By Janis Gioia, MAEd.
Children with anxiety and mental health challenges and other disabilities deserve acceptance, inclusion and support in every area of life.
Nurturing children in our homes, schools and professional settings is imperative.
The following article shares a mental health initiative that gives concrete examples of what to say and do to promote positive mental health in children.
A preventative instead of a “fix-it later” approach.
Share this article and Every Moment Counts with your child’s teacher and school staff.
Promoting children’s mental health needs everyone’s participation.
It’s been said that you measure life in moments.
That’s great, when the moments are beautiful, breathtaking and worthy of an Instagram post.
But what about when the moments, too many moments, are filled with your child’s anxieties or other mental health challenges?
Moments that are full of fear, tears, meltdowns and physical or emotional distress:
- Upset stomach
- Muscle aches
The list goes on. You know it well.
What about the moments when your child was made to feel less than for being not typical, for having challenges or fears that many other children don’t.
Things like being:
- Afraid to go to school or on a field trip
- Fearful of loud noises like tornado or fire sirens
- Too timid to attend birthday parties
- Overwhelmed by the cavernous space in a mall or the darkness of a movie theater.
What about the times when your child’s teacher, educational assistant, special aunt or grandparent unknowingly made:
- A disparaging remark about your child’s fears – “No one else is afraid of that!”
- Your child feels invalidated – “You aren’t afraid, you’re fine. ”
- Depression seem your child’s fault, “You’ve got nothing to be sad about. Why can’t you be happy like every other kid?”
- Anxiety and mental illness seem like a four-letter word.
What if you could reduce those lost moments and instead Make Every Moment Count?
You can. Here’s how.
Every Moment Counts is a mental health initiative funded by the Office of Exceptional Children and the Ohio Department of Education.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Susan Bazyk, PhD, OTR/L, FAOTA at Cleveland State University.
She shared how this program is making positive changes in the lives of children around the world.
According to Dr. Bazyk, “Every Moment Counts was developed to help all children and youth become mentally healthy in order to succeed in school, at home, and in the community.”
She stresses that the initiative “Focuses on reframing mental health as a positive state of functioning – it is more than the absence of mental illness. Many of the ideas are derived from research in Positive Psychology.”
The goal is to get rid of the old mindset of a deficit-driven model of mental health (fixing the problem) and replacing it with a strength-based approach.
The project emphasizes four concepts:
- Mental health promotion
- Inclusion of students with mental health challenges and disabilities during the entire school day and all extracurricular activities
- Integrated services in natural contexts
- Collaboration among all school personnel and parents.
The focus is to embed mental health strategies throughout the school day.
It’s kind of like pouring chocolate syrup in your milk…a perfect mixture with a sweet outcome.
Here are some examples:
Mental Health Promotion
Using the principles of positive psychology, schools work to create environments that, according to Bazyk, foster participation and enjoyment for all children. This includes:
- Participation in enjoyable activities
- Using Personal Strengths
- Thinking Optimistically
- Performing Acts of Kindness
- Expressing Gratitude
- Creating Supportive Environments
- Reducing Stigma and Discrimination
- Supporting the Social and Emotional Learning of all Students
When Dr. Bazyk told me that Every Moment Counts embraced the idea of everyone being a “Mental Health Promoter” my response was, “It’s about time!”
As a special education teacher, I have seen wonderful, supportive teachers, staff and administrators who dedicate their lives to helping children.
I’ve also seen those who were less than welcoming to students with special needs. It’s one of the reasons I became an advocate.
Here’s an example:
Years ago I taught a student with autism and anxiety disorder, who had a quiet place in his counselor’s office for times he needed to be alone. One day he asked me,
“Why don’t any of the counselors or principals talk to me, or even say hi when they see me? They look right at me and keep on going. They treat me like I’m not even there.”
That’s beyond sad, and it was heartbreaking for this student who already had numerous challenges.
He asked me why many of the school staff ignored him. He wondered what was wrong with him.
I told him there was something wrong with him. There was something wrong with the school staff. (They lacked education about how to treat a student with mental health and other challenges. They didn’t know how a simple “hello” with eye contact can make a student’s day.)
I think most people mean well.
They just need education about mental health and how to interact with people whose needs are different from their own.
People need to realize how a small gesture, a kind word, even a smile, can affect the way a child feels about his day and himself.
Schoolwide Strategies include:
- Create positive environment for all students to participate and enjoy their school day.
- Do what you can to help students feel comfortable and happy in the classroom, hallway, restrooms, cafeteria and playground. This includes greeting every student, preferably by name, and making each feel welcome.
- Make children’s mental health YOUR business!
- Tune into every student’s mental health. Observe student’s affect or emotional state. Does the person seem to feel good emotionally (happy?) and do well in everyday tasks?
- Identify and contribute to existing school-wide mental health efforts, that may include:
- SEL (Social & Emotional Learning), PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports, character education, bully prevention, etc.
Tips for Mental Health Promotion
Promoting mental health is easy and as Dr. Bazyk says, “Small moments make big differences in how children and youth feel and function throughout the day! As a mental health promoter, know that ‘every moment counts’ during your interactions with all children and youth.”
Every Moment Counts says schools should implement or embed these ten practices into the school day:
- Caring Connections
- Focus on Strengths
- Promote Positive Emotions
- Talk About Mental Health
- Move and Be Active
- Focus on Feelings
- Offer Calm Moments
- Think Positive
- Foster Kindness
- Create Positive Environments
Their website offers easy ways to integrate these practices into the school day.
Things like these go a long way in promoting positive mental health:
- creating calm classroom transitions
- doing deep breathing or visualization exercises
- greeting students by name
- listening, really listening to children’s thoughts and concerns.
Creating a Comfortable Cafeteria
My favorite aspect of Every Moment Counts is the idea of a Comfortable Cafeteria.
Let’s face it; school cafeterias are not usually appealing. And I’m not referring to the food.
It’s the rules and the way children are often treated.
For the record:
I’ve taught in schools where lunch room staff joyfully interacted with children, high-fiving their accomplishments, in an atmosphere filled with the happy hum of conversations and the smell of tater tots.
I’ve also taught in schools where the cafeterias were run like a prison: students eating in silence while being screamed at by an aide with a megaphone.
Sadly, I’ve been in schools where children…
- Who haven’t finished “enough” of their lunch are forced to sit on the multipurpose room stage, until they have eaten what an aide determines to be a satisfactory amount.
- Are not allowed to use the restroom, even if they are experiencing a stomachache, usually resulting from anxiety.
- Must eat silently in semi-darkness. Lights off means no talking or whispering.
Would you want to eat lunch in that kind of environment?
Kind of makes you lose your appetite, doesn’t it?
The Every Moment Counts Comfortable Cafeteria program aims to change all that.
The goal, according to Dr. Bazyk, is to “Create a positive social climate, by encouraging pleasant mealtime conversations and friendships. Emphasis is on creating an environment where all students, including those with varying abilities, feel welcomed and respected.”
Things every child needs to have a positive mealtime experience.
Or any experience.
The Every Moment website includes strategies and suggestions for cafeteria best practices, including the research supporting their recommendations.
There are also many suggestions for creating a Refreshing Recess.
A Refreshing Recess involves:
- Educating the school community about ways to create a positive recess experience for all students.
- Working with an occupational therapist at recess to embed strategies and practices to promote positive behaviors, interactions and reduce bullying
- Occupational therapy coaching to help recess supervisors develop positive social interactions with children while guiding them in ways to solve behavior challenges.
How Can You Make Every Moment Count for Your Child?
The Every Moment Counts website, developed by a team of occupational therapists, primarily addresses school personnel.
The website’s Embedded Programs tab offers teachers, school administrators (and parents) easy-to-implement ways to make Every Moment Count while promoting positive mental health.
For example, the Calm Moment Cards, designed primarily for teachers, have excellent suggestions to help adults recognize and remediate Situational Stressors for kids like:
- Starting The Day
- Transitioning Between Subjects or Classes
- Participating in Assemblies
Parents can use the Calm Moments cards to help their child with situational stressors at home, and prepare them to tackle challenges that come up in the school day.
Each of the 17 Calm Moments cards, have user-friendly information designed to help children with:
- Situational Stressors (Starting the Day, Transitioning, Homework, etc.)
- Triggers (things that cause anxiety related to situation (e.g. child is anxious during crowded hallways during restroom breaks)
- Thinking Strategies (Positive Affirmations for Students, Adult Responses)
- Focusing and Calming Strategies (Movement, Poses and Breathing)
- Sensory Strategies (touch, taste, movement, visual and smells that may be calming)
- Teaching Moments (evidenced-based explanations supporting the techniques)
Whether you are the parent of an anxious child, a teacher or a school administrator, The Every Moment Counts initiative can help you make your child’s school a community of caring.
If your school doesn’t use the Every Moment Counts program, share it with a teacher, administrator, or with the school board.
Chances are, once they see the program, and the evidence supporting its use, they will be on board.
Even if you school doesn’t adopt the program, you will find many ways to help your child develop positive mental health.
Every Moment Counts resources are free and downloadable.
As Dr. Bazyk says, “Positive mental health practices need to be embedded in the fabric of the school day. Small moments really do make a big difference in every child’s life.”