Colorful sticky notes with messages of encouragement cover a wall in the Wolverine Den, a modified counseling office at Chief Umtuch Middle School in Battle Ground.
The den is a place of solace and reflection for students who become overwhelmed or act out in the classroom — a productive alternative to punishment or detention.
In those moments of stress, teachers allow students to pay the den a visit, where they speak with an expert in social-emotional learning about the root of their behaviors, and what else in their life might be making them feel stressed out or distracted.
“When you’re in a classroom with 30 other kids and a teacher, there’s not time to have that conversation about what’s happening in my home life and how that’s affecting my school life, that’s a serious conversation,” said Lillie Shaver, a social-emotional learning center clerk at Chief Umtuch.
Shaver describes her role as a “go-between” for teachers and students. By briefly removing a student from a classroom in which they’re experiencing an issue, she can help resolve the stress and conflict the student is experiencing without causing further disruption in education for the teacher and the rest of the class.
Shaver’s work also helps to alleviate the pressure that teachers may feel to resolve conflicts with students on the spot.
Sometimes these conflicts arise over simple reminders to wear their mask properly. Sometimes it’s about an entirely personal issue.
“We’re giving teachers the chance to do their job and be a teacher and not interrupt class,” Shaver said. “I jump in like a hero — a fresh perspective.
“I’m not the teacher, I’m not the principal, I’m not your mom. It’s just a training or retraining with the students, often just a reminder of expectations in the classroom and making sure the basics are understood.”
At the district level
Chief Umtuch’s Wolverine Den is just one of a number of social-emotional learning centers that has been implemented in middle and high schools throughout Battle Ground Public Schools in recent years as part of multiple initiatives to provide improved mental health resources.
The centers help implement new remedial strategies in the district like its Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports methods, which provides multistep counseling to students struggling with repeated behavioral issues.
“Previously, you’d see the same kid over and over,” said Tom Adams, Battle Ground’s director of student services. “Now with these rooms, where we have the chance to reflect and do restorative conversations, you get to know the kid a little better through guidance with an adult who’s trained to work with these kids.”
The multiple tiers of the program aim to begin students with simple reminders and restorative exercises and then engage in more individualized discussions on mental health practices and counseling if issues continue, Adams said.
In 2014, Battle Ground was awarded $2.5 million in grant funding as part of a five-year program called Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education involving the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction and two other school districts in Washington.
Though the grant money ended in 2019, Battle Ground has sought to keep these programs in its schools, primarily through levy funding. Just before its replacement levy passed in November of 2021, Superintendent Denny Waters listed the maintenance and expansion of the district’s social-emotional learning centers as a top necessity included in the levy funding.
With the levy’s passing, Battle Ground can fund at least 16 psychologist positions throughout the district. The state funds less than one of these positions per district.
Expanding the program
In the coming months, they hope to add centers like the Wolverine Den in each of Battle Ground’s elementary schools, cycling in an understanding of mental wellness at an early age.
“We’re trying to treat behavior like it’s an academic,” Adams said.
Back at Chief Umtuch, Shaver feels like the stigma surrounding seeking mental health resources at the Wolverine Den is dwindling.
“We’re getting students to feel like they can take ownership of their behaviors,” she said. “Once I get them to open up a bit, you can see what they want for themselves.”
Shaver routinely meets with other school counselors and psychologists — sometimes with principals — to discuss how her work is going and what needs to continue to improve.
Adams said meetings with social-emotional learning clerks throughout the year help to establish proper job descriptions and necessary training initiatives for incoming counselors, whether in elementary school centers or for current ones. Trainings take place over multiple days prior to the school year, and then once a week as they continue in their roles.
Shaver suggests that as the centers are implemented in elementary schools, she’d like to see schools consider having conversations on behavioral health and social-emotional learning in small groups with students experiencing similar issues.
“A lot of things are done in similar ways at that level, like reading groups,” Shaver said.
As teachers and students go about their days, Shaver and other counselors across the district help to keep gears moving as schools seek to make up for lost time in the classroom as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a win for all, she said.
“It’s like giving those kids another tool in their toolbox to help themselves,” Shaver said. “If we can take some burden off those kids and give them tools to calm themselves and communicate to adults and peers, it’s huge.”