Districts have taken a wide range of approaches, as documented by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit that studies how government policies impact low-income families. Some approaches include “advocacy centers” where students are coached through strong emotions with activities like yoga, breathing exercises or calming music. Others are applied more broadly, like mentorship programs or culturally responsive curriculum.

When Cole-Ochoa was assigned to the junior high campus more than two years ago, it was with the directive to turn around its academic performance. Cole-Ochoa, a former police detective, says that his approach was to focus on creating a welcoming culture before cracking down with punishment.

“Why are you going to write up a child because he or she didn’t bring a pencil? Do you know what happened?” he says. “We don’t know what happens when a child leaves here. A lot of our kiddos come with hard stories where they don’t have heat, they don’t have electricity, running water, mom and dad are having to work all the time. So they as a seventh and eighth grader, they are the babysitter, they help get food on the table for their family, and it takes a toll.”

All together, Cole-Ochoa says the efforts are aimed at reinforcing positive behavior and making sure students know they have somewhere to turn for help — before any negative behavior is punished. Students have access to both a female and a male counselor and a social worker. Counselors visit classrooms to give talks on topics like how to do well on homework and the negative effects of vaping. Any student seen doing a good deed, like picking up trash in the hallway, is given a “Stinger Buck” that can be spent on prizes.

On the opposite end of the Lone Star State in the Dallas suburb of Irving, Principal Anabel Ibarra likewise developed a plan for culture change at Bowie Middle School. When she arrived at the campus three years ago, it was with a focus on “capturing kids' hearts strategies.”

“I always think of it as Maslow's. You have to take care of the students’ needs first,” she explains. “You have to make sure they feel cared before we could even get to fixing the academic problems or other things of that nature.”

Like Cole-Ochoa’s approach, her school has fun initiatives like glow dance parties for students who meet their academic improvement goals. Students can continue improving their test scores even after the party starts for a chance to join in the last hour.

But Ibarra has also revamped homeroom into an initiative she calls Cub Connection, named after the school’s tiger cub mascot, where students have one teacher who is keeping an eye on their progress in all subjects. This year, students are grouped together based on math proficiency, though Cub Connection teachers focus on homework help for a different subject each day of the week.

Read the full article about student mental health by Nadia Tamez-Robledo   at EdSurge.