As children grow they become more independent. For parents this is both rewarding and challenging. When they hit late elementary school or early middle school, getting kids to open up, even about something as simple as how their day went, can be difficult. It is a time of great change in bodies and social structure, which can lead to feelings of jealousy and anger, loss of self-worth or being bullied. Children who bury these feelings can fall into drug and alcohol abuse as coping methods, and in the saddest of cases even take their own lives. A unique program in the Lake Pend Oreille School District is bringing awareness to kids about how to cope with these feelings while putting them in charge of leading the discussion.
January will mark the third year of the CAST program being implemented in the district. CAST stands for Coping and Support Training and is a nationally recognized program aimed at improving moods of youth, decreasing drug and alcohol usage, and improving classroom skills and success. It came to the attention of Bonner General Health when three local teens committed suicide in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
“Two therapists approached the hospital, did the research and found this curriculum,” recalled Community Development Manager Erin Binnall. “We really wanted to be at the forefront of health disparities, and with the agreement of our CEO we decided we could use this program to really make a difference in the community.”
Initially the Bonner General Health Foundation sponsored nine volunteers who work with youth in Bonner County to receive the training. That number continues to rise as does the number of kids in the after-school program, which was less than 10 initially but now closer to 40 each year. Kids taking part in the program might be exhibiting destructive behaviors, anger, substance abuse or suicidal thoughts. Through 12 one-hour classes, they can sit in an open discussion with peers facing the same feelings they are, learn from each other and work toward alleviating the cause of the issues. Each class takes on a different topic each week:
1. The CAST Curriculum
2. Welcome & Orientation
3. Group Support & Self-Esteem
4. Setting & Monitoring Goals
5. Building Self-Esteem, Beating the Blues
6. Decision Making - Taking STEPS
7. Anger Management #1
8. Anger Management #2
9. Drug Use Control
10. School Smarts
11. Preventing Slips & Relapses
12. Recognizing Progress & Staying on Track
13. Celebrating Graduation
The program saw great success, and the idea was born to test out a pilot program with a sixth grade class in which the entire class would participate. Ann Dickinson’s class at Washington Elementary was chosen for the program, and her 17 students followed the curriculum once per week for 12 weeks. Ann noted that many of the kids were not friends before the program, and some only had connections to each other through school.
“About the third meeting, I noticed students were opening up and revealing personal stories and thoughts on topics being covered. They were open with their weaknesses and strengths. I believe this is largely due to the safe, supportive environment created through the discussions and norms agreed upon by the group,” said Ann.
What makes CAST among the more unique programs is that while the curriculum is the same across all ages, students are always the ones who initiate the conversation, and discussions are lead by multiple kids. It’s here in which Ann says she began to see kids supporting and respecting each other better than she had with any other program she’d been a part of.
“Due to the vulnerable and personal sharing, the students created bonds with each other, and this led to a support group for each student. When problems arose, others in the group helped remind each other of the steps they learned to solve problems and worked through issues together,” she said.
Skills learned in CAST lead to real situations happening in sixth grade. Ann’s class worked through a cyber bullying incident, dealt with feelings from the death of a parent, worked through issues with friends and family, and learned how to get out of bad situations such as those associated with peer pressure.
By the end of the program, students had come together and created new friendships. Students who seldom spoke were contributing to conversations and sharing about themselves. Every student knew they had a support network of peers and adults who are ready to help them whenever they need it. “Every student gained empathy for others and understood that their actions have direct and indirect impacts on others,” said Ann.
Today the program is being implemented across all sixth grade classes in the district with 90 percent of the district’s elementary school counselors having gone through the CAST training and certification. As a facilitator herself, Erin is ecstatic to see the amount of growth and acceptance of the program in just three short years. She believes it’s the honesty of the students’ responses, safe space and having no wrong answers in a discussion that have led to so much success. “Problem free isn’t the goal here, just encouraging them to create healthy habits and solid decisionmaking skills,” said Erin.
Since expanding, other sixth grade teachers have seen the program affect their class similarly to Ann’s. Farmin Stidwell teacher Renee Nigon shared that she witnessed her students let their guard down a little more each week during the classes. “The benefits that I saw as a teacher was that the program made students examine their triggers, had them talk about it and then, most importantly, gave them skills to work through the triggers or a situation that triggers them,” she said.
Renee also feels that having topics that are easily relatable to her sixth grade students is key to the program’s success. “The topics of the program directly relate to the students and what they will be experiencing—being pressured to make poor decisions, drugs and alcohol, and how they will deal with it.”
Back in Ann’s class, several students cited CAST as a highlight of their sixth grade year and stated they now have better problem-solving skills to prepare them for middle school. “I do not know that I will fully witness the impact of CAST as this group moves through life, but I can say that this was the best program I have been a part of for teaching the life skills kids will need to have successful school and life experiences,” said Ann.