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For one educator, breaking the stigma surrounding mental health is important, especially for students. May is Mental Health Awareness Month and bringing awareness to this topic is Shannon Root-Hernandez, a social worker at Plymouth Scholars Charter Academy, part of the National Heritage Academies network of schools.
It’s common for people to feel protective of their feelings in fear of being judged, she said, adding educators are integral in helping create spaces where students feel cared for, loved, and supported.
“BrenĂ© Brown, a world-renowned researcher on vulnerability, shame, and leadership, once said, ‘Teachers are the guardians of spaces that allow students to breathe, be curious, explore the world and be who they are without suffocation. Students deserve one place where they can rumble with vulnerability and their hearts can exhale.’ I believe this quote resonates with those within the school setting, but it’s important for parents to know, as well,” Root-Hernandez said.
“Our students are constantly observing us, learning from us, and confiding in us when they need a trustworthy person to listen to them. For most students, coming to school is a safe space for them. We want them to feel comfortable enough at school to be vulnerable.”
Vulnerability helps with working through difficult feelings. Anxiety is one of the most common feelings. Anxiety can be defined as difficulty staying still, constantly worrying, feeling irritable, poor memory, or somatic symptoms such as having a headache, insomnia, stomachache, or chest pain.
“Being able to recognize feeling anxious is the best preventative measure before anxiety begins to consume an individual,” Root-Hernandez said.
A common cause of anxiety for students is testing. Both students and teachers may feel under pressure. From the students’ perspective, they want to do their best – they want to make their parents and teachers proud, she said.
Five strategies students can use to help with test anxiety:
  1. Be prepared. Do a good job studying so you can feel confident about taking the test.
  2. Use positive self-talk to quiet the negative thoughts.
  3. Find ways to calm your body before, during, and after the test.
  4. Take your time and focus on one question at a time.
  5. Talk to a parent, school counselor, or teacher. They can work with you on coping skills.
Root-Hernandez provides de-escalation technique posters for her students that may have difficulty either feeling anxious or focusing. At Plymouth Scholars she has posters showing hallway exercises a student can utilize when experiencing energy and needing a break.
She provides other suggestions for de-escalation, as well, reading, drawing or coloring, taking a water break, doing a puzzle or brain teaser, resting, hugging a stuffed animal, taking a fidget or a quiet break, doing some belly breathing, listening to music or taking a sensory break.
“Taking care of our own mental health is as important as our physical health,” Root-Hernandez said. “Being aware of how we are feeling, as well as how anxiety can impact our students is so important for success. The more we speak out about mental health, hopefully, the more comfortable students will share about how they are feeling.”
“I like to implement a system where students check in about how they are feeling utilizing the ‘I feel…Because…’ This system helps the student identify the emotion they are feeling, as well as elaborating about why they are feeling a certain way.
Root-Hernandez continues, “Another way this is utilized is when a student experiences a conflict with another person. Stating ‘I feel…When you…Because…I would like…’ For example, ‘I feel frustrated when you ignore me because it made me feel left out. I would like to play with you more at recess.’ This opens dialogue for any miscommunication between the two parties and connects the emotion with the behavior.”
She has worked in a clinical setting for more than 15 years with both children and adults. Two years ago, she received her school social work certificate and got her position at Plymouth Scholars. Root-Hernandez says she loves it.
Thank you, during Mental Health Awareness month, to Root-Hernandez, and all NHA social workers and counselors, for the work you do with our scholars on a daily basis.
Plymouth Scholars Charter Academy is a free public charter schools in Plymouth, Michigan, serving students in Young 5s through eighth grade. National Heritage Academies (NHA), a charter school management company in Grand Rapids, Mich. has 98 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit
 National Heritage Academies (NHA) is a network of 98 tuition-free, public charter schools across nine states, serving more than 60,000 students in kindergarten through 12th grade. For more information, visit