A Kansas teacher is raising awareness about a teaching method that she says is helping students tap into their mental health and learn how to manage their emotions in healthy ways.

Andrea Burns, who teaches fourth grade in Kansas City, shared an Instagram post last month featuring a photo of a whiteboard with a message saying, “Come read with me if you are dealing with: Grief, Anxiety, Mixed Feelings” and three arrows pointing to three corresponding picture books.

SEL stands for social and emotional learning and the concept emphasizes that students learn about different emotions and how to cope with them. It’s an approach to teaching that Burns said she heard about through professional development training several years ago and one that she now builds into her literacy curriculum.

Students learn key skills such as mindfulness, kindness, compassion, self-awareness and self-confidence. Burns said she’s seen a significant change in her students after they’ve been introduced to SEL-focused books.

Children and their mental health have become a growing concern in the past few years, especially amid the pandemic. The Department of Health and Human Services released new findings in March based on a survey of over 170,000 children that showed anxiety problems among youth were up 29% between 2016 and 2020, rates of depression were up 27%, and behavioral and conduct problems increased 21% between 2019 and 2020.

Burns said she’s seen students’ mental health challenges firsthand and heard from other educators about similar situations. “A lot of behaviors are popping up with kids and we’re seeing a lot more emotional needs,” she said.

“Kids have a lot of anxiety. Kids are dealing with a lot of stuff. And this just helps prompt those discussions with these kids because just seeing themselves in a character is something that can help them relate to what they’re going through,” she said.

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