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Iowa City students learn to navigate stress and anxiety in new mental health classroom

Gazette - 1/24/2023

Jan. 24—IOWA CITY — After seeing too many of their peers at Iowa City West High School crying in hallways, Helelia Wa Kalala, 18, and Nao Oya, 17, both seniors, advocated for a space where students can have their feelings before returning to class.

The school converted a classroom in to a NESTT — which stands for Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training — where students can check in at any time during the school day to learn mindfulness, emotional regulation and distress tolerance.

"It's like a home away from home where students can feel safe," said Wa Kalala, co-president with Oya of a mental health advocacy club at West High.

Wa Kalala was hospitalized for "crippling anxiety" earlier in the pandemic. Before that experience, mental health was not something her family talked about, she said.

"I realized so many of my friends were going through the same things and they didn't know what to do," Wa Kalala said. "I don't blame my parents for not understanding. It's not the culture they grew up in. Having someone at school to talk to would have helped me so much."

Students can visit the NESTT anytime throughout the school day if they need help navigating a mental health situation or stress. Their time and activity is monitored by trained staff members and check-in and checkout forms.

The goal is for students to spend no more than 15 minutes in the NESTT focused on learning or practicing a coping skill before returning to class. Skills or tools offered at NESTT includes art, talking with staff, playing with fidget toys and listening to music.

Students have the opportunity to write their emotions in a comment box. Many responses have mentioned feeling anxious, worried, nervous, stressed or overwhelmed when they came to the NESTT. Students indicate they feel better when they leave the NESTT than when they arrived.

"The first step in caring for yourself is acknowledging when you need a minute or a break from something that is stressing you out," said Lora Daily, Iowa City schools director of learning supports. "The NESTT validates we all have those feelings, encourages students to take that first step and teaches simple skills to help them when things feel stressful."

The first NESTT started in January 2021 at Iowa City High School. The concept was created by students, school counselors, school social workers and teachers. The school received a $11,000 grant from the Big Idea Hunt, a program funded by the Foundation for the Iowa City Community School District, to purchase equipment including furniture, books and other resources.

This school year, the model was recreated at every secondary school in Iowa City. About 2,500 students have used the NESTT across the district's schools, according to board documents.

About a third of 14- to 18-year-olds were experiencing a mental health crisis each year before the pandemic, Daily said, and schools were becoming a space where students could reach out for mental health support.

"Everyone holds stress differently, and once you know how it feels you will start to notice it in your body earlier, and allow you to use the tools you've learned to mitigate those feelings before they become overwhelming," Daily said.

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