Steps Toward Becoming a Stress and Stigma-Free School District
In 2015, the Montville Township Board of Education entered into a three-year agreement with the United Way of Northern New Jersey and its Youth Empowerment Alliance (YEA) to participate in a three-year School Culture and Climate Initiative. During the first year of implementation in 2015-2016, the district conducted a School Climate and Culture survey, seeking input from students in all of our schools, staff members and parents. Each school created a School Culture and Climate Team. A separate student team to present student voice and assist in planning student improvement initiatives was formed. Last year, a YEA facilitator helped guide each school’s Team through an analysis of the schools survey results. The district’s administrative council also met with the YEA facilitators to gain a sense of the district trends revealed by the data. We were struck by the fact that across all of our schools student anxiety and stress was identified as a significant challenge. While we can easily acknowledge that the life of a high school student can be stressful, with a rigorous academic course load and pressure associated with college acceptance, the fact that there was significant stress even at the elementary school level was of concern to us.
The School Teams have spent time during the 2016-2017 school year formulating plans to help reduce stress. At the high school level, the student panel indicated that having a disproportionate number of assessments on the same day was a major source of anxiety. Since a rotating block schedule exists, a pilot program was introduced to limit the number of assessments that a student can have on a single day by determining that odd numbered periods can assess students on odd days in the rotation and even numbered periods can assess on even days.
The Morris County Freeholders launched a “Morris County Stigma-Free Communities Initiative” in 2016. Given our concern for the mental health of our students, it was very easy to recommend to the Board of Education that the district adopt a resolution to identify ourselves as a “Stigma-Free School District.” In doing this, the district acknowledges that when an individual is dealing with a mental health issue, the judgment and prejudice they may experience can lead to feelings of shame, embarrassment, hopelessness and as a result they may be reluctant to seek help. In creating Stigma-Free Schools, our hope is to have all students and staff serve as “Stigma-Free Ambassadors” while exhibiting empathy, respect, cooperation and citizenship. We want all of the members of our learning community to know that it’s o.k. not to feel o.k. and there are resources and support if you only ask for help.
To further support our initiative to reduce stress, a Mindfulness Initiative has been included in the district’s new five-year Strategic Plan for 2017-2022. As our attention is often drawn in so many different directions and we all feel the stress and pressure of our daily obligations, we are looking to add in the meditative and reflective practices that can bring some balance to our existence. We believe strongly that these practices will enable us to create a school culture that is emotionally positive and more conducive to learning.