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SPRINGDALE -- Trauma in kids' lives often shows itself in outbursts and other disruptions at school, but teachers can help them handle powerful emotions in healthier ways, a mental health expert told Springdale educators Wednesday.

Divorce, abuse, crime and common events like a family illness or death can leave their marks on the very architecture of the brain, Ozark Guidance school-based liaison Jennifer Coldiron told about three dozen teachers at Elmdale Elementary School during the third of three training sessions. Students can respond to such events with aggression, unusual anxiety or drops in their grades.

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Teachers, in turn, can help by recognizing those responses for what they are and modeling ways to express and release emotions even in non-traumatic situations, Coldiron said. Showing young children you understand what they're feeling and giving them clear, simple choices for how to react, such as breathing slowly or verbalizing their thoughts, could help defuse tantrums, for example.

"What's happening there is they're getting grounded, they're getting back to the moment," she said.

Ozark Guidance provides mental health services for children and adults throughout Northwest Arkansas and provides counselors and free information sessions for parents, teachers and students at more than 100 area schools, including Elmdale.

Emotional eruptions are a daily experience for the teachers, many of them said Wednesday. Just that morning one student had been distraught at the loss of chapstick he'd gotten from his mom, and sometimes the issue is as trivial as that. But this particular student has had years of traumatic events, principal Michele Hutton said. Professionals can tackle deep-rooted mental health concerns, she added, but the teachers are the first responders.

"We need to know what to do, too," she said, adding the information sessions show children's strong emotions might not have anything to do with the situation or be aimed at the teacher. "It's knowing that, they're not doing this to me."

About one in four Americans is experiencing clinical depression and other mental illnesses, and about half will develop such an illness at some point in their lifetime, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The federal agency also reports that the issue is particularly common in Arkansas and the rest of the South.

Students at Elmdale and other area schools are heavily Hispanic or Marshallese, which can bring the added mental strains of cultural assimilation and racial prejudice. The centers have found Hispanic boys and girls are more likely than their peers to consider or attempt suicide.

This week marks the country's 27th annual Mental Illness Awareness Week, though the Wednesday session wasn't directly tied to it.

Elmdale's teachers were particularly interested in Coldiron's recommendations for the serious tantrums, ones that drown out a teacher's calm guidance. She said getting the child out of the storm of the moment, whether with something to fidget with in his hands or by going to a certain nook of the room, can help. It also helps to intervene before emotions reach such a pitch and make a general habit of teaching kids to sense their own emotional currents.

"You're going to be the best judge of the situation," Coldiron told the group. "It's not a magic wand."

As part of its work in schools, Ozark Guidance also offers sessions on technology, bullying and transitions from one school level to another, Coldiron said afterward. The group also recently began a peer leadership program aimed at junior high and high school students to help them support each other.

Northwest Arkansas is expanding mental health services for all ages as well. Northwest Health, for example, is doubling its adult acute mental health unit and will host a new crisis stabilization unit for people experiencing immediate mental health issues who could otherwise be jailed.

NW News on 10/05/2017

Print Headline: Teachers learn mental health skills

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