Waco ISD focuses on student mental health with 'Character Strong' program

Posted at 6:00 PM, May 23, 2023

WACO, Texas — First grade students at Hillcrest Elementary start their day with what looks like just playful activities, but what they're really doing goes much deeper than that.

"It's them playing at first, and so the lessons are really engaging with fun activities, coloring, fun activities, and stuff so they don't even know they're learning but they're hearing themselves say this language," teacher Amon Harris told 25 News.

It's all a part of Waco ISD's new "Character Strong" program aimed at teaching students about their mental health.

"Each month is a character trait," Harris said.

"We have lessons behind it, and each lesson is tailored to the grade level. In the first grade we're focusing on being able to identify emotions and how being creative can help with those emotions."

The district started the program on 14 campuses this school year, but says it's been so impactful that they plan to implement it at all their schools in the fall.

"Character Strong is helping them to identify those feelings and also to identify some coping strategies," school counselor Chantel Gunness said.

"Part of what I'm seeing with this next generation coming up is the ability to talk about it. They're able to recognize when something is not quite right and able to verbalize that."

Gunness has been a counselor at Hillcrest Elementary School for five years. She said the last few years have been hard on children.

"They might not understand the gravity of what's going on tonight, but they listen to the news," Gunness said.

"They hear their parents and family talking about the things that are happening. Their perception and interpretation of what's been going, it's been affecting them."

With the COVID-19 pandemic and numerous school shootings taking over recent headlines, Gunness said it's important to teach them about their emotions and how to cope during scary times.

"Once you get to a point of feeling safe, something else happens so how do you navigate that?" Gunness said.

"That becomes even more of a challenge, but the good thing about kids is that you can explain to them in a way that they understand and also to still let them know that they're still safe."

"Being able to identify these emotions early on and find healthy ways to be able to channel them instead of lashing out or tearing up a classroom or something like that," Hill said.

The district sends home newsletters for parents to learn about the program and their student's mental health. Counselors are also able to help families find outside resources if they need it.