Pascagoula-Gautier School District - Pandemic Partnership Response

Pascagoula-Gautier School District with United Way of Jackson and George Counties, Bacot-McCarty Foundation, JBHM Architects, BXS Insurance. This district-wide project worked to address The mental well-being of all students in order for learning to continue in the classroom.

Mental health has become a top priority in the PGSD. “The increase in the number of students we are seeing who have indicated depression and harming themselves, especially at the elementary level, is alarming,”  said Kristen Sims, Pascagoula-Gautier School District Positive Behavior Specialist and Whole Child Coordinator. “We have seen an increase in the number of mental health risk assessments we are doing with students who have indicated they are a danger to themselves -with the biggest trend at the elementary level. We’ve never seen this many at the elementary level - not to this extent. We’ve done more risk assessments at the elementary level than we have at the middle school level and that’s very alarming. We don’t want that number of children in distress.” COVID-19 has changed the world – especially for children. In the PGSD, children have been afraid of getting sick themselves and or have watched the people they love become sick and die. When job losses and the social aspects of isolation due to quarantine are factored in – all have negatively influenced the home environment. This world is in a constant state of stress, and human bodies,
especially young children, are not meant to stay in the heightened state of aggression with everyone irritable and on edge. The world is in a crisis mode, and COVID has aggravated that stress even more. “Our children are in a state of flight or fight. Our bodies are only meant to be stressed for a short amount of time so we can fight the stress or run away from it. Staying in crisis mode for an extended amount of time is terrible for the mind and body especially in young brains because trauma rewires their brains and makes them hyper-
sensitive to aggressive behavior,” Sims said. “Elementary children don’t have the skills to cope with all of the extra stress in their lives.” PGSD worked with community partner, Singing River Services, a mental health agency, and school guidance counselors to offer counseling for students. The district also has six Behavioral Specialists and six Behavioral Facilitators. They work with parents, giving them guidance and advice on how to help their children, digging deep to find the root of the distress in their lives. Newsletters go home to parents twice a month to teach them how to engage their children in positive conversations about their feelings focusing on relationship skills, responsibility and making good decisions. One of the most positive implementations has been the creation of social/emotional learning cards to help increase
students’ emotional intelligence and to teach them to self -regulate. The district partnered with Todd Trenchard with the Bacot-McCarty Foundation, Bobby Brasher with BXS Insurance, Tee McCovey, CEO of United Way for Jackson and George Counties, and Ryan Florreich with JBHM Architectural Firm, to present laminated cards to all students and help them identify with one of four zones – happy, sad, anger or frustration. On the flip side are coping strategies and words of affirmation to help students cope with their negative feelings. The cards are a simplified way of identifying a child’s feelings and how those feelings impact their behaviors. Behavior Specialists work with students to identify their feelings, get them comfortable with how they feel and help the children feel valid and safe. They work with students on how to develop appropriate coping skills by using positive affirmations. Teachers have been trained on how to deal
with these behavior situations, better equipping them with classroom management skills and attending to the emotional well-being of their students. Teachers have built one-on-one relationships with students and parents to keep the lines of communication open. All 556 teachers in the district made a video, telling the students how much they love them as a way to support them in every way they can. The mental well-being of all students must be addressed in order for learning to continue in the classroom.