions outside of the classroom.
Students can see one of Washington’s school-based behavioral health counselors through Lehigh Valley Health Network (funded through Medical Assistance)) or Pinebrook Family Answers (funded by the United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley) who are available to support students’ mental and behavioral health concerns when needed.
Washington Elementary has gone above and beyond to help promote student social and emotional wellness. Through the use of the WellCheq app alone, Mrs. Connell noticed a change in student-teacher awareness and relationship building.
I just think it’s a really great way to strengthen teacher and student relationships, and also to give them a voice where they might not be able to come up and just articulate and say, ‘Hey, I’m really frustrated this morning. I got into a really big fight with my mom this morning, and I’m really sad about it.” It’s allowing them to say how they’re feeling instead of just jumping straight into academics. You’re able to get a feel and pulse for your classroom and what’s going on, how they’re feeling, how their day is going, how did their day start,” said Mrs. Connell.
With the app’s great success at Washington Elementary School, they plan to continue to use WellCheq in the upcoming school year. Research shows that when students feel supported by their teachers, and when social-emotional learning and healthy coping skills are taught in school, students perform better academically, they feel more positive about school, empathy, and kindness amongst students increases, and stress and depression decreases.