Student Well-Being

Zen Dens: Creating Mental Health Spaces at School

By Denisa R. Superville — February 24, 2023 8 min read
Illustration of a girl relaxing in a chair and listening to something with headphones.
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School districts are building student wellness centers, Zen dens, and calming corners to help students take a break from the stresses of the school day, and, in some cases, get mental health assistance before returning to class.

It’s one of the many ways that districts are trying to respond to rising mental health challenges among students. Requests for these safe havens often come from teachers and staff, but students are asking for them, too.

Jennifer Bitton, an assistant principal at Lehi High School in Utah’s Alpine district, helped build the school system’s first student wellness center at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs. While Bitton was researching how to do so in 2019, a student died by suicide; By the time the center opened in spring 2020, just before the pandemic, three students had died, she said.

“This is my 29th year in education, so I have been around a long time, and I have seen the gradual decline in the social-emotional health of kids,” Bitton said. “I knew something like this could help. I know it’s not going to catch every kid, and it’s not going to solve every problem.”

But, she said, student wellness centers can be a solid intervention for students who need support beyond what teachers are able to offer in the classroom.

“We didn’t have anything like that in schools,” she said. “We would have kids go to the counseling office, and they would sit there with their hoodies pulled over their heads—because they needed someplace to go—while people were coming in and out ... Or they would have to sit there and wait two hours in order to see somebody. That was one of the things I wanted to resolve.”

If you’re thinking of building a student wellness center, here are some tips from Bitton.

Involve the people in the school

Get input and buy-in from those in the building, including teachers, counselors, and students.

It was student feedback, for example, that led to “Wellness Wednesday,” when the center hosts sessions on mental health and social-emotional well-being on topics chosen by students. Topics have included how food affects mood, toxic relationships, meditation, and talking to parents.

It was also students who recommended adding weighted blankets to the soothing amenities, the center’s most popular item for decompressing.

The student wellness center at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, Utah, gives students with the chance to take a break from the stresses of the school day, or talk to a counselor, if necessary.

Think about the design and the amenities

From textures, to lighting, to the light blue walls, to the fabrics used in the converted math classroom, “everything was done with intention,” Bitton said.

There are adult coloring books, Rubik’s cubes, weighted blankets, clay, kinetic sand, a miniature Zen garden, and other things to help students self-regulate, she said.

There’s also snacks, including hot chocolate.

A trained staff member can improve students’ experience

Having a wellness coordinator is critical to the center’s success, Bitton said.

“You can’t just stick an untrained aide in there, or a paraeducator,” she said. “You need to have somebody [who is] trained and licensed to help these kids—whether that’s a social worker, or a counselor, a school counselor, a behavioral therapist.”

The coordinator has to be someone who can triage students, if necessary, she said. But that person also has to be skilled at building trusting relationships with students.

Doing something is better than nothing. So many times we have this perfect thing in our heads. Sometimes that’s just not possible.

The wellness coordinator at Westlake was a licensed family counselor, whose services were underwritten by IM Foundation, a Utah-based nonprofit that focuses on student emotional well-being.

“I have seen schools ... attempt to create wellness centers, and it’s failed,” Bitton said. “And that’s because of the person.”

Bitton recalls filling in for her former school’s coordinator. Students came in to ask for the coordinator, and when Bitton said the coordinator was out for the day, they’d turn around and leave.

That’s because the coordinator had “developed a relationship with these kids,” Bitton said.

Give students options

While many students are seeking quiet, some actually want to talk.

The student wellness center Bitton created includes options for students to have solitude and to discuss what they were experiencing with a counselor.

“Kids come for all kinds of reasons—it could be my boyfriend broke up with me, or my girlfriend, my cat died, my parents were arguing this morning, or they were mad at me this morning, divorced, all kinds of things kids come to the wellness center for,” she said.

There’s a check-in system where students answer questions, ranking their emotions and what brought them to the center that day.

“Everything is kept for the purposes of figuring out triggers: Is it math class, is it third period, is it [that it’s] before lunch?” Bitton said.

The wellness coordinator inquires whether the students want to talk or be by themselves. Their goal is not necessarily to provide counseling services.

“They are just there to help kids understand their own emotions and process those,” Bitton said. “Whether it’s that that [student] is overwhelmed with school, do they need to go see their academic counselor, are they having thoughts of suicide?”

Think of the wellness center as “a triage for the counseling center in a school,” Bitton said.

“Many of the kids don’t see anybody, they just need a place to decompress and manage themselves and then go through the rest of their day,” she said. “There are a few who need something more; so the wellness coordinator figures out what that is and gets the students to the proper place.”

And for those who want to be alone, the center includes tools to help manage their emotions. They can take a timer and spend 20 minutes alone.

“After 20 minutes, we are finding that 80 percent of students are ready to go back to class, and 20 percent need a little bit more,” Bitton said, citing data from the first month the center opened.

Many of the kids don’t see anybody, they just need a place to decompress and manage themselves and then go through the rest of their day.

On their way out, students also fill out a form on how they are doing and reflect on whether the center helped them and how. That feedback also helps staff improve.

Make it a no-permission thing

Students don’t need permission to go to the wellness center.

They make eye contact with the teacher and use one of the two wellness center passes available in every class to leave the room.

An unintended positive effect of having the center was that more children were staying in school all day, Bitton said.

“When kids were having a panic attack or when they’re having a rough time in school, they’ll go the bathroom and they’ll suffer in the bathroom, or they’ll call their parents and say, ‘Can you come get me?’ ” Bitton said. “The wellness center allowed them to actually stay in school because they had a place to go, and they had someone in there who could help them.”

“We didn’t anticipate that, or even think about that, but it’s definitely helped” with attendance, Bitton said.

Students at Westlake High School in Saratoga Springs, Utah, participate in Wellness Wednesday at the student wellness center, during which the center hosts educational sessions on topics related to mental health and social-emotional well-being.

Destigmatize going to the center

It was students who asked the adults to work on destigmatizing going to the wellness center.

“We, as adults, have different perceptions,” Bitton said. “Sometimes when you think things are awesome, kids have a different idea. They wanted us to work on the stigma [around mental health] more.”

The student wellness center is introduced to Westlake’s 10th graders during health class and students are also given a tour, so that by their sixth or eighth week in school they already know about it and how it works, she said. (Westlake serves grades 10-12.) The school’s video production class also made a video about the center to inform students.

And “Wellness Wednesday,” where students discuss mental health and social-emotional issues, have brought more students into the center. It’s also become a kind of gathering place for students to meet before the bell rings, Bitton said.

Parents are also taken on tours during back-to-school conferences and parent-teacher conferences. And the center is also featured in a wellness message in the principal’s weekly email to parents.

“We really worked hard to reduce the stigma going there to where it became just a normal room in our building and just a normal part of the day,” Bitton said.

Draw on outside support

When Bitton got the idea for the center, school funds had already been divvied up for the year. But someone in the community worked for IM Foundation, which was starting to fund wellness centers in schools, and connected Bitton with the foundation.

Bitton’s was the first, and the foundation covered the cost of the in-house licensed family counselor.

While the foundation underwrote the counselor, they were considered part of the staff, were involved in staff meetings, and reported to Bitton, she said.

Local businesses answered the call for donations and chipped in money to get the center up and running. So did the school district.

The entire project—minus the counselor—cost about $8,000, which included furniture, paint, and other accessories.

Principals who are prioritizing mental health can easily find that money in their school budgets by shifting funds around, Bitton said.

Bitton has had some time to think about what she’d do differently if she has the chance to do it again. For one thing, she’d do even more parent and community outreach, including adding a wellness brochure to give the center greater prominence beyond the blurb in the principal’s weekly newsletter.

She’d also spend more time getting staff buy-in, including giving them the chance to spend time in the center and try it out.

Bitton remains convinced the student wellness center was the right intervention for the school at the time, and that similar programs can help other schools reach students who are struggling.

“Doing something is better than nothing,” she said. “So many times we have this perfect thing in our heads. Sometimes that’s just not possible.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.

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