Flexing Their “Confidence Muscles” During Health Class
The third-graders in Aubrey Buchwald’s class at Smallwood Drive Elementary are pretty savvy when it comes to identifying ways they can stay physically healthy. They know that eating nutritious foods, exercising and visiting the doctor when they are sick will keep their bodies strong and healthy.
Now, through a new district-wide elementary health curriculum, they and their peers at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School are also learning how they can keep their minds and spirits healthy. Lessons are focused on teaching kids how to express feelings appropriately, build self-esteem, show gratitude and other skills related to social-emotional strength and mental health well-being. The curriculum is framed around three prongs - physical health, mental health, social-emotional health.
“When we analyzed our elementary health curriculum, there were gaps in delivery since we were teaching health through physical education classes, our pupil personnel services (PPS) counselors and through our general education teachers in class,” said Jeffrey Wheaton, director of Health, Physical Education and Athletics.
The district hired two full-time health and physical education teachers and placed one at each of the district’s elementary schools; Smallwood Drive and Windermere Boulevard. They work three days a week pushing into elementary classes to cover general and mental health topics over an 11-week period. By the end of June, they will have worked with every grade level and every class in their building. The other two days of the week, they are physical education teachers in the traditional sense and students come to them for PE class.
“What’s unique about this is that it’s building-based and that it provides a series of 11 lessons over a trimester,” said Wheaton. “Topics can be modified and adjusted based on social norms within our society, especially for fifth-graders. For instance, lessons about the dangers of tobacco use have now evolved into vaping and social media safety used to be more about physical stranger danger and now it’s more about safe online use.”
The district pulled in the Pupil Personnel Services director and elementary counseling staff to collaborate with the two health teachers to develop the content for the mental health and social emotional lessons.
“Most of the curriculum at the elementary level is focused on SEL or social and emotional learning, which is something many students struggle with,” said Maya Dils, health and physical education teacher at Windermere Boulevard Elementary School. Her schedule has fourth- and fifth-grade in the fall, second- and third-grade in the winter and she will finish the year with kindergarten and first-graders.
During a recent lesson in a third-grade class at Smallwood Drive, the day’s topic was self-care. Anthony DiRienzo, health and physical education teacher at Smallwood Drive, told the kids in Mrs. Buchwald’s class they would be working on a project that would strengthen and develop their confidence muscles.
“Having confidence in your abilities is what positive self-esteem is,” he said and urged them not to get caught up comparing themselves to others. “You are each good at something and today you will come up with a list of 10 positive traits that you have.”
In contrast, a self-care health lesson for second-graders would focus on hygiene.
“The main focus of each lesson is health promotion and encouraging students to make healthy choices,” said Ms. Dils. “The content is obviously tailored to each grade level so our tobacco and alcohol unit for second- and third-graders is very different from that of fourth- and fifth-graders.”
The district has aligned its K-12 health curriculum to the eight standards in the National Health Education Standards. The standards are written expectations for what students should know and be able to do by grades 2, 5, 8, and 12 to promote personal, family, and community health. To ensure they are meeting the New York State mental health standards, Wheaton, Ms. Dils and Mr. DiRienzo collaborated with the district’s Pupil Personnel Services staff to develop the mental health lessons.
The New York State Framework for Mental Health Education Instruction has three prongs.
- Self Management to develop a self awareness of healthy lifestyles, resiliency and feelings
- Developing Healthy Relationships through communication, empathy and compassion
- Resource Management or knowing what, when, where and how to ask for help for self and others
“With the pandemic, it has raised our awareness of the importance of quality self-care on a regular basis as well as how to deal with adversity,” said Wheaton.
The health lesson topics cover expressing feelings appropriately, self-care and healthy habits, bullying (DASA), how to show forgiveness/gratitude, nutrition and food groups, drug/alcohol prevention, safety, disease prevention, healthy relationships, stress, and Erin's law.
“Overall the kids have been awesome,” said Ms. Dils. “The participation has been great with tons of questions and comments from the students in each class and everyone is really engaged.”
“Kids love learning about themselves and how they can apply what they've learned in the classroom into the real world,” said DiRienzo. “For example, we just wrapped up our nutrition unit and we focused on creating a balanced meal using the MyPlate food guide. We've done a few lessons on social and emotional learning with a focus on how to be a positive role model in our school community, showing gratitude and how to treat others.”
Pictured are Smallwood Drive students working to generate a list of 10 positive traits.