Schools focus on social, emotional learning

  • Peer leadership students at John Stark High School work on a mental health awareness project for younger grades before the pandemic. Courtesy

  • Then-high school senior Lauren Zervos writes to her pen pal, a younger student. Courtesy

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 8/23/2020 6:14:36 PM

The pathogen that provoked lockdowns this past spring is only one of many worries for public school students who may be nervous watching their parents lose jobs or seeing family members get sick, or possibly die. Some students are tangled in abusive home lives they can’t escape from. They may be falling behind in their academics because of the lack of routine or a quiet place to study.

Mental health advocates say more than the virus is surging. In New Hampshire, a third of adults over age 18 report having symptoms of anxiety or depression since the pandemic, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation. Nationally, 3 million adolescents reported having a major depressive disorder in the past year.

Brian Huckins, director of children and youth programs at the National Association for Mental Illness in New Hampshire said demand for support from a state program that serves children with severe emotional disturbances increased 35% during the first two months of the pandemic.

To help students cope with the emotional and mental-health burdens of the pandemic, schools across New Hampshire will be emphasizing socio-emotional learning this fall, not just academics.

Whether kids are learning in person, remotely or following a hybrid model, building empathy helps them feel safer in their school’s culture, said high school chemistry teacher Lorraine Connell. To some, that may seem like an oversimplification, but Connell said she’s witnessed it firsthand at John Stark Regional High School in Henniker, where for the last four years she’s run a peer leadership class that connects juniors and seniors with freshmen.

When freshmen enter a new school, they feel overwhelmed, said Connell. Her students, who met three times a week, learned how to become mentors to the first-time high schoolers, navigating any barriers the freshmen may be facing.

“Connection is the source of being part of a community,” said Connell. “And when you feel part of a community, you have a place, and you don’t feel alone.”

This fall, JSRHS will follow an alternating day hybrid schedule. On Monday, classes will be held remotely. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, students with the last names A-K attend in person while students with the last names L-Z work independently at home on assignments. On Wednesdays and Fridays, the reverse will occur. Details on how the peer leadership class will evolve in this new format have yet to be worked out, according to JSRHS principal Gary Dempsey.

Lauren Zervos, a recent high school graduate, took the class last year. She said she learned how to listen with intent and discern the facade of classmates acting rude when in reality they were feeling uncomfortable.

“It allowed me to open up as a person and also change other people’s minds in a positive direction,” said Zervos.

Recreating the course in a hybrid model will prove challenging, said Zervos, who recalls the abrupt transition in March. Even for digital natives, video chats don’t replace in-person connections. Concerned about the lower grade students, she and her classmates initiated a pen pal project with the Henniker Community School and the Weare Middle School, where they wrote letters, including a self-addressed envelope with stamps to make it easier for the younger kids to reply.

As she prepares for her freshman year at the Maine College of Art in Portland, Zervos continues to correspond about sports and art with her fourth and sixth grade pen pals, with whom she has yet to meet in person.

“It’s not just text; we actually have to sit down and take the time to write a letter, which I think is really important,” she said.

Each year, Connell tries new activities in the peer leadership class to foster empathy. Last semester, she invoked an exercise where the 30 students displayed on the wall sticky notes with adjectives to describe an “athlete.” Some wrote compliments like “fit” and “driven, while others scribbled pejoratives like “predators” and “aggressors.” Understandably, the students participating in school sports expressed dismay, insisting these images didn’t represent them. The students who wrote negative stereotypes pushed back, saying they weren’t describing their classmates but instead the athletes they saw on social media or on TV.

The exercise, said Connell, was “powerful,” helping students realize how quickly people form misconceptions.

A program with similar objectives for building empathy and taking action launched in January at the Weare Middle School. It is based on the national Sweethearts & Heroes training modules developed by Tom Murphy, a former martial arts professional from St. Albans, Vermont, and Jason Spector, an educator and coach in Glens Falls, New York.

Allison Peterson, dean of teaching and learning at the Weare Middle School, led the program last spring, facilitating talking circles with small groups of students twice a week where they discussed issues like bullying and harassment. The circles had an inauspicious beginning, acknowledges Peterson, but after the students grew comfortable, they developed sub-groups: one, for example, to discuss dress codes; another, treatment of girls by their male peers.

“That’s the goal in all of this,” said Peterson, “that students have a voice, and they have some kind of buy-in because it’s relevant to them.”

Coronavirus concerns prevent the all-day assemblies which typically kick off the Sweethearts & Heroes programs. In its place, co-founder Murphy is rolling out a series of video lessons and worksheets that cost $999, with activities that can run either in real time or asynchronously. David Hodgkins of Echelon Finance in Bow plans to sponsor the program for school districts in Weare, Lebanon, Concord, Bow, Litchfield, Portsmouth and Hanover.

Hodgkins said his memory of a traumatic experience motivated him to bring Murphy’s message to New Hampshire. In 1985, he was a junior at Concord High School when a former 16-year-old student threatened a football coach with a loaded gun. In response, a police officer fired at the shooter, ultimately killing the teenager. That police officer was a family friend and Hodgkins said he watched the incident spiral the officer into depression and alcoholism.

Hodgkins, now a father of two young adult children, reflects on how a Sweethearts & Heroes program may have altered the trajectory of the teenage shooter who was teased and described as a loner: “How would that have impacted that student’s life, if he had been able to have someone give him hope when he had lost all hope? He was essentially on a suicide mission.”

Murphy said the trainings aren’t developed to reform the bullies. “We’re there to train the rest of the kids around them, how to become sweethearts, give hope to others and take action, especially if a kid is in big trouble or not being treated the right way.”

After six months at home, Weare middle school students return in September with a mix of fear and excitement, said Peterson. In addition to nurturing academic competencies, educators must nurture the head and the heart, she said.

“Sadly, many of our kids carry heavy burdens and it is our responsibility to lift those so they are available to learn. It’s a delicate balance.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit

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