Answering the cry
Jessica Dain
September 18, 2019

Children -- and sometimes adults -- don't always know how to ask for help. 

Between 2015 and 2018, eight students and one teacher from Olathe Public Schools committed suicide. The losses were heartbreaking for our 30,000-student school community. Administrators and staff knew we needed strategies--strategies that would elevate the conversation about mental wellness, provide students and staff with support and remove the stigma of asking for help.

Gathering Data

Our first step was to gather data, specifically around social-emotional learning.

Olathe began measuring SEL data and teaching SEL skills in every classroom in the fall of 2017. We use an SEL survey from Panorama Education and curriculum from Second Step.  

The survey sheds light on “silent data,” the emotional warning signs that were previously identified only after students had injured themselves. We can now measure things like grit, emotional regulation, social awareness and coping mechanisms for anxiety. We are embedding these SEL components into daily instruction and resources for intervention.

This data is paying off. We have been able to jump start difficult conversations and take a proactive approach with students. For example, if a teacher sees that a student’s trend data is moving in a negative direction, we can immediately intervene to provide the student and his or her family with help before the situation becomes serious. 

Stripping the Taboo Label 

The data and discussions have helped remove the stigma around mental health. Students have become passionate about these conversations. They are reaching out for resources and we are now able to choose programming and tools that make sense for each situation. It has led to enormous gains in student success and well being. 

Changing Instruction

Previously, if work was turned in late or a student fell asleep in class, he or she would receive a detention or grade penalty. The data is helping to change that. It has encouraged teachers to stop, think and review data, and realize there could be more to the picture.

It is giving us new insights. We have a platform that can break student data into different subgroups, which recently helped us notice that students of certain ethnicities scored 20% lower in their sense of belonging. This realization opened conversations with our teachers. We are now working to include culturally-responsive pedagogy, inclusivity and diversity into instruction and discussing ways administrators and staff can provide support.

Understanding our students makes us better as a class, better as a school and better as a district. Twelve of Olathe’s 56 schools now have mental health clinicians. The district screens students with the Signs of Suicide program, and also draw on the Communities That Care survey data, collected over a decade, to measure students’ well-being. Combining this data, teaching SEL skills and conducting the SOS assessment is letting us not only have serious and meaningful conversations with families, but -- more importantly -- save lives.

Jessica Dain is assistant superintendent of Support Services at Olathe Public Schools, which serves 30,000 students in Kansas. 

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