Today’s school-aged children are experiencing a mental health crisis. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even declared a national emergency, stating the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on already fragile youth. Parents have also seen the increase; in fact almost 1 in 3 parents say they have noticed a decline in their child’s mental health since before the pandemic. In California, 1 in 6 high school students has considered suicide within the past year. Additionally, 1 in 3 students report feeling persistent sadness. These statistics increase when looking at students from marginalized communities (LGBTQ+, Black, Latino, and low-income), which is alarming as these populations tend to be less likely to receive the mental health services they need. Emergency rooms have also felt the increase, noting that mental health emergency room visits went up by 24% for children ages 5-11 and 31% for ages 12-15.
These staggering numbers have had a considerable impact on schools and academic learning. Students’ chronic stress leads to what mental health professionals call fight, flight, or freeze. When students are in this state, they are unable to learn and may even adversely impact the learning of those around them. The only solution is to help the students become emotionally regulated so they can return to learning. Some schools have used Wellness Rooms, or Wellness Centers to help their students achieve the goal of emotional regulation.
Wellness Rooms are dedicated spaces in which students can come to take a break, practice self-care, then return to learning. These spaces are staffed with personnel trained to support students in identifying triggers and effective coping strategies. These rooms support inclusivity, ensuring all students an opportunity to be welcomed into a calm space designed to meet their social emotional needs. Students from all backgrounds, including the neurodiverse population, have benefitted from this setting as it is a proactive approach to regulating their own emotions. Prior to wellness rooms, many of these students have been forced to remain in class while their stress escalates to an out of control level. These students are then removed from the classroom (either sent to the school nurse or sometimes to the office for disciplinary action), resulting in even more loss of learning and negative feelings about school and themselves.
The goal of a wellness room is to teach students to independently manage their own emotions. Students are taught to communicate their wants and needs, name emotions, use coping strategies, reflect, and then return to class. Students become empowered to handle their stress and increase their resiliency. Wellness room staff collect data and look for patterns in student behavior. For example, if the student frequently comes to the wellness room during a specific class, the team would then look at what was happening during that class to elicit such a response. Data can also be shared with the student, building awareness of their own triggers to stress and effective calming strategies. Staff members in a wellness room in Utah report that, “It gives them knowledge of their emotions. Before, they (her students) wouldn’t know what was going on and they would act out,” she said. “Now it’s more controlled. They’re pretty aware of how they are feeling and how they are in the world.” These students are now able to identify their emotions before having a melt-down, thus increasing their ability to learn as well as boosting their own positive relationship with school.
Although the specific details of a wellness room can vary depending on school needs, a few characteristics should be considered:
● Wellness rooms should be staffed with trained personnel. This personnel can sometimes go into the classrooms to demonstrate how some strategies can be implemented without leaving the classroom.
● Wellness rooms should have a variety of seating and lighting options to meet the needs of their population.
● Use muted colors and avoid visual stimulation.
● Use sound-absorbing materials.
● Wellness rooms should be semi-private, meaning the students can be away from the public eye, but are safely supervised.
● A clear purpose that is based on school needs should be established and communicated. Some schools choose to use this space as a de-escalation tool while others designate the space for preventative purposes only.
● Students should be taught how to appropriately use the space. Clear expectations and norms should be set.
● Use a check-in, check-out procedure to track attendance, triggers, and strategy usage.
● Use a 10 minute timer. If students are not re-focused and ready to return to class after 10 minutes, set the timer again.
Some schools in California have expanded on the wellness center idea by adding resources to facilitate better physical health in addition to mental health. These schools have partnered with local non-profit agencies to bring in health care professionals, reducing some of the barriers families experience (such as transportation and cost) when trying to get appropriate care. In these wellness centers, students are able to receive eye exams, immunizations, even dental exams. Partnerships with local agencies allow this type of wellness center to run at a reduced cost or even at no cost to the school at all.
Wellness rooms are one possible solution to a growing and alarming problem. Solid mental health is a prerequisite for learning and growing successfully. Schools that have implemented this strategy have noticed an increase in their students’ ability to regulate their own emotions and solve problems without escalating behavior. Not only have behavioral incidents decreased, schools have noticed an increase in daily attendance for both students and staff! More information about best practices and implementation of wellness rooms is still needed. However, the early research is very promising and there is hope that this strategy will support students and their mental health needs.
Create a sanctuary at your school with a wellness room. STS Education. (2022, April 13). Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://stseducation-us.com/products/wellness-rooms/
Dewan, M. A. (2021, September 28). Dewan: Why we need wellness centers for schools. San José Spotlight. Retrieved August 23, 2022, from https://sanjosespotlight.com/dewan-why-we-need-wellness-centers-for-schools/#:~:text=Wellness%20centers%20as%20easily%20accessible,direct%20service%20programs%20and%20opportunities
Hillsboro School District. (2017). Wellness Center Handbook. Wellness Center Manual. Retrieved August 2022, from https://mhttcnetwork.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Wellness%20Center%20Manual.pdf