With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital Association together declared “a national state of emergency” in children’s mental health in 2021, urging policymakers to take action swiftly to address the crisis.

Many New Jersey schools have taken up that call, with some of them forming or expanding wellness programs to focus on social and emotional health, including in-house wellness centers.

“Nationally, the interest in mental health is skyrocketing in part because of the pandemic,” said Dr. Beth Doll, a professor with the School Psychology Program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the training director of the Nebraska Internship Consortium in Professional Psychology.

Dr. Sol Heckelman, a past president, current newsletter editor and finance chair with the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists, noted that one of the reasons such centers succeed is “it is much more efficient to have a source of help within the schools.” He added, “You have to see schools as a dynamic community with lots of personalities interweaving … so you have to be in the school as a psychologist or social worker and/or counselor to understand and know who the personalities are and how the kids interact with each other.”

Wellness programs can also reinforce that mental health staff at schools are aways a resource – not just when a student is exhibiting troublesome behavior or has a learning disability, said John Lestino, a school psychologist with the Edgewater Park Township School District and its district prevention and anti-bullying coordinator as well as the president of the New Jersey Association of School Psychologists and a former board member with the Barrington School District Board of Education. “The more those programs are intertwined, then students can access that support right there in the school,” he said.

While some students need attention from outside services, providing services in house makes sense, Lestino said. “Why can’t we marry the best of both?” he asked. “If you don’t build capacity within the school, you are going to spend a lot of money that will have less impact.”

Schools don’t have the option not to focus on social and emotional health, Doll said. “There is not a large group of community providers that have the funding and capacity to step in,” she said. “No matter what we do to add community services, we need to find a way to fund them – and there will be kids left out. Schools have to work with those kids and move them through with a group of their peers to success. It is not an either/or decision – it can’t be.”

School Leader interviewed staff at two schools that have focused on wellness to explore their approach and what they have learned along the way.

The Align Wellness Center Program includes a pet therapy component.
The Align Wellness Center Program includes a pet therapy component.

Align Wellness Center Program at Sparta Township Dr. Jane Esposito, supervisor of mental health and wellness at Sparta Township Public Schools, played a leading role in the creation of the Align Wellness Center Program, which opened four years ago at Sparta High School in Sussex County.

Looking around the PreK-12 district, Esposito saw a need – and she also saw licensed psychologists and clinical social workers along with herself, a New Jersey licensed psychologist – and a supportive administration. The program, she said, was started as a grassroots effort with a limited budget. 

Esposito and her team made the case that they had the necessary staff, they had the space … “and why not use our resources to help our students?” she said.

When the center first started at the high school four years ago, it served about 65 students throughout the year. This school year, the program has already served about 50 students at the high school, about 40 students at the middle school and approximately 45 students at the elementary level schools, she said.

“Kids nowadays are more aware of their mental health and how it impacts them,” Esposito said. “It’s not like in the past where they didn’t want to talk about it.” 

Students usually use the center over a four- to eight-week period. Often, they are referred by a parent, teacher or school staff member. “A parent might call me on the phone and say their child is experiencing a lot of anxiety. A lot of times, they can’t get an appointment with counselors in the community due to long waiting lists, and they ask if we can help. I explain to parents that we can provide short-term therapy,” Esposito said. 

Sometimes, a student may need long-term care or care beyond what the program can provide. But if Esposito and her staff think they can help, they will provide services for that student, relying on licensed staff as well as graduate-level interns to lend support. 

Licensed clinicians receive a stipend to provide services before and after school. There is no cost for students and insurance is not involved, Esposito said. During the day, doctoral and masters-level interns do a lot of heavy lifting in providing services.

Expanding the Align Program The Align Wellness Center Program received such a warm welcome from students, parents and staff, that last year it was expanded throughout the district to Sparta Middle School and the district’s three elementary schools: Mohawk Avenue School, Helen Morgan School and Alpine Elementary School.

Prior to that expansion, the district paid to have outside counseling services come into the middle school to assist students. It was overseen by outside professionals and could only service about 12 students, Esposito said. Many more students can now participate  at a comparatively lower cost, she said.

The district now has a full-time clinical staff member at the middle school with four closely supervised interns who can offer counseling and SEL activities, such as yoga and pet therapy.

Since expanding, the number of students the program serves at designated spaces in each school has grown significantly. Districtwide, about 70% of the students served are regular education students – and the remaining 30% are special education students, Esposito said. 

Everyone pitches in to make the program a success, including staff members who are certified to teach yoga, meditation and art therapy. Students can also participate in mindfulness exercises and breathwork classes.

At the high school, the Align Wellness Center Program has a designated suite, which includes a wellness room and other areas where students can go to relax and de-stress while being checked in on by counselors. Wellness Center staff also regularly use the media center for various activities. “We were able to do virtual classes when kids were not able to be together during COVID,” Esposito said.

The district has expanded partnerships with area universities, including Montclair State University, Rutgers University, Pace University, St. Elizabeth’s University and Rowan University. “They are now seeking us out,” Esposito said. 

“Their graduates are now seeing the fruits of our program at the doctoral and master’s level because as a school system we can offer them a place to provide and improve their counseling skills and also teach them how to do psychological evaluations – and they can participate in wellness activities and really understand that we are trying to promote mental health awareness and overall well-being,” Esposito said. 

The graduate students/interns are not paid but are earning credits and fulfilling the hours necessary to complete their academic programs, she explained. “A few of the graduate students who have interned within our program have been offered jobs within our district,” Esposito said.

The Align Wellness Center Program also conducts seminars and forums for the community, including through its district Parent Academy. The program has a close working relationship with the Sparta Township Municipal Alliance, which has provided grant money to support the program.

The program also serves the district’s most at-risk students through its West Mountain Academy Program, which assists students with emotional and behavioral needs.

At the middle school, the wellness center program offers SEL activities during the school’s designated SEL period. Three times a week, students can participate in wellness activities to include yoga classes. Students can also take a psychology and magic class with Anthony Ferrer, a doctoral intern from St. Elizabeth’s University. At the elementary schools, space constraints limit what can be offered, but students can still take advantage of yoga classes after school. “For counseling sessions, we locate confidential spaces,” Esposito said. “The Helen Morgan School principal, Doug Layman, literally cleaned out an area of private space on the stage for when there is no one in the cafeteria, and we set up shop. It absolutely works and the small children really like it. It’s really about looking at what resources there are and figuring it out.”

At the elementary level, since school starts later than middle school and high school, students can take advantage of before-school programs, where they have access to licensed clinical social workers. During the day, graduate students provide counseling services as needed.

Through the support of district administration, the Align Wellness Center Program was able to formalize a Pet Therapy Program, Esposito said. “At three of our five school buildings, we have pet therapy animals.” Esposito said. Sparta High School has a golden retriever, Leo, and Hank the bunny who is also shared with the middle school. The middle school has a dog, Baxter, a Nova Scotia duck trolling retriever and two rabbits, Mopsey and Hank. The Alpine Elementary School has Rosie, a terrier, she said.

Animals have a wonderful, proven way of providing warmth and calmness, and the Align Wellness Program looks forward to including more pets as part of its family once they are trained and certified, she said.

After the Pandemic Recently, the district has seen an increase in students suffering from anxiety, something that Esposito and her colleagues attribute in part to the pandemic. “It seems that students may have been affected by the loneliness they had to endure and the extended periods of being unable to socialize with their peers,” Esposito said. “Kids of all ages appear to have increasing levels of worry about school and social situations. So, we are trying to mitigate that by teaching them coping strategies and overall well-being techniques.”

Even during the pandemic, however, the wellness program continued to provide in-person services for high-risk students, Esposito said. 

It’s not only students in the higher grade levels who are suffering from anxiety, Esposito said. “The elementary school children are showing signs of increased worry as well,” she said. “Social skills deficits also seem to be impacting more students.”

Sometimes, in the younger grades, staff might help students to learn skills aimed at boosting their confidence levels, so they can form friendships during recess. Other times, the focus may be on assisting students with organizational skills.

At the upper levels, students tend to struggle with depression and anxiety. “That is not to say there might not be social skill struggles also,” she said. “But we are helping kids at the high school level realize that they just need to ask for some assistance because there is support for them, and it is OK. Our big message is destigmatizing mental health.”

Another benefit is that the program provides a mechanism for students to stay in school instead of being suspended. The alternative suspension program began at the high school and has now expanded to the middle school.

“Instead of suspending students for substance abuse or character infractions, if parents agree to it, we have a program that educates and counsels them, for example, about the ill effects of vaping or how to make better choices,” Esposito said. If someone is a repeat offender, they may also be required to do community service. 

In addition to serving students, staff members are also seeing benefits from the program, Esposito said. “Primarily, they are participating in yoga or physical movement classes,” she said. 

Cherry Hill Wellness Center: Cherry Hill fourth grade students visit the Wellness Center with Janel Blake, a pupil assistance couneslor, to take a mindful break, practice various breathing strategies and play with some different fidgets.
Cherry Hill Wellness Center: Cherry Hill fourth grade students visit the Wellness Center with Janel Blake, a pupil assistance couneslor, to take a mindful break, practice various breathing strategies and play with some different fidgets.

Focusing on Wellness in River Edge River Edge Public Schools in Bergen County, a PreK to grade-six district, opened wellness centers at Cherry Hill School and Roosevelt School in November 2022. The centers serve about 720 and 500 students respectively.

Christine Moran, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, recalled visiting a school with a wellness center before the pandemic and thinking, “What a cool idea.” When schools reopened and she saw how students were struggling socially and emotionally, it jumpstarted her to make the idea a reality.

“For our fifth- and sixth-grade students, we saw that collaboration with others for group projects really was impacted by the pandemic. Students struggled with working together in small groups,” Moran said. 

Cathy Danahy, who started as superintendent in December 2021, also has put wellness at the forefront of her agenda, Moran said.

When students go to the wellness center at each school, they will find stations where they can engage in different activities, Moran said. Each area also serves as a meeting place for various clubs. Two pupil assistance counselors, Janel Blake and Alrick Douglas, serve as the point persons for each wellness center. The district’s mental health clinician, Clare Hurst, also provides support.

“We really want it to be a place for all of our students to go whenever they need to chat with someone, take a break, regroup, etc.,” Moran said. 

To encourage that, teachers have been sending students to tour the center in each school. Since each center is small, students visit in small groups of four or five students. “The counselors created a scavenger hunt for students to complete as they explore the center and discover ways that the center can be used,” Moran said.

Sometimes, a group of students is brought to the center during lunch and recess to participate in various activities, Moran said. Various clubs are also held at the center. For instance, Kids Turn is a club for students that have experienced some type of change in the family. Teachers can recommend a student to participate in a club, and an invite is sent to parents and/or guardians inviting their student to participate. Another group that visits the Wellness Center during lunch and recess time is the Social Club, which provides opportunities for first and second grade students to engage in activities to help them build confidence with their social skills. Lastly, as a result of the pandemic, for the second year, the district is offering K-6 students an after-school program, the Post-Dismissal Instructional Academy, where staff members facilitate small group sessions once a week for six weeks. Sessions focus on skills such as initiating play, building relationships with peers, identifying and managing emotions and more. 

Counselors at each school also allow students in grades four through six to fill out “Let’s Talk” tickets, in which they explain what they want to talk about. A counselor will invite individual students down at a designated time to chat. Other times, a teacher may send a student to see a counselor as needed. “The students really enjoy it,” Moran said. “They love to explore the center’s books, materials and resources. When I walk by, it is just really great to see whether they are completing an art activity or painting or doing mindful movement with soft music playing.”

The wellness centers show that even a district with limited space can go the extra mile to make wellness a priority, Moran said. “Even before we had a dedicated space, we talked about how mindfulness and wellness could be incorporated into an art room or a music room and having a space within your own classroom where students could go and relax,” she said. “Sometimes, people call them Calming Corners.”

Moran suggests every school district establish a wellness committee made up of various staff and even students. “I think it’s important for the students to have a voice,” she said, noting that when the district held a wellness fair last year, fifth- and sixth-grade student leaders led students through various activities at different stations. Beyond the centers, the district focuses on wellness in a variety of other ways, including having a designated period during the school day – 30 minutes – called Community Time during which students and staff can engage in a variety of different social and emotional activities. 

Danahy, the superintendent, also joins Community Time sessions. She recently worked with classes to create murals with thoughtful messages for the world. The murals were displayed throughout the school buildings. One mural created by a second-grade class included the following message, “Believe in yourself” along with some illustrations.

The district also regularly holds “parent academies” featuring topics such as supporting your child in mathematics, inclusivity in schools and the community, or supporting the social and emotional needs of children. “Another layer of wellness that our superintendent is focusing on right now is digital wellness,” Moran said. 

Even during the pandemic, the district continued to host parent academy sessions and family events to stay in touch with the community. “We even hosted a family fitness night led by our comprehensive health and physical education teachers,” Moran said. “It was great to see our teachers leading families through different physical activities that can be done at home – and we are hoping to do more of that.”

That focus on physical fitness carries over into other areas as well, Moran said.

“Another component of our wellness program in regard to recess time is helping to build that engagement among our students, so we are implementing a program facilitated by our CHPE teachers called the Power of Play – POP,” Moran said. “Outside during recess, our CHPE teachers help students engage in box ball or soccer or whatever it is – they help students play these games and come together and engage in physical activity and have fun while doing it. We just started this in September, but it seems to be working very well.”

Academics and social and emotional learning go hand-hand, Moran said. “We need to emphasize both,” she said. 

Thomas A. Parmalee is NJSBA’s managing editor.