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What Students in Illinois Are Doing to Support Social and Emotional Well-Being

By Kaylee Horn - September 20, 2022

Thump, thump, thump. As I pull into the school parking lot, my heart beats louder and louder. I am aware of the rush of blood through every vein and artery. Each breath echoes through my ears; I get out of the car, and, as I grab that door handle, my stomach drops. I can’t do it; I can’t bring myself to endure the hours in this building because I am terrified. Anxiety rips through my chest as I leave and go homeanother day of education I am going to lack. This battle to get through the school doors every morning went on from my sophomore year to the end of my junior year. Mentally, and sometimes even physically, not attending a year’s worth of school left a detrimental effect on my education. I was aware I needed to articulate a way to lessen this anxiety.

My first step to resolve the issue was to recognize my “problem.” I am terrified of the judgment I could face or the mistakes I could make. I do not want to fail. I have always felt a constant pressure to get straight As. The one time I got a B, it felt like the world was over and I wouldn’t get into college. 

It is nerve racking for me to maintain my grades and keep up with everyone’s expectations of me and my expectations of myself. I spend late nights studying but also trying to keep in contact with friends for the fear they will forget me. All of the thoughts swirl around my head, putting me in a constant state of worry. It is human nature to worry about things for survival. For me, peer acceptance and good grades have been my lifeline. This can be very overwhelming as a teenager. Students all over the world feel this same rush of emotions and unbearable side effects of anxiety. School is a trigger for many young people.

Over time, I articulated the plan that works for mesomething that helps me stay at school and get through the day. I began going to my guidance counselor and learning coping techniques, like counting in my head when it felt like I couldn’t breathe, using “I am safe” as a mantra repeating in my head, or sometimes simply taking a quick break in her office to breathe before continuing a test. I can spend time there until I am calm enough to attend my regular classes. These coping mechanisms allowed me to work through my fears. Now, as a senior, I see school in a positive light.

I wanted to find a way I could use my personal story to help students find a positive light in their own schools. In turn, I joined the Illinois State Board of Education’s (ISBE’s) Student Advisory Council (SAC). The ISBE SAC is a group of students from across the state of Illinois, who applied and were accepted by faculty, and returnees who meet and advise ISBE on issues facing students. Each year, the SAC splits into subgroups to focus on the topics of need for students in the state. This past year, we focused on social and emotional learning and disciplinary actions and policy. We worked together to research those issues and came up with a proposal for the board that we think would benefit students. We presented this proposalat Springfield, in personto ISBE, a nine-member board of policymakers appointed by the governor with the consent of the Illinois Senate.

This year, in April, we met with ISBE. My subgroup focused on social and emotional learning and made the recommendation of adding a custom content question to the 5Essentials Survey, which all students in Illinois take. This custom content question deals with assessing how schools handle mental health issues. We want to get this feedback and see where and how schools struggle with providing mental health services. This way, next year, we will have a good basis to make more specific recommendations. We also recommended that ISBE share information with districts about Safe2Help, a suicide and school violence tip line. Schools can use this tip line to provide students with a safe and anonymous place to confide. ISBE accepted these recommendations, and surveyors are in the works of adding the custom content question. 

One thing I really loved about the SAC is its diversity. I think representation is very important when making policy. The SAC is made up of students from many demographic, ethnic, and geographic backgrounds. Students on the SAC provide valuable information to policymakers because they have personal experience and can get recommendations from a wide variety of students. I come from a small town, and I loved learning about how life was in the bigger cities in Illinois. It really gave me a new perspective. It was something we had to take into account when making recommendationsfinding something that would work for smaller and larger school districts.

The SAC has been a very positive outlet for me. I have met many role models and friends. This positivity in my life has helped with my mental health and has allowed me to share my story about mental health colliding with education and to help form social and emotional learning policies to ensure other students have a healthy coping mechanism.

Everyone deserves a safe and happy learning environment, and it is up to us to spread awareness of the debilitating effects mental health can have on students everywhere. I hope this blog encourages other students to get involved where they can and provide their unique perspective to make policy more well-rounded for all people of different demographics, ethnicities, and geographies.

You can learn more about the SAC on our website. Let us know what topics are important to you!

Kaylee Horn is a senior at Carrier Mills-Stonefort High school. In her free time, she likes to read books. She is also involved in numerous extracurricular activities including Service Club, Student Council, and Math and Science Club. Kaylee aspires to go to college in New York City.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages