In addition to having “Chill Rooms” at two of Carlynton’s three school district buildings, students at Carnegie Elementary have access to a Free Store and Food Pantry when in need. Teacher Mary Campbell organizes some clothing at the Free Store modeled after the one founded by Second Lady of Pennsylvania Gisele Fetterman’s Braddock store.
By Sam Bigham
While listening to NPR one day, Donald Alexander learned about Allegheny Health Network’s Chill Project and how it was impacting high school students at a nearby school district. Alexander, a teacher at Carnegie Elementary School, wanted to bring the program to his school to better accommodate the needs of his students.
Dr. William Davies, who works for AHN, created the Chill Project to help students learn and practice mindfulness to better manage their stress. Schools can be a major source of stress for children, but family and social environments can also cause stress for students. The project aims to make schools a place for students to learn about managing their stress.
Alexander reached out to Davies for help and guidance. They set out to bring the program to Carnegie Elementary with the help of Dr. Patricia Serdy who is now the district’s child psychologist.
“We were massively understaffed,” Alexander said, adding that they “needed that extra layer of support” that the school could not provide due to budgetary restraints.
“We needed help,” he said.
The old computer lab was converted into a Chill Room through grants, fundraising and support from AHN. All Chill Rooms are staffed by a mental health professional working for AHN.
Elle Lohman, who is now Carnegie Elementary’s school counselor, was the staffer for the room this past year. She describes the location as a “calm down room” where students can come in and get their energy out.
The room features soft lights, an electric fireplace, fidget and sensory toys, books, art supplies, and bean bags. Everything in the room is designed to allow students to destress and relax. Students will often leave class to go to the Chill Room, but teachers have been able to know when students need to leave class according to Lohman.
Even though students may be missing instruction time, “they’re not learning anything anyways” if they are distracted by stress or another issue according to Lohman.
Teachers have also worked with students to ensure that they do not fall behind.
“Students loved it,” said Lohman when she described students’ first reactions.
Parents had only heard about the Chill Room through their kids when it first opened during the pandemic. During open house last year, parents were able to see it in person.
“I think they were shocked by what the Chill Room was. I think they just thought the Chill Room was a room where students came down and just played games and had fun, but to see it definitely changed their minds about it,” said Lohman.
Lohman and other staffers also teach mindfulness lessons to students and faculty. These lessons help students manage their stress without going down to the Chill Room and help teachers better accommodate their students’ needs.
Carlynton Jr.-Sr. High School added a Chill Room this past year as well. The high school location has many of the same features as in the elementary school, but with high-top café tables as well. Students at the high school who need to take a break there during instruction time need permission from their teachers. The mental health professional staffing the room will also give mindfulness lessons during health classes.
Serdy described the Chill Room as the first tier of a three-tier approach to accommodating students’ mental health needs. Mindfulness lessons taught by the room’s staffer are designed to help children who are feeling moderate stress and anxiety.
The next tier is designed for students who need more regular help and includes regular check-ups.
The final tier is for students who need dedicated help from a counselor or therapist. At this level, students will receive care from a therapist through their health insurance. Students in this level would schedule appointments during school hours and receive care in the school. This way, the students and their families do not lose time traveling to appointments. Students are also able to receive prescribed medication through a nurse practitioner that meets with students at the school.
These Chill Rooms represent an approach to students’ mental health that prioritizes prevention when before, the district was “fighting fire with fire” all the time according to Serdy. Having this available to students has been extraordinarily successful in preventing crises from occurring and in reducing the stigma against seeking help.
Duquesne University has done quantitative research on the effects of the Chill Rooms, and have found they significantly reduce stress in students. They found this by measuring stress at the start of the day and at the end of the day.
One of the areas of struggle came from the district’s immigrant and refugee student population. The parents of many of these students come from traditional cultures that view seeking help with mental issues negatively.
The district has made progress in breaking that barrier, however. They have done presentations at the Islamic Center in Carnegie to help reduce the stigma surrounding seeking help, for example.
According to Alexander, though, schools need to take a holistic approach toward students’ mental health and general well-being. He said that many students have issues with affording food or clothing.
Because of this, Alexander helped to organize a free store and food pantry modeled after Gisele Fetterman’s Free Store in Braddock. Gisele Fetterman is the wife of Lt. Governor John Fetterman and Second Lady of Pennsylvania.
This is part of Alexander’s goal of creating “one big school-wide community” that provides the students with “safe spaces throughout the community.”
“School should be a place that kids want to go to,” said Alexander and the Chill Rooms, the free store and the food pantry help to achieve this goal.