Olive Lowe has a plan.

If her 4-year-old sister yells at her, then Olive, a sixth grader, will ignore her. Or take a deep breath before she responds.

Olive crafted the “if-then” plan during a recent lesson in Lindsey Jagels’ sixth grade class at Sunset Hills Elementary School.

The activity is part of a new curriculum introduced this year in the Westside Community Schools that some have dubbed “how to be a good human” lessons.

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So far this school year, students in Jagels’ class have learned about self-advocacy, how the brain works, different ways to train the brain and how becoming smarter takes effort.

Olive said she has learned about how people’s personalities can change — a lesson she said will probably help her next year in middle school.

The lessons are built into the school day, just like math or science.

This year, Westside strengthened and renewed its curriculum in the area known as social-emotional learning.

In recent years, it has become a hot topic in education as school districts put more emphasis on developing students beyond reading, writing and arithmetic.

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Sixth grader Olive Lowe works on an assignment related to social-emotional learning at Sunset Hills Elementary earlier this month.

Ashley Harlow, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital & Medical Center, said that in recent years, schools have started to recognize the relationship between student mental health and academic outcomes.

Educators haven’t always viewed it as their job to address the mental or behavioral needs of students, said Kami Jessop, director of special services at Westside.

Instead, Jessop said, there has been pressure on schools to have high test scores and college-going rates. And with that came the fear that taking any time away from academics would make test scores drop.

“You almost can’t achieve the end goal if you don’t have mentally healthy, behaviorally healthy children because they won’t come to school,” she said. “They’ll be at risk for depression, anxiety, all those things if they don’t have those prerequisite coping skills. It’s on us now to teach them those things.”

In addition to the curriculum, students at the district’s middle school, high school and alternative high school can also see psychologists during the day, thanks to a partnership with behavioral health specialists from Children’s.

Students can see Children’s behavioral health specialists outside of school as well, at the specialists’ offices. The hospital’s foundation, the district and the families’ insurance pay for the sessions, Jessop said.

If a student makes a threat or brings a weapon to school, the district might ask the student to see one of the psychologists before allowing the student to return to school.

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Lindsey Jagels, right, helps sixth grader Jeremy Zamora-Jernigan with social-emotional learning at Sunset Hills Elementary.

“We feel like this is a step toward being really thoughtful about how to mitigate some of those concerning student behaviors or threats,” Jessop said.

Westside is not the only school district in the metro area to put a renewed emphasis on the mental health needs of students.

The Papillion-La Vista Community Schools is implementing social-emotional learning curriculum in kindergarten through eighth grade.

The lessons focus on things like understanding and managing emotions, feeling and showing empathy and maintaining positive relationships.

Taira Masek, a Papillion-La Vista school social worker, said the lessons create a culture where talking about all things, academic and social, becomes part of the norm.

Papillion-La Vista has also started a partnership that places a therapist in the high school buildings.

Mike Vance, director of behavioral health at Children’s, said other school districts have approached Children’s to discuss potential partnerships.

Other metro-area districts said they have partnerships for counseling services and have implemented social and emotional curriculum in different ways.

Inside the classroom, Jagels, the sixth grade teacher, hopes that her students are developing strategies to deal with the difficulties in their lives — one “if-then” plan at a time.

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emily.nitcher@owh.com, 402-444-1192

Emily covers K-12 education, including Omaha Public Schools. Previously, Emily covered local government and the Nebraska Legislature for The World-Herald. Follow her on Twitter @emily_nitcher. Phone: 402-444-1192.

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