Webinar Teaches Emotional Health For Students

Jackson Township Elms Elementary Principal Michael Burgos, featured at the podium, joins two students who took part in an emotional learning essay contest. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  JACKSON – Emotional health and learning has been a major focus of schools around the state in the last several years and that focus has been sharply honed in the township’s school district.

  One portion of this is a webinar by township teacher and Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Specialist Kristie Opaleski. She has taught in the school district for 22 years and is currently teaching English at Jackson Liberty High School. She previously taught at Jackson Memorial High School.

  The educator explained that SEL involves “teaching the whole child which is what the Jackson initiative is all about. The idea being that while it is important to teach the children academically, they are coming to us with emotional issues that we need to be aware of so we can give them the resources that they need and the strategies they need for coping and to also be aware of when you someone is in front of you, you have to teach the whole child.

  “If a child is hungry, they aren’t going to care about reading a chapter of a book or answering questions or engaging in a seminar – they’re hungry,” Opaleski said. Children’s education is strongly impacted by stress at home or just the stress of being a teenager.

  “I’m really into mindfulness, meditation and working with kids to teach them the skills and empower them so they know they can calm themselves down and handle any situation. The Family Engagement series is to get the community involved and to let people know what Jackson is doing in the schools and to offer some tricks and tips that you can practice at home,” Opaleski added.

  She said that the objective of this first webinar was to get a better idea as to the mental health of a modern teenager. “Mental health has become a huge buzz word in education and in the world especially because of the pandemic. It was there before that with social media and how they view themselves and others and how they interact with others inside and outside of school.

  “We’ll be looking at what their mental health is and how we can improve to see how they can live their best life,” Opaleski added. She noted some of the science of a teenage brain showing a five-minute video from a scientific perspective about the development of a teen’s prefrontal cortex and limbic system.

Acting New Jersey Commissioner of Education Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillion speaks during a visit to the Jackson Elms Elementary School regarding the importance of emotional health. (Photo by Bob Vosseller)

  The teen brain experiences a number of neural growing plans and restructuring during these years, according to the video which explains the hormonal changes and puberty changes that effect behavior.

  Opaleski’s presentation noted that as teen brains are still developing, they respond to stress differently than adults do. They need nine to 10 hours of sleep each night but that most teens aren’t getting enough sleep. This results in impulsivity and may increase the risk of irritability and/or depression.

  The teen brain however is resilient and some changes in the brain during this important time in their development may help protect them from the development of long-term mental disorders.

  She noted that important factors of building their mental health and key areas of importance included: building a sense of purpose, supportive relationships, adapting to change, being connected to others, healthy coping skills, realizing their potential, their basic needs are being met and they are enjoying life.

  Warning signs include loss of interest, low energy, poor sleep, isolating themselves, poor self-care, risky or destructive behavior, thoughts of suicide and irrational thoughts.

  Coping mechanisms include getting out of their head for a while, movement, meditation or breath work, reframing a situation of distress, talking to a trusted individual, practicing gratitude, having a self-care plan and participating in a favorite activity.

  Opaleski said the next webinar, to be presented later this month, “we will be discussing stress management for families because it is holidays and it is very stressful.” For details of when that webinar will be released online visit jacksonsd.org 

  Her complete November presentation can be found at drive.google.com/file/d/1y7bP8SuK0gm9q7IrdbTncbzh9_pfTSY_/view. Opaleski can also be contacted via kaopleski@jacksonsd.org