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Estacada School District launched new programs this year to support emotional health of students

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - A River Mill Elementary School student takes a moment to read a book in her classroom's calming corner. The corners are new additions to the district's elementary school classrooms this year, in an effort to boost the emotional and mental health of students.

At Clackamas River and River Mill Elementary schools, each classroom has a small space filled with breathing charts, stuffed animals and stress balls.

The calming corners, a new addition to classrooms this year, are one way the Estacada School District is focusing on students' emotional and mental health.

"It's an overall system-wide recognition that mental health is a priority," said River Mill Elementary School Principal Jennifer Behrman. "In the past it's been so much about academics, but without the social emotional piece, kids aren't ready to learn."

As would be expected in a school environment, educating students about their emotions is a primary part of the support process.

"We do social emotional lessons in the classroom and teach students how to recognize and talk about feelings. We work on problem-solving skills," said Rhonda Harris, a counselor at River Mill Elementary School. "(We want to) help them learn how to recognize their feelings, and talk about what's going on."

In addition to calming corners, Clackamas River Elementary School has a therapy dog named Habibi, who provides a comforting presence to anyone who needs it. He comes to school every day with counselor Annie Zenn and is certified through the Alliance of Therapy Dogs.

"Habibi is really there to support the emotional needs of the students and staff. He's been trained to be calm and mellow and (to avoid) aggressive behaviors like barking and jumping," Zenn said.

She noted that if students are experiencing escalating emotions, petting Habibi often helps them feel better. Many also benefit from the caretaking element of interacting with Habibi, including brushing him and providing him with water.

"It's amazing to watch," she said. "A kid might be screaming in the hallway, and they'll see Habibi laying on the floor and they'll lay on the floor next to him and pet him. He has a really calming presence with kids and adults alike . . . Having another creature that love and accepts you for exactly who you are is a benefit for everyone."

Continued education and support

For the past five years, counselors at Estacada High School have visited classrooms to discuss emotional health, academics and college and career readiness. All four grade levels receive classroom counseling, which spans eight class periods.

Estacada High School counselors see many benefits to the program and appreciate being able to connect with students.

"Kids get to know us, and they're more likely to come talk when they have a concern," Steven Christiansen said. "(We want to) reach as many kids as possible, versus sitting here and waiting for them to come to us."

PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - Estacada High School counselor Cindy Babikoff talks to a class about stress.

Classroom counseling often begins with a student survey about what topics students want to focus on. Additionally, students make a list of personal, academic and career goals each year.

Mental health related topics include stress, depression and how to help friends who may be struggling.

"I think kids feel relieved to be supported in what to do in a situation," said Estacada High School counselor Cindy Babikoff, noting that one element they focus on is the value of talking to a trusted adult. They also discuss the difference between "snitching," which is trying to get someone in trouble, and "reporting," which is keeping someone safe.

Additionally, during their junior year, students learn about brain development and why teenagers may have a difficult time with certain topics.

The Estacada School District also partners with several outside resources to further support students.

Through their crisis response team, district staff collaborates with school districts in Canby and Colton to support one another in the event of a tragic event, such as the death of a student or staff member. The group meets three times a year.

"If a situation happens, we want to be able to pull in outside resources," Harris noted.

Additionally, partnerships with Orchid Health and Trillium Family Services connect students with longer term counseling. Trillium provides the district with two full time mental health counselors. PMG PHOTO: EMILY LINDSTRAND - A student plays with a stuffed animal and stress balls in one of the calming corners at River Mill Elementary School.

The school district has also been focusing on trauma informed practices, which allow them to better support students who have experienced difficult events. This school year, there have been several trainings for teachers focusing on how a student impacted by trauma may act, ways to interact with them and how to avoid potential triggers.

Estacada School District staff are happy to draw upon a variety of resources to help students.

"Making sure mental health needs are met is crucial," Babikoff said. "We have to have that piece. It's the foundation of what we stand on."

"We're moving in the right direction," Harris added. "A lot of things are coming together."

Zenn noted that it is a collaborative effort.

"We couldn't support mental health needs without staff, administrators and teachers. It's not just the counselors' job. It's the work of the whole community," she said. "When we work together, that's when we thrive."

Threat Assessment Team connects students with


This year, a new resource in the Estacada School District has connected students who make threats of harm to others with support and resources. At the local level, the team consists of the student services director, school psychologist and a school-based social worker, as well as a school counselor, principal and another adult who knows the student well.

"To determine the level of concern, we interview the student, parent and other possible witnesses to gather information," said Jason Hobson, director of student services for the Estacada School District. "We really dig into that specific moment."

Depending on the outcome of the interviews, the student is either connected with resources locally or the situation is referred to a team with professionals from other school districts and community agencies.

The process was developed by the Salem-Keizer School District.

"(The most beneficial part of the process) is that we can support this student that might be in a crisis situation," Hobson said. "Some students have received wraparound services, extra mental health counseling, (support from) medical professionals or in-home skills training."

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