Feeding the hearts and minds of students in a changing world

It's not news that the world has changed significantly since most adults went to school. Technology alone has created an exciting and, at times, challenging space in our students' lives. While our children are digital natives, we the adults are digital immigrants. To our kids, technology is second nature; to us as the adult immigrants, it is a constant learning curve. Communications, relationships and connections in our present-day technological world exist in a way most of us could never have imagined.

In this digital age of communication and learning, the school environment changes at the speed of light. In the past when events occurred, there was some time to process. Now when a local, national or world incident happens, often it is being processed and communicated live, in real time.

A school shooting, an earthquake or other tragedy occurs and is delivered instantly to our students through their cellphones. This information flows to our students in both auditory and visual sensory mode. The metamorphosis in information sharing has impacted students both intellectually and emotionally.

The concept of our students' mental health today is a more complicated issue than it has ever been before. Kids are no longer protected from the information flow or the happenings of the world. Instantly, a school shooting is filmed by an eyewitness and may be viewed by a student on the other side of the country before the adults have time to plan next steps. A quiet conversation between texting friends can turn into cyberbullying, and no one except the students involved are aware. It is indeed a different time in our schools.

As caring adults, we try our best to keep informed while also realizing that our schools must not only address academic achievement but also the mental health and wellness of our kids. Today's schools are not just about feeding the minds of children but also about ensuring that their heart and emotional beings feel supported. Schools have had no choice but to begin implementing programs and services that provide students with emotional support in the school setting.

Eagle County Schools has always promoted a whole-child approach to learning. Our mission statement speaks to teaching children not only to have creative and active minds but to also show compassion for others and have the courage to act on their dreams.

As we continue to address many of the challenges the outside world and our young students' lives bring to the classroom, we work to put programs and services in place to help students, their families and our community. As issues related to mental health continue to present themselves, we are here to partner with our families and community to find more answers.

Just a few of the resources and specialized programs our schools are implementing include Sources of Strength, Signs of Suicide, Teaching Kids to Cope, Random Acts of Kindness and No Place for Hate. More important than programs are the mental health personnel that service our schools in an effort to provide social and emotional support to students.

In Eagle County Schools, we have 27 counselors and seven psychologists to help address student needs. Last week at our Board of Education meeting, the District Accountability Committee recommended additional mental health providers and mental health supports as a budget need for the 2018-19 school year.

We continue to work with our community partners to bring resources to our schools and families such as the Eagle River Youth Coalition's Eat, Chat, Parent program and Speak Up Reach Out's suicide prevention programs for students and parents. YouthPower365 works with our students through its after-school PwrHrs and Girl PowHER programs. I quickly learned as the interim superintendent that the valley embraces its children and schools and works hard to provide the support needed.

Despite what we already have in place, we know we need much more. In the past few months, locally the death of a child and nationally the shooting of the students in Parkland, Florida, have started serious community conversations about how we address issues of suicide, school safety and bullying. It has forced us as parents, families, educators and community members to have difficult conversations with our students on issues related to mental health in our valley.

It will take all of us together to find answers and services for our schools and community. Our nonprofits, community members, businesses, parents, educators, neighbors and friends have begun the dialogue to insure our kids know we are watching, listening and making sure they are OK.

To learn more about the programs mentioned in this column, visit http://www.speakup reachout.org, http://www.youthpower365.org or http://www.eagleyouth.org.

Maggie Lopez, Ph.D., is the interim superintendent of Eagle County Schools. She can be reached at margarita.lopez@eagleschools.net.