Kaiser plans to use virtual and in-person resources to target stress, anxiety in schools

The nationwide initiative’s goal is to stem the rising tide of anxiety and stress by targeting school faculty and staff and giving them the resources to create a healthier environment for students and themselves.

Integrated health system Kaiser Permanente is partnering with two organizations to tackle rising levels of stress and anxiety among U.S. students and teachers.

The effort – dubbed the Resilience in School Environments, or RISE – offers a mix of virtual and real-time resources aimed at faculty and staff in K-12 education. It was announced Thursday.

More than 600 schools in 37 states have engaged with the initiative so far. By 2023, the initiative is expected to reach 25,000 schools. The program does not target students directly, but students are expected to benefit from programs directed at their teachers and administrators.

“Through implementing the action steps and activities included in RISE, the idea is that they will improve the environment for students as well as school employees,” Dr. Bechara Choucair, senior vice president and chief community health officer at Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente, said in an email response to questions forwarded by a Kaiser representative.

Kaiser’s partners in the initiative are the nonprofit Alliance for a Healthier Generation and Discovery Education, a provider of digital teaching and training resources based in Charlotte, North Carolina. The alliance has offices in New York City and Portland, Oregon.

Studies show that mental health challenges are prevalent in primary and secondary education. In a 2019 survey by the Pew Research Center, 70% of teens said anxiety and depression are major problems among their peers. And nearly half of K-12 teachers report high daily stress during the school year, matching levels reported by nurses and physicians, according to a Gallup report on the state of America’s schools.

“Teaching is a tough job. The pressure to make sure all of our students are learning and learning how to be safe can create a constant state of feeling as an educator that you are not doing enough,” Spokane Public Schools principal Rachel Sherwood said in a press release. “That is exhausting. As a school system, we need these kinds of supports to surround our teachers and families for everyone’s long-term success and well-being.”

For schools in the RISE Initiative, the first step is an online assessment available at the Healthier Generation Action Center. The center is a digital hub stocked with tools, training and guidance for schools in the RISE Initiative. It also recommends best practices for schools.

“Some best practices could include scheduling downtime for teachers and staff during the day to plan and reflect, ensuring students are greeted personally at the classroom in the morning by teachers, and redesigning break areas to incorporate elements that create calming spaces,” Choucair wrote in an email. “Our goal is that these practices will result in fewer punitive disciplinary actions, improved school culture and climate.”

At the same time, Discovery Education is creating related e-learning modules to aid in professional development for school staff, teachers and administrators. The modules will be rolled out next year, Choucair wrote in the email.

The initiative also will provide on-site resources, including program managers. They will work with schools and districts to complete online assessments and carry out action plans. A theater program will be offered to address stress and trauma for students and educators. The initiative includes a focus on addressing what are known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, defined as traumatic events that occur before the age of 18.

Onsite work is underway already at 100 schools, Choucair wrote. “To us, this is evidence of the urgent need for the kind of support that the RISE initiative will provide. We anticipate these numbers to exponentially increase when additional elements of the initiative are rolled out next year including the Discovery Education virtual learning platform.”

To gauge whether the initiative is working, Kaiser is partnering with the National Center on School Mental Health. The center will be tracking progress toward outcomes such as reductions in staff stress, improved connectedness among students and staff, and increased mental health supports for students, Choucair wrote.

Choucair declined to discuss the budget for the initiative. It is part of a Kaiser Permanente initiative called Thriving Schools, which is focused on wellness more broadly but is interested in mitigating ACEs. In October, Kaiser announced that it was setting aside $2.75 million to study ACEs led by Kaiser research scientists.

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