Testimony to the NYS Assembly Education Committee-Mental Health/Physical Education

Kyle Belokopitsky Gives Testimony to Assembly

Testimony of New York State Congress of Parents & Teachers
(NYS Parent Teacher Association)

By Kyle McCauley Belokopitsky, Esq.
Executive Director

NYS Assembly Education Committee

Albany,
October 23, 2018

I am Kyle McCauley Belokopitsky, the Executive Director of the New York State Congress of Parents and Teachers, Inc. (NYS PTA) and on behalf of our nearly 300,000 members of NYS PTA and the parents and families of our 2.6 million New York school children, we appreciate the opportunity to comment on the current state of health, mental health, and physical education programs, services, and instruction in our schools.

Thank you to Assembly Education Chairwoman Catherine Nolan and members of the Assembly Education Committee for your interest and attendance today. Your dedicated work on behalf of our students and children should be commended and we thank you for your commitment.

At PTA, we speak for every child and family, with one voice, and strive for collaborative conversations to develop solutions. We will address five general areas for your consideration and look forward to more discussions in the future on how we can best work together to support our children:

  1. Whole Child and Social Emotional Learning
  2. Mental Health Education and Support for our Children (and their families)
  3. Adequate Support Services for Students
  4. The Importance of Play and Recess in Education
  5. Substance Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment, including Recovery High Schools

Whole Child and Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning and the health of our children is paramount, and a “Whole Child” education recognizes the importance and value of a comprehensive, multifaceted model of teaching and learning that occurs within a safe and supportive learning environment. Our educational system must address and foster the physical-psychological-social-emotional-intellectual aspects of a child’s development, creating a balance that is critical.

NYS PTA supports a student-centered educational approach that results in healthy, well-rounded, resilient children. Balancing traditional learning with social-emotional programming and family engagement will create a developmentally appropriate way to help children to become knowledgeable, responsible, compassionate adults and citizens of the world.

NYS PTA advocates for all children:

  • To be healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged in educational settings that promote long term development and success;
  • To have an equal opportunity to develop to their fullest potential with life skills that include: digital, media, and informational literacy to evaluate content and use technology effectively; life and career competencies such as flexibility, time and project management, and self-direction; cultural awareness; leadership; and responsibility;
  • To be served by NYS learning standards that incorporate a Whole Child social-emotional approach supporting students as they become college and/or career ready;
  • To have a school climate that fosters the development of healthy lifestyles through comprehensive programs such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Health initiative;
  • To be educated in schools with policies that strengthen family and community engagement as an integral part of the success of the whole child;
  • To experience cooperation among family, school, and community in building and supporting protective environments that will nurture resiliency in youth, including children being connected to at least one adult in the school building who they feel cares about them and wants them to succeed;
  • To be engaged in civility, citizenship, tolerance and character education that supports the social, emotional and ethical development.

According to the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, the five tenets of the Whole Child are:

  1. Each student enters school healthy and learns and practices a healthy lifestyle.
  2. Each student learns in an environment that is physically and emotionally safe.
  3. Each student actively engages in his/her own learning and experiences connections to the school and broader community.
  4. Each student receives personalized learning and support from qualified, caring adults.
  5. Each student experiences academic challenges and prepares for success in college or further study and for employment and participation in a global environment.

Mental Health Education and Support for our Children (and their families)

Mental health support for children, families and all New Yorkers must remain the highest priority for our state.

The Mental Health Association of NYS has offered:

  • Half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by age 14;
  • Half of all lifetime cases of anxiety disorders begin as early as age 8;
  • 22% of youth experience serious mental illness;
  • Over 60% of young adults with mental illness were unable to complete high school, are 4 times less likely to go to college/trade school, or obtain employment, and are 3 times more likely to be involved in criminal justice activities; and
  • 1 in 12 high school students have attempted suicide in a given year.

According to a recent survey of NYS school superintendents by the NYS Council of School Superintendents, 52% of superintendents would make “improving mental health, counseling, social work or related services” a priority for new funding, up from 35% the previous year. Improving mental health services was overwhelmingly the most widely cited priority for superintendents.

NYS PTA proudly served on the Mental Health Advisory Committee which advised the State Education Department as they developed and adopted regulations (and further guidance) which required age appropriate mental health education to be included in health curriculum in schools.

However, parents, families, and schools need help. While parents, families, schools and communities are generally prepared to serve students with physical disabilities or development delays and concerns, mental health issues are not yet uniformly identified and treated in a similar fashion.

It is also critically important to address issues related to access to medical and mental health services due to general inequity amongst districts across the state and inequalities among students and families within the same district.

A first in the nation, mandatory mental health education is now being implemented in our schools, on a very short timeline with limited resources, and we must work this coming year on further support for this initiative, with: (1) expanded funding and support for children, (2) necessary support personnel, and (3) professional development for educators.

Also for information, MHANYS has launched a new website, the School Mental Health Resource Training Center, which can be found at https://www.mentalhealthednys.org.

Adequate Support Services and Health Programs for Students (and their families)
NYS PTA strongly supports the Community Schools model of education, an effective strategy for student and family success, and often addresses the health, social, and socio-emotional needs of students and their families. Community Schools often deploy preventive health programs such as: prenatal and well-child care, newborn screenings, immunizations, nutritional screenings, dental care, vision and hearing screenings, scoliosis and blood pressure screenings, lead poisoning and other medical services offered in a school-based setting.

With fully phased-in Foundation Aid, more schools would be able to leverage resources to consider converting to a Community School. Further, ALL schools should be afforded the opportunity to transform schools into community hubs for learning and family support and funding for any school to support this model should be included in the final State Budget.

Further, it is of particular importance to have sufficient supports for children in schools, and adequate funding must be secured to ensure appropriate ratios for support personnel. Faced by past and current budget restraints, districts have had to cut many professional positions (nurses, social workers, psychologists and guidance counselors) leading to a continued disproportion of student to professional ratio in many districts across the state.

These critical support personnel include guidance counselors, health professionals such as school nurses, licensed clinical social workers, and school psychologists – who work not only to address mental health concerns, but also identify behavioral issues and can be a positive support system for the academic system, family and community.

For example, social workers are trained in evidence-based individual, group and family counseling and have a unique perspective to view the child as part of a larger system to identify unmet physical and emotional needs. They can provide crisis intervention, conflict resolution, and social and emotional support to best meet the needs of children, youth and families.

The Importance of Play and Recess in Education

NYS PTA strongly supports a mandate that every school district offer at least twenty minutes a day of supervised, unstructured time (recess) for all elementary and middle school students in New York. Recess must also be separate and apart from a child’s mandated physical education time. We further support expanded play in the classroom, especially for our earliest learners.

We also urge that recess not be eliminated from a child’s school day due to academic failure and that schools consider alternative behavior modification methods before denying any child recess activities.

Alarmingly, we are told by our members that some school districts offer no recess, even for their youngest elementary school students. Further, some districts use their physical education mandated time for recess. We understand that school districts and educators face difficult decisions and mandates, but recess is a critical component of a Whole Child education. We also strongly recommend physical activity beyond physical education and the need for “brain breaks” and increased physical activity in the classroom.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, has recommended:

“1. Recess is a necessary break in the day for optimizing a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development. In essence, recess should be considered a child’s personal time, and it should not be withheld for academic or punitive reasons.

2. Cognitive processing and academic performance depend on regular breaks from concentrated classroom work. This applies equally to adolescents and to younger children. To be effective, the frequency and duration of breaks should be sufficient to allow the student to mentally decompress.

3. Recess is a complement to, but not a replacement for, physical education. Physical education is an academic discipline. Whereas both have the potential to promote activity and a healthy lifestyle, only recess (particularly unstructured recess) provides the creative, social, and emotional benefits of play.

4. Recess can serve as a counterbalance to sedentary time and contribute to the recommended 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity per day, a standard strongly supported by AAP policy as a means to lessen risk of overweight.

5. Whether structured or unstructured, recess should be safe and well supervised. Although schools should ban games and activities that are unsafe, they should not discontinue recess altogether just because of concerns connected with child safety. Environmental conditions, well-maintained playground equipment, and well-trained supervisors are the critical components of safe recess.

6. Peer interactions during recess are a unique complement to the classroom. The lifelong skills acquired for communication, negotiation, cooperation, sharing, problem solving, and coping are not only foundations for healthy development but also fundamental measures of the school experience.”

Substance Use Disorder Prevention and Treatment, including Recovery High Schools
We fully support expansion and access to recovery high school programs, and support funding for and expansion of BOCES and non-component school districts, including the Big Five City School Districts, to participate.

Substance use disorders continue to be a real and critical concern, and as a community, we must do better to support our children and families in crisis. Children and young adults in recovery are at high risk of relapse, especially as they return to their home/school environments. They go back to the people, places and things that often create triggers that can lead to using substances as a coping mechanism.

Recovery schools need to be in ALL communities, where students can develop sober support systems while working towards meeting educational requirements to earn their high school diploma.

Recovery schools are particularly important in communities where there are little to no alternatives for young people. The stress of school and being able to make friends without the peer pressure to engage in risky behaviors, is extremely important for youth who need to develop the skills to navigate the adolescent world. Many of these students also have co-occurring mental health disorders and as such, need to learn how to address the emotional turmoil with cognitive behavioral support. Funds need to be provided not just to school systems, but to OASAS licensed treatment programs to work together to meet the recovering needs of young people.

Further, heroin and prescription opiates continue to devastate families and communities across New York State. Young people under the age of 25 and their families are particularly impacted.

We fully supported the many initiatives that addressed substance use disorders and heroin and opioid abuse prevention and treatment that were included in the past years budget and legislative sessions, and continue to fully support expansion of Adolescent Clubhouses (Recovery Youth Clubhouses) and other initiatives that support prevention, intervention and treatment of substance use disorders.

Conclusion

Supporting the Whole Child must be a focus for us all, and we ask the education community to continue to demonstrate a commitment to providing a healthy and nurturing learning environment for ALL students.

Together, we can make every child’s potential a reality. There is no other work that is more important.