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How this Chicago school social worker is tackling the pandemic’s mental health toll

A woman with a bright yellow shirt wearing a necklace smiles and poses for a portrait.

Donna Flanagan, a social worker at Dyett High School for the Arts, is starting a new club in the fall to support students with their social and emotional needs.

Courtesy of Donna Flanagan

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs.

Donna Flanagan, a social worker at Dyett High School for the Arts on Chicago’s South Side, has worked in the district for more than two decades. The pandemic made her role more essential than ever. 

But the coronavirus also placed two screens between her and a growing number of students who struggled with grief, anxiety, and depression amid the upheaval. It made some of the hands-on activities she favors to help teens cope, such as art therapy, tough to pull off. 

Still, Flanagan worked hard to address students’ social and emotional needs. She is gearing up to launch a new club at her high school with a catchy tagline — “Diamonds are made under pressure” — and a full menu of coping strategies, from yoga to journaling to mindfulness. And she has a plan for enlisting students who might be reluctant to admit they need some help.

Flanagan spoke with Chalkbeat Chicago recently about the pandemic’s mental health toll, her key part in addressing it and her fledgling Diamond Club. 

What led you to become a school social worker?

I selected school social work as my profession because of the love that I have for education and for being an advocate for children. I enjoy having a positive impact in my students’ lives and being able to facilitate their growth.

What does a typical day look like for you now?

I provide direct therapy services, consult with teachers to check on student progress, participate in annual Individualized Education Program meetings and complete required paperwork. While we are remote, I have virtual office hours. In my Google Classroom, I put up a lot of helpful slides and presentations on self-care and mindfulness, anxiety, depression and other resources to help students cope. 

How did your students fare during the prolonged stretch of remote learning and social isolation?

I’m really big on grades and GPA because I want students to have the best opportunity they can to get scholarships and get into universities. I look at grades every quarter, and I talk to parents and students. What I found from analyzing the grades is that during remote learning, my students who are really academically driven were doing okay. I also found that students who didn’t like the social aspect of going to high school are loving this. I have students who used to struggle and now have straight As and Bs. 

But only a handful of students have flourished under this model. We’ve lost a lot of people who had decent grades. No matter how many times we call or check in, it’s not working. There are so many kids in credit recovery, and it’s hard to do credit recovery. You have a full caseload of regular classes, and then you are expected to do credit recovery online when remote learning was the reason why you had to do credit recovery in the first place. 

How are you helping students cope?

I realize how critical social and emotional skills are when students are under stress and experiencing anxiety. That is why I make it a priority to integrate social and emotional learning concepts, use talking circles, have restorative conversations and mental health check-ins. I have seen firsthand how our students have benefited from SEL by the gains they have made socially, behaviorally, and academically.  SEL improves our school climate, student motivation, reduces behavior problems, and improves academics and attendance. 

How did the Diamond Club idea come about, and how will the club work?

I came up with the idea for the club because I had a significant increase in referrals for students that were experiencing grief, anxiety and depression. I wanted to find a new way to support them as much as possible. 

I wanted to start the club when we came back from remote learning in April. But we are going to kick the club off in the fall because, unfortunately, a lot of students did not return to in-person learning. We are going to cover art therapy concepts, yoga, mindfulness, growth mindset — and a lot of that really needs to be hands-on. Each month we’re going to focus on a different area, and a lot of it is self-care. For example, October is bullying prevention month. Cyberbullying is a big issue in high school right now. November will be all about gratitude. We will journal each month, and we will bring in speakers who focus on what we’re covering.

Will the club be open to all students, or are you targeting a specific group?

At first, it was going to be a targeted group of kids. But I won a $5,000 grant from DonorsChoose and The Allstate Foundation’s Social and Emotional Learning Innovation Challenge. Mine was one of five SEL projects nationally selected to receive the grant. Thanks to these funds, I am able to open the club up to all students. I want it to be open to students in both special and general education, from freshmen to seniors. 

Students, especially male students, can be reluctant to reach out and say, “I’m struggling. I need some additional support.” How will you encourage students to be a part of this effort?

I’m African American, and I work with predominantly African American students. I know the mindset. To avoid that reluctance, I am not going to call it a support group. I am going to just call it the Diamond Club, and then I’m going to highlight all the life activities we will be doing. Students don’t have to know that it’s a therapeutic method behind these activities. You don’t call it therapy. You don’t call it a support group. 

I’m also going to have a parent newsletter so families know what we’re focusing on and what we’re learning each month. I’m going to give them tips for how they can build upon this work at home. Parents are really important to keep in the loop.

What gives you hope at this moment?

I am cautiously optimistic that in the fall we will be closer to normal with a significantly lower number of COVID cases and everyone back to in-person learning. I think we need to be back in person as much as possible.

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