Three teachers added to improve student mental health

The Davis County Schools recently hired three social-emotional specialists to help students in grades kindergarten through twelve develop competencies in self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

Ashley Tuvera will be working with elementary students; Megan Benge with middle school students, and Lisa Collier with high school students.

The SEL (Social-Emotional Learning) program is being initiated after Davis County received federal funding from the GEER-II (Governor’s Emergency Education Relief) grant, which Governor Reynolds designated for mental health spending in the schools.

“The job of the SEL specialists is to help with the development of different tiers of support and teach coping skills to kids,” said Becky Zesiger, Director of Instruction for Davis County and Moulton-Udell Schools.

The SEL specialists will work with students in various stages of development when it comes to mastering social skills. More intense support will be given to the students who need more direction in social behavior.

Zesiger said Davis County’s SEL specialists will play a critical role in communication between the school, student, and family.

“The youngest kids need a trusted person they can go to after a meltdown and talk through the situation,” Zesiger said.

The teacher may even ask the child to go back and role-play the incident again with a different and more satisfactory response.

Zesiger said with older kids, the focus of the SEL specialist could be on discovering the reason why the student is not coming to school and to provide the support needed.

In addition to the SEL staff, Southern Prairie AEA will be training all teachers, administrators, and associates in Youth Mental Health First Aid. This course is designed to help recognize stress in students, especially the warning signs of suicide.

“This will help teachers feel like they have the tools they need to help these kids,” Zesiger said. “This training turns teachers’ thinking around from ‘That kid is so naughty’ to ‘This kid needs my help.’

“There is a lot of anxiety in students,” Zesiger said. “The teachers and counselors see this. I think COVID could be a part of this as well as overuse of social media and increased stressors at home.”

Davis County teachers are also receiving instruction in “Connections Matter,” ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences), and “Capturing Kids Hearts” as they go through training to improve relationships and more effectively work with students on their social-emotional competencies.

“The last few days, we’ve been in conversations with parents reaching out for help,” Zesiger said. “I’m impressed with the connections being formed between parents and teachers in all buildings as they work together for the benefit of the children.”

Last year during the pandemic, Davis County Schools contracted with Julie DeVries, a licensed mental health therapist, to work with elementary students who are referred to her with the permission of parents.

DeVries addresses trauma through play therapy and also provides support to staff members who work with these children.

“Transportation and access to therapy in Davis County is hard,” Zesiger said, “but now we have more access to providers than ever before.”

Davis County’s SEL specialists

Ashley Tuvera

Ashley Tuvera has a degree in psychology and said, “Behavior and building relationships are my niche. That’s why I like teaching social skills, which are learning to be a good friend.”

Tuvera has a space in the elementary library where she will teach social skills to students in grades kindergarten through four one day out of every six-day cycle. Eventually she will also work with students on an individual or small group basis as needed.

“Empathy is big — especially for older kids. They need to recognize feelings and understand how to handle them,” she said.

Tuvera uses role-playing with third and fourth graders and puppets with younger students to help them work on their social skills through play.

“I’m excited to help kids grow and mature in a healthy way,” she said.

“I think it is safe to say this community needs more resources for mental health. We live in a world where one out of every six kids has been diagnosed with a mental health, behavioral or developmental disorder.”

Tuvera said 5.4% of kids ages 6-17 were diagnosed with anxiety and depression in 2003. In 2007 that percentage had risen to 8% and by 2011 had increased to 8.4%.

“Imagine what those figures will be like if we continue to follow this trajectory,” she said.

“I am excited to be a part of this program and hit the ground running with social-emotional learning.”

Megan Benge

Megan Benge will be teaching social-emotional skills to Davis County Middle School students. She will see all fifth-grade classes one day per week and help them transition from elementary to middle school.

“Fifth graders are growing into the middle school level and the SEL class will give them the terminology they need to describe their emotions, behaviors, and relationships,” Benge said. “It will help them interpret the behaviors of their peers, families, and community.”

Benge tells her students middle school is hard, but that’s what makes them adults.

“These kids have missed so much school in the last year and a half and their socialization has been limited due to the pandemic,” she said. “The sixth graders seem more like fifth graders because they lost developmental experiences last year.”

Benge works with small groups of sixth, seventh, and eighth grade students who have been referred to her program for help in self-regulating their emotions and behaviors.

She said the SEL program is also designed to assist parents in teaching children how to engage with their peers in age-appropriate ways.

“I’m really excited,” she said. “This program is such a great opportunity for Davis County Schools and kids need this now more than ever.”

Lisa Collier

Lisa Collier will serve as the full-time SEL instructor for Davis County High School and will be stationed in the MACC (Mustang Accelerated Career Center) building.

Collier will have around 12 students who will see her in small groups for assistance with classwork.

“My job is at-risk social-emotional learning,” Collier said. “I will help the students work through the frustrations that occur during the day and give them the tools they need to work through that frustration successfully.”

Collier will work not only with the students in managing their social and emotional feelngs, but collaborate with their families and teachers as well.

“Success comes from establishing connections and getting to know the kids,” Collier said. “When kids have a connection and feel safe in the environment, they thrive. I think this program will be huge for the school as students build their social-emotional skills year after year.

“I’m excited and hoping for a great year,” she said.