Naples school addressing mental health at a young age

Published: December 20, 2021 6:58 AM EST
Updated: December 20, 2021 7:57 AM EST

One school in Naples is dedicating a staff position to teaching students about their emotions, hoping to prevent mental health issues by addressing emotions early.

Madison Lee and her mom Alice Lee had a less-than-perfect morning.

“Went to the fridge, got the egg, dropped it on the floor,” Alice Lee said. “OK, plan number two: french toast… and then we burn the toast. So it was just not a great morning.”

But the spunky, pig-tailed kindergartner showed surprising emotional maturity, saying, “You are a good mom. You’re just having a very rough morning. Take a deep breath and let those big feelings out.”

Acknowledging feelings and letting them out is something Madison learned from Natalie Donahue, the social-emotional learning specialist at the Community School of Naples.

“We are working with whole classes to help children create healthy identities, to manage their emotions,” said Donahue.

Since August, Donahue has been working with Madison and her classmates, teaching skills to help them be self-aware, manage their emotions and build relationships. It’s called social-emotional learning, SEL, and it’s not a pie-in-the-sky idea.

“If students get lessons in the classroom as a whole, as a proactive measure, to have skills for daily challenges, then there’ll be less need for mental health therapy in the future,” Donahue said.

Another benefit? Better grades. A study that looked at 270,000 students, from kindergartners to high schoolers, found those who were taught SEL in school not only had better behavior and emotional skills but saw an 11% gain in achievement.

“The idea of emotional intelligence is something that we know employers need to have in the workplace,” Donahue said. “So we want to start as soon as possible.”

Teaching kids is only one part of the equation. The other is teaching their parents.

“We’ve done ‘Raising Responsible and Emotionally Healthy Children,’ ‘Understanding Brain Development,’ we’re going to do a deep dive into technology and digital distress,” Donahue said.

Alice Lee has taken each parent workshop offered at CSN and says they have been great.

“I’ve definitely seen a change in [Madison’s] behavior after the workshops, and she’s so so much more expressive of herself,” Lee said.

The nonprofit Fountain 33, started by John and Amy Quinn, is paying for the position at CSN, but it hopes to offer SEL to other schools or kids’ programs.