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Connecting to Overcome Challenges

Connecting to Overcome Challenges

The students at Sandpoint High School are speaking, and the administration is listening. For the past 12 years, the school has facilitated a mentoring program to assist incoming freshmen with the transition to high school. Upperclassmen mentors meet regularly with freshmen throughout the first semester. But Sandpoint High School teacher, Erin Roos, said there has been consistent feedback from students that they want to continue meeting with all classes throughout the four years of school, not just the first semester of freshman year.

“With technology, we feel more connected than ever, but I am witnessing that we are more disconnected than ever,” said Roos. “Our students are starving for time to physically connect, talk face to face and listen without distractions. When this real connection can occur, it is meaningful and nourishing for everyone involved, especially our students.”

She cites that problems during the challenging teenage years become easier to solve when students feel they have peers and adults who notice and support them.

“Good things happen when students feel like they belong to a school and actually get to know each other, their teachers, counselors and administrators,” said Roos.

There is little doubt that the teenage years can be difficult. Tragically, there have been some Sandpoint High School students who have resorted to suicide over the last few years.

“For me, the suicides just reinforced the need to focus on educating the whole child; socially, emotionally and academically. The administration understands that a student will learn more and find more success if they feel safe, supported and have positive relationships,” said Roos.

One response by the staff at Sandpoint High School was to apply for a Sources of Strength grant. SOS is a best practice youth suicide prevention project designed to harness the power of peer social networks to change unhealthy norms and culture, ultimately preventing suicide, bullying and substance abuse.

“I received information about the Sources of Strength program several years ago from The Idaho Lives Project,” said Sandpoint High School counselor Cindy Albertson. “Becky Meyer was principal at the time, and we both wanted SHS to have this in place. Priest River had already implemented the program, so I was in contact with their counselor to find out what it entailed. I began the process of figuring out all the logistics and working with our new principal, Tom Albertson. He was totally on board with SOS being a part of our school.”

Albertson then submitted the grant proposal, and they were accepted last spring. “It was important to us to include SOS within our already developed program rather than adding something extra. We figured out how to incorporate it in what we were already doing, as well as expand it so all students would learn the strategies and could help each other,” said Albertson.

According to Roos, one of the requirements of the grant was to complete a training of peer leaders and adult mentors before the school year ended last spring. “We had another refresher training this fall with our 2016-17 mentors,” she said.

This year, the school also introduced a class titled Connections, where one student mentor, a junior or senior, leads a 30-minute “connection.”

“The idea of Connections classes were not part of the grant, but we have chosen to use the Connections classes to introduce the SOS wheel-resiliency tools,” explained Roos. “Next year, the SOS wheel won’t be the topic of each connection, but we will still use it periodically to keep the language relevant.”

During the Connections class, the students have engaged in a variety of icebreakers and introduced and led discussions on the sources of strength-resiliency tools.

“Connections are intentional opportunities for students to get to know each other and a teacher better,” said Roos. “In addition to connecting people, the student mentor’s goal is to bring awareness to the eight different sources of strength-resiliency tools that we can develop and lean on during tough times.”

She lists the sources of strength as: trusted adults, positive friends, family support, healthy activities, medical access, mental health, generosity, spirituality and gratitude.

“I’m so proud of the 48 student mentors who have been brave enough to volunteer to lead connections,” said Roos. “They’ve learned a lot about leadership and facilitating so far this school year and are developing into stronger and more confident young men and women.”

Albertson added that while the mentors do bring up topics that are pertinent to a teen’s life, they are trained to not create a counseling group; students do not share their stories of drama or trauma in the group.

“When something is brought up, the mentors validate and honor the student’s story and bravery for sharing, but then focus on the strengths they can use to help them,” said Albertson. “The mentor leads the group to give strength-based input. If and when a mentor has a concern for someone, they always inform Erin, myself or one of our other counselors. We then take the necessary steps to intervene.”

Since implementing the Connections class this year, the feedback has been mostly positive. “Genuine relationships take time to develop,” said Roos. The Connections are only once a month for 30 minutes. However, by the time a freshman becomes a senior, they should develop some solid relationships with the connections classmates. It is not intended to be a quick fix but a constant strengthening of relationships.

Since the class began, SHS counselors have reported an increase in students seeking support for fellow students who are struggling and need help. There are approximately five students from each grade enrolled in each connections class. The same group and instructor will meet all four years of high school. “When seniors leave, four to five new freshmen will join,” said Roos. “The idea is that keeping the same groupings will allow stronger relationships to form, and multi-grade levels will improve the school climate, inclusion and reduce bullying.”

This year the mentors have helped to facilitate a full-day freshmen assembly, led seven connections, opened doors and welcomed students to school on various mornings, led a thank-you card drive to promote gratitude, handed out 1,000 candy canes with positive stress-management messages, created a hallway display of paper hands with names of 900-plus trusted adults from our community, and much more!

In addition to answering questions and being there for one another, the mentors also tutor students, attend each other’s events or performances, encourage them to get involved in school activities and connect them to counselors for help.

“Our mentors have a stronger pulse on their mentees and with their friends,” said Albertson, “so they are making more reports to counselors and to Erin. That is a huge improvement. Breaking the code of silence is something we talk about and support. So all students are reporting more to trusted adults about any concern they have about their friends. Students who are truly hurting are also accepting help acknowledging that they need it.”

Roos is genuinely moved by what she has seen the student mentors accomplish.

“These student mentors are some of the most caring and compassionate humans I’ve ever met,” she said. “They honestly want every student and staff member at SHS to feel included, connected, supported and be part of the Bulldog family.”

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