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GLADSTONE, OR (KPTV) - The Gladstone School District is taking a revolutionary approach in addressing rising levels of student anxiety, stress and depression through two wellness centers that opened this school year.

One is inside John Wetten Elementary and the other is at Kraxberger Middle School.

Both are intentionally-designed spaces where students focus on their emotional and mental wellbeing.

John Wetten Principal Wendy Wilson told FOX 12 the space is necessary because more and more students are coming to school unable to learn.

They may be struggling with traumatic experiences, chaos at home, behavioral issues, anger management, anxiety, depression or other barriers and until those issues are addressed they can’t succeed in the classroom.

“When the kids come to school, no matter what, it’s our job to educate them,” Wilson said. “I don’t see us being able to educate kids without doing all of this social, emotional work. I really don’t.”

At John Wetten, students who may benefit from the center get referred by their teachers and a care team. They come in at a scheduled time every day for roughly 20 minutes and go through a specific routine at one of the stations.

While the new program is still in its first year, Wilson said it’s already working.

“Last year we had a lot of room clears and room clears are when it’s not safe for kids to be in classrooms because a child is really acting out, really struggling in a big way,” she explained. “We haven’t had any room clears this year with students who have come into the [center], so that’s a big piece of data that’s pretty important to us.”

On top of that, she said referrals for discipline are down by more than 50% for students who come in.

The center is part of a wider strategy throughout the school, where students are taught various ‘zones’ based on color that correlate with the emotions they’re feeling. They’re also taught breathing techniques and a Calming Corner is in every classroom where students can elect to take 5 minutes to regulate themselves.

“Providing them a really calm, safe, predictable environment – not just in this room but throughout the school – it makes a huge difference,” Wilson said. “It really does.”

The strategy continues at Kraxberger Middle School, where the wellness center has four ‘labs’ equipped with art supplies, a library, a dark space, sand tray and even a punching bag. In the center of the room is a large couch where students can work on resolving conflicts with their peers.

At the middle school level, students sign up for 15-minute appointments to visit the center. Since launching in September, 1,300 appointments have been filled.

“In the seven years I’ve been in this business, kids have changed a lot and they’re bringing with them a greater degree of anxiety,” Kraxberger Assistant Principal Jeff Waters said.

Waters is also seeing the benefit of the program, and said it is having a positive effect on the whole school environment.

From a discipline perspective, referrals and suspensions are both down.

But perhaps even more significant, students are learning the skills to proactively take care of themselves, which in turn leads them to be more successful not only in the classroom but also in their home lives, skills they can take with them into adulthood.

“Mental health means taking care of yourself and everybody needs to know how to do that,” Waters said. “I think when you look at what the elementary school is doing and what we’re doing and you extrapolate five years down the road when you have a generation of kids who have been exposed to the concept of wellness, self-efficacy, taking care of yourself and your community, I think the power of that is yet to be told and is very exciting.”

The Gladstone School District is one of the first in Oregon taking this approach.

Each school also partners with a professional organization to give students an extra level of care.

John Wetten Elementary partners with Western Psychological, Kraxberger Middle School partners with Trillium Family Services and Gladstone High School partners with the Clackamas County Health Department.

Copyright 2019 KPTV-KPDX Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved.

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