Grand Island Public Schools students say they are experiencing high stress levels and district leaders are working to address this.
At the GIPS Board of Education meeting Jan. 14, Grand Island Senior High sophomore Jade Rauch-Word presented the results of a survey she and fellow student Abbigail Meston conducted on the mental health of middle- and high-school students.
Rauch-Word said she and Meston chose to conduct the survey as they noticed they were struggling with mental health themselves and noticed others their age were struggling as well. She added they also wanted to improve students’ mental health and spread awareness of it.
“Mental health is especially important in students as mental health can affect everything in your life, from your school to your relationships with your family and friends, to your sleep,” Rauch-Word said. “It is very important to maintain good mental health so you can do well in school and succeed in life.”
With the help of Ron Hester, principal of the Academy of Education, Law and Public Safety, and Jeff Gilbertson, GISH executive principal, Rauch-Word said she sent the survey out to students at GISH, Barr Middle School and Walnut Middle School.
She said she received 636 total responses for her survey. Of these responses, approximately 62% were from GISH and 59% were female.
In her survey, Rauch-Word asked students to rate their daily stress levels on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. The majority of students — a combined 36% — said their daily stress level is at a 7 or an 8. 15% of those surveyed rated their daily stress level as 6.
“It is OK to be stressed during a stressful time in your life or stressful event,” Rauch-Word said. “But to be stressed at a 7 or 8 level every single day is very unhealthy.”
Of those surveyed, she said, nearly 20% said “almost all” of their stress is caused by school priorities or pressure. She also dived into the specifics of students’ school-related stress and 55% said it is caused by “too much homework.”
Rauch-Word also asked students to state what causes their overall stress — not just school-related stress — and the majority of responses again said “too much homework.” Other responses included “COVID/online school,” “troubles at home or in school,” “not enough free time,” “trouble with concentration” and “not enough sleep/always tired.”
The survey also asked students what they are involved in that takes up most of their time and makes them busy. 73% of those surveyed said they have “lots of homework/schoolwork.” A number of respondents also said they are involved in a number of extracurricular activities.
Stats on teacher response ‘alarming’
Rauch-Word said her survey asked students their thoughts on how well teachers pay attention to and care for their mental health. She said 45% of respondents said, “Sort of. They do a fine job of helping when I ask.”
“This is not a bad response — it is a fairly neutral response — but it is still alarming that so many people think that,” she said. “One thing I found very concerning is that almost 13% of respondents said, ‘Not at all. I am very stressed and they do not notice or do anything to help.’ I 100% want to lower that number.”
Rauch-Word asked students to elaborate on what teachers do well in regard to responding to their mental health needs. She received a number of responses that said “nothing,” “I don’t know” and N/A.”
She said she asked students whether they regularly see a mental health professional. Of those surveyed, 84% said they do not.
“That is a very alarming statistic because only about 16% said that they do,” she said. “That doesn’t line up with the other data because many students are struggling and most likely need some sort of mental professional to help them through their problems.”
Rauch-Word said she opened her survey up to comments and one student said, “I do this survey, but it is not like it will change anything. These surveys you guys send out never change anything.”
“I think that made me cry when I read it,” she said. “It made me really sad that someone doesn’t even have any hope at all and I really want to change that.”
‘We need to hear it’
In an interview with The Independent last week, GIPS board president Bonnie Hinkle said that while she was sad to hear what students in the district are going through in regard to mental health, she was not surprised by the survey results.
“While it is not easy to hear, we need to hear it,” Hinkle said. “A lot of times, it is such a difficult issue with so many things that go into it, so it is difficult to address. Sometimes, it is easy just to ignore it because it can be so overwhelming. This is just a good reminder to us that we cannot ignore it any longer and we really need to listen to the student voice on this.”
Board member Lisa Albers said she is thankful to Meston and Rauch-Word for conducting the student survey and for bringing the results to the board.
“I do think we need to turn to you guys (students) and look at what the students need,” Albers said. “We can’t help if we don’t know what the needs are.”
Hinkle said it is “amazing” that Meston and Rauch-Word stepped up to conduct the survey.
“It was very professionally done and very well thought out; it was very impressive. We are grateful that they brought it forward to us,” she said. “I know that every board member was taken aback by it and wants to be involved. Several of them have said, ‘I want to help with this, I want to do more with this and I want to hear more about this.’ It was impactful.”
Board member Dave Hulinsky asked Rauch-Word what ideas she had to help the district “get ahead of these problems” raised in her survey.
She said she would like to conduct a follow-up survey asking students “what they need for their mental health and for their school.”
Rauch-Word said she also would like to see a class offered at GISH that teaches students how to deal with mental health issues.
Grover thankful for survey
GIPS Superintendent Tawana Grover said she is thankful to Meston and Rauch-Word for being “very proactive” in working to address some of mental health issues they had been seeing within themselves and their peers.
Grover said that having a student-led survey allowed students to feel more comfortable addressing their concerns.
“I think we were just very grateful and appreciative that the goals of the academies are working,” she said. “With her project, it really gave us some real-time understanding of the needs of our students in GIPS, particularly at the middle school and high school levels where she surveyed.”
Grover said Rauch-Word has brought to light some of the same concerns the district has been sharing and thinking about as it relates to mental health. These needs have been exacerbated due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Jade (Rauch-Word) exposed that there are a greater number of students that are needing support and services from us,” she said. “I think what was so enlightening was understanding what the survey called out was some of the underlying reasoning behind it, which may or may not have been some of the things we have traditionally thought about. Why are our students experiencing mental health needs and what does it actually look like?”
‘We have to show students that we hear them’
Associate Superintendent Robin Dexter called the survey conducted by Meston and Rauch-Word “well done” and said it exposed some of the issues GIPS students are dealing with in regard to mental health.
“I think students really reached out because it was students asking the questions,” Dexter said. “What the power of it is now is that we have to show students that we hear them and that this is what we are doing to take steps to improve.”
She said that with the majority of students surveyed reporting their daily stress levels at a 7 or an 8, district leaders are working with individual schools to address this.
“We talked with building administrators about how, even starting in the elementaries, we help kids learn how to self advocate,” Dexter said. “When they are feeling stressed, what do they do? Who do they go to? What are some strategies they can use? We are in that society where it is constantly ‘Go, go, go,’ and we just never shut down. So it is getting kids to realize the importance of taking care of themselves.”
She said that as part of the district’s social and emotional cognitive learning curriculum, students are taught one-, two- and five-minute strategies to use during their 90-minute class blocks and outside of school.
“They need to take time outside of school to use some of these strategies,” Dexter said.
Grover said one thing GIPS needs to think about is how to provide more access to specific mental health supports students are asking for, such as more time to talk with a school counselor.
“Does our schedule need to look different? Do we need to have different access points and be innovative in the way that students can receive those services?” she said. “I know one of the comments from the students is that sometimes they may not need a two-hour session. They may just need 30 minutes with someone that they can talk to to help them understand their needs.”
Grover said the survey brings to light the need for social and emotional learning (SEL) to be more of a core class, rather than an optional offering.
“If we want students to perform academically, we are going to have to continue to enhance our SEL supports,” she said.
GIPS staff to examine survey data
Dexter said the district will have a staff professional development day Feb. 18 that will focus on social and emotional cognitive learning.
As part of the professional development day, she said staff will review Panorama survey data, the results of the student survey and look at strategies to implement in the classroom to connect with students.
“We want to look at the data that we have and review that student mental health survey,” Dexter said. “Homework is a big issue and we know that it has been for a long time. So we will start by looking at the data and coming up with a plan to make improvements.”
Grover said GIPS wants its teachers to be aware of the concerns presented in the student survey and to continue to provide for the mental health needs of needs.
“Our teachers are called on to take care of every aspect of a child’s life in many ways when we talk about educating the whole child,” she said. “We want them to have time to manage their content, as well as be able to build confidence within our students and being the coach on the side of what they are asking for in regard to mental health. Our teachers are very responsive to a call to action. They want to be able to best support the students.”