TOPEKA (KSNT) – Rising levels of stress and anxiety, especially among kids during the pandemic, is prompting new efforts to improve mental health for students and staff in schools. 

Some school districts, like Topeka Public Schools, are taking a variety of measures to make sure students and teachers feel comfortable and relaxed during the year.

“We’ve really moved away from anything punitive, and so, making sure that our students feel heard so we can help problem-solve,” said Angela Pomeroy, Principal at Jardine Elementary in Topeka.

Students at Jardine Elementary and Middle School get the chance to do yoga and meditate. Just one of several mindfulness activities incorporated into students’ daily routine, after a year of chaos and isolation from fighting a pandemic and dealing with remote learning.

On the middle school side, students are able to mentor younger students throughout the day, something that Middle School Principal Mike Haire said helps shape their mindset.

“They can have great relationships with kids, with adults, and be put in a position where they feel good about themselves because they’re doing positive things,” Haire explained.

Students in the district are also given a questionnaire to screen for any of the mental health needs, emotional or social, at the beginning of the year.

Haire said that allows them to “keep the year running.” Those kids are added to a list where their needs are prioritized, so they can connect with staff. 

“Within the first week of kids being on-site, we are able to make connections with kids on that list,” Haire said. “The crucial most important thing for our kids is building relationships, so knowing that we can do that the first week for a kid that may be more fragile, is valuable.”

Dr. Tiffany Anderson, Superintendent for Topeka Public Schools, noted the extensive lengths the district has gone to, to help students and parents feel comfortable opening up and sharing their struggles with others.

Therapeutic spaces and student mental health spaces, like “peace corners” are included in almost every classroom, where students have time to relax. They also have animal therapy, increased counselors, restorative justice, and sensory rooms for mental health.

Social and emotional health has been a pillar for Kansas schools, and something education leaders have been pushing for with millions of federal relief dollars going to school districts to help recover from the impact of the pandemic.

Dr. Anderson said mental health has always been a priority, but the pandemic has created an even greater need to break down the stigma around those struggles. She said efforts like these new programs have expanded across every school in the district.

“Keeping those safe practices in place, but still teaching young people how to communicate, how to have great social skills while distant, and letting them know, this is not the way the world was, and we will move beyond this.”