Student Well-Being

After a School Shooting, a Principal Launches a Nonprofit to Improve Students’ Mental Health

By Caitlyn Meisner — June 19, 2023 5 min read
Jerry Sparby
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As principal of an elementary school in Cold Spring, Minn., Jerry Sparby was shocked in 2003 when one of his former students shot and killed two classmates at a high school in the same district.

He visited the shooter, who was a 15-year-old freshman at the time of the shooting, at the detention center afterwards. The shooter was later convicted of first and second-degree murder at age 17. He described the shooter as an “invisible kid,” someone who is not seen or heard by their peers or teachers.

“I made a promise to [the boy], to the other families who had lost their kids, that I was going to try and make schools a better place, a safer place,” Sparby said.

The result years later was HuddLUp, a national non-profit designed to improve students’ mental health. Sparby created this organization after retiring from 37 years in K-12 education and a stint as an education professor at both St. Mary’s University and St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.

Sparby began, though, by going into neighborhoods to engage children in physical activities, but he soon realized he needed to address the problem in the school systems. Once Sparby started spending more time in classrooms, he noticed a common issue across age groups that he hadn’t encountered before: mouth breathing.

“I thought, ‘Well, maybe it’s due to COVID,’ but the more time I spent with these kids, I realized it’s the stress in their bodies that they have,” Sparby said. “They breathe the easiest way they can to get more oxygen. I found that many of them—especially those kids with severe depression or are suicidal—their oxygen level in their blood was around 90 percent.”

The normal range of oxygen levels in blood is above 95 percent for both adults and children. Sparby said he measured oxygen levels with a fingertip pulse oximeter in his offices with parents present.

Studies have linked mouth breathing, apnea, and snoring, which can disrupt sleep, to aggressiveness and hyperactivity in children. Irritability, inability to focus, and an unwillingness to participate in daytime activities are common in children who experience such disruptions.

Upon discovering this, Sparby hired retired teachers and began going into classrooms to teach diaphragmatic breathing in cities such as Los Angeles, Boston, and Atlanta.

In combination with breathing techniques, Sparby said he created games with his team of retired teachers to engage the entire classroom. Sparby and his team now regularly visit 84 elementary and middle school classrooms across the country.

HuddLUp in practice

Christy Voegele, a 3rd grade teacher in Sartell, Minn., said she implemented Sparby’s HuddLUp program in October after reconnecting with him.

“He was one of my professors in undergraduate and graduate school,” Voegele said. “He asked me if I was interested. Kids always need some more interactions with each other and [they’re] dealing with a lot more anxiety now than ever.”

Voegele has been teaching for 11 years, and said she has noticed a shift in children’s behavior over that time.

“I think students are dealing with a lot more challenges than they were 10 years ago,” Voegele noted.

Since October, Voegele said she has seen positive changes in her classroom.

“When they’re dealing with conflict-resolution right on the spot, students are actually given the opportunity to work with each other,” Voegele said. “There’s definitely more of a classroom community feel when they can all talk to each other and get along.”

Sparby said initially when entering classrooms, some children are hesitant in playing games and engaging with him. Within three weeks, every kid is participating.

“The first week we [are] in, I would say we have two or three kids in every class who sat and watched,” Sparby said. “That was the only time throughout the whole school year that kids chose not to participate.”

Voegele agreed. But she said her students had never been introduced to different types of breathing.

“They were like, ‘What is happening?” Voegele said. “After that, they just jumped right in.”

Playtime is key

Both Sparby and Voegele said the focus on social-emotional learning in the classroom is the best aspect of the HuddLUp program. For her classroom, Voegele said, it provides a great tool to use after a hard math lesson or during transition periods in the school day.

“Being able to take time away from the curriculum and just focus on play-based learning is awesome,” Voegele said. “As teachers, you feel so much pressure to get all of the state standards in, but being able to pause your curriculum for 10 minutes a day to play a game and breathe with the kids is pretty cool.”

Occupational therapists have been utilizing these play-based learning techniques for years. Lola Halperin and Sharon M. McCloskey, write in their book, Making Play Just Right: Unleashing the Power of Play in Occupational Therapy, that child-driven play can significantly enhance “motor, cognitive, social and language development, self-esteem, coping skills and ability to self-soothe.”

Some studies have suggested that play throughout the day can mitigate negative outcomes associated with sitting for long periods of time. Results from one study demonstrated more positive ratings of classroom behavior from 3rd grade teachers among students who received between 15 and 30 minutes of recess each day. This was in comparison to children who received 15 minutes or less of recess fewer than five days per week.

Voegele said overall, HuddLUp is working with the “whole child” and letting kids be kids.

“It’s increasing their confidence and their ability to agree to disagree,” Voegele noted. “It’s helping them feel loved, welcomed, [and] included.”

Sparby said due to high demand across the nation, it has been difficult to reach all the educators interested in the program. To broaden his reach, he’s created a collection of games that parents and teachers can purchase on iPhones. The funds go directly to the HuddLUp Classroom Project, allowing Sparby and his team to reach more classrooms at no cost to the schools.

Sparby’s approach is currently being tested by his team.

The app provides over 800 games that can be sorted by age, number of players, and a specific skill development and played with with regular household items, such as shoes, a basket of socks, or soup cans, rather than digital screens.

He hopes next to target educators, especially those struggling in the profession.

“The stress that teachers are carrying in their bodies is part of the issue right now,” Sparby said. “I’m solely determined that if we don’t get something different here, the teachers are going to be giving up long before their professional career should be done.”

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