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Teacher shares how books can help students with anxiety, other emotions

(KANSAS CITY, Kan.) — 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.

In the accompanying caption, Burns explained, “I really want to start highlighting and showcasing SEL books in my classroom based on emotions or feelings that kids might be going through. This might not be the fanciest way, but it’s a start!”

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.

“I would say the progress that I’ve seen in my students since the beginning of the year has been absolutely incredible and how they can recognize when they’re getting angry, or how to take deep breaths,” Burns told ABC News’ Good Morning America.

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.

“Teachers, adults, kids, we all have been through the wringer with COVID and it’s obviously affected a lot of people’s mental health,” Burns added. “So I have really made it my mission to focus on using literacy in my classroom, and to help teachers and parents find books to help their kids cope with different social-emotional learning aspects.”

Burns researches and selects age-appropriate books for her students that fit the SEL model, promoted by groups like Casel and Second Step, and also dedicates her Instagram to sharing books like Happy Right Now, which explores the idea of being present, and My Big, Dumb, Invisible Dragon and The Invisible Leash, both of which discuss grief.

She said her students aren’t shy about reaching for books that may address difficult topics and that she’s been able to connect with them on a new level through SEL books.

“I know when a kid’s upset and being able to just talk them through it and say like, ‘Hey, let’s read this book.’ Like, it’s just such a very special bonding moment,” she said.

Burns said she’s also connected with other parents and educators online who have sought out SEL books to guide children and students.

“It’s pretty incredible how onboard people are with this,” she said. “It’s just getting everyone on board to make it just as important as academics, because I fully believe that if kids don’t have the social-emotional learning aspect of it, how are they going to be able to sit and learn, if they can’t control their emotions or how they’re feeling inside, like, they’re totally not thinking about math right now.”

Burns said she plans to take the next academic year off for her own mental health and to focus on launching her own SEL book, Failure Friday, which will be published by the National Center for Youth Issues, a nonprofit publisher of social-emotional learning resources.

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