May is Mental Health Awareness Month
Students and staff have been under increasing amounts of stress, from the pandemic, social media overload, and a myriad of other causes. This year, the Lighthouse Room was installed in the Valdez High School library (a central location within our building) to help students manage their stress and other mental health challenges.
School counselor, Shannon Major, has noted an observable rise over the past five years in students who have anxious or depressive episodes during the school day, which are distressing to the point of being unable to remain in the classroom. The Lighthouse Room is a calm room, created to provide a space for people to take a break. Students are able to retreat from the learning environment to a safe and quiet respite so they can reset emotionally before returning to class.
As a VHS senior explained, “I like that the lighthouse room offers a quiet, neutral place to go when I feel overwhelmed. It can really help the stress of the situation melt away so you can think clearer, I love the fidgets to keep my hands busy.”. A sophomore stated, “it is a good place to put someone who isn’t in a good mental place”.
Pamela Verfaillie, school librarian, created the room intentionally and collaboratively with Mrs. Major. It started with a game of ‘hot potato’ (which the library lost!). The Special Education department had purchased a large bean bag for students who needed to relax. The high school special education teachers did not want it in their classrooms and brought it to the library. Mrs. Verfaillie declined the offer and sent it up the the counseling center, which in turn sent it back down to the library where it needed to find a permanent home. Mrs. Verfaillie thought about the best way to incorporate the bean bag for its intended purpose, without it becoming a huge distraction, and decided to create a calm room.
She took one of the small study rooms by the library desk and transformed it to create a safe and calming environment, reducing sensory overload and allowing for privacy, while affording needed supervision. Changes included:
- A locking door knob was replaced with a knob that didn’t lock.
- The harsh fluorescent light fixture was replaced with a warm LED light that provides ambient, bi-directional, soft lumination.
- The beige walls were covered with a wallpaper mural. After much deliberation, a lighthouse mural that had been filtered to calming shades of blue was chosen. There is a lot of symbolism in the mural, including a light to guide the way and a loose connection to our school (school colors are blue, black & white and our mascot is the Buccaneer).
- The desk and chair were replaced with the oversized bean bag chair and a low, round table. The desk lamp, and all other cords were removed.
- A lapdesk (hard surface with soft bean bag backing) was put in the room so students can work on assignments using their computer.
- A retired teacher donates quilts to our school and we keep one in the lighthouse room (and have another so we can swap them out for cleanliness).
- Quiet fidgets were brought in from the counseling office and a rotating selection is kept on the table.
- A curtain was placed on the outside of the room to cover the window low to the ground
- A frosted, wave-like decal was placed on the outside of the window above the curtain for additional privacy. This decal has clear strips so that a counselor or other adult can see into the room for safety, while still providing a level of separation for the student.
We continue to change and upgrade the Lighthouse Room as we get feedback from our students. We have added two posters with grounding techniques and a variety of laminated cards are on the table with different breathing techniques. One student talked about challenges with imagining something to smell during the sensory based grounding exercise and together we came up with the idea of scratch and sniff bookmarks that have pictures of and smell like food. Other items from the library that can be brought into the Lighthouse Room include cups of decaf tea from our ‘Tea for Free’ program, kinetic sand, stress putty, or mindfulness coloring pages and bookmarks.
Students are free to enter whenever needed and Mrs. Verfaillie notifies the counselor and office when a student is using the Lighthouse Room so the counselor can check in on the student and for attendance purposes. Generally students are allowed 10 minutes (we just purchased an oversized sand timer that is placed just outside the room and visible to students) to decompress and then need a check in with the counselor. The goal is for our students to self-regulate and return to class rather than abuse the space as an escape.
Collaboration between the library and the counseling center helps to serve all of our students and staff. Some of the social and emotional support provided in the library include ‘tea for free’, mindfulness coloring supplies, a puzzle table, various active and passive programming activities, and now the Lighthouse room. Mrs Verfaillie often acts as Mrs. Major’s ‘eyes and ears’, identifying potential concerns within the school. The team approach benefits everyone.