Possip Spotlight: How KIPP Sunnyside Prioritizes Student and Staff Mental Health

A headshot of Malene Dixon LPC-S, the Senior Counselor & Student Leadership Advisor at KIPP Sunnyside next to the words "Possip Spotlight."

Malene Dixon LPC-S is the Senior Counselor & Student Leadership Advisor at KIPP Sunnyside, a Possip partner high school located in Houston, TX. Malene intentionally cares for student mental health through a variety of measures, one of them being a creative virtual calming corner. Read our Q&A with Malene to learn more about KIPP Sunnyside’s efforts to support student and staff mental health, and come away with inspiration for your own school or organization!

1. How do you prioritize emotional health and wellbeing at KIPP Sunnyside?

As the Senior Counselor at KIPP Sunnyside High School, the social and emotional health and wellbeing of our students and faculty is my top priority. I am constantly seeking ways to create safe spaces for our students and adults. I create spaces where they can share how they are feeling and what they need, socially and emotionally, so they can perform at their best academically and professionally. As a region, KIPP Texas has prioritized Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) this school year to help us all cope with the negative impact the pandemic has on mental health. To start every morning, we have a 30 minute school-wide advisory block in which all advisors (teachers) teach the same SEL lesson to all students.

Additionally, I teach classroom guidance lessons each grading period to address pressing and sensitive issues with our students. I also facilitate group counseling, T.E.A. (Talk. Encourage. Achieve.). A time, once a week, with about 50 students across seven different groups. Last spring, when the world went virtual, I led TEA Time with our faculty as well. With all of the racial and social injustices that continue to plague our society, our faculty have appreciated the sessions I have facilitated with them to create an open and safe space to process their feelings as well.

2. Why did you decide to create a virtual calming corner?

When we went virtual last spring, I was extremely concerned about not being able to contact or connect with my students. I worried they were out there struggling, at all hours of the day and night, with limited or no resources to support them. The virtual calming corner is a way to support student mental health by giving them access to a wide variety of resources and coping activities at any time.

A screenshot of Malene’s Virtual Calming Corner, which includes ocean sounds and helpful student mental health resources. When you click on a graphic, it directs to a source.

3. How do you use this tool? What other tools do you like to use to help student mental health?

When I do classroom guidance lessons, I often ask the students to play around in my Virtual Calming Corner while we are waiting for other students to join the Virtual Class. Prior to the pandemic, students were able to use Calming Kits that we created for each teachers’ classroom and each administrators’ office. The Calming Kits had stress balls, fidget toys, reflection cards, and breathing exercises students could use during class when they needed to calm themselves.

We practice mindfulness as a school. We incorporate mindfulness practices and breathing exercises into various parts of the school day, especially before major assessments. Sometimes, we use our PA system to lead school-wide breathing exercises before high stakes tests like STAAR and ACT practice exams. The students have learned to appreciate the breathing breaks: they often ask for them or lead them on their own.

4. Do you have a story or example of a time when you saw the impact of these tools on student mental health?

Ohhh, I have so many examples. One of my favorite examples happened last year when our juniors were taking their last practice ACT exam before the real exam. They were all testing in our cafeteria. I led them in a breathing exercise. Then I walked around the cafeteria with a bottle of stress relief lotion and squeezed a drop into any students’ hands who requested it. I encouraged them to take a deep breath in so they could inhale the eucalyptus and mint lotion. Watching these seemingly grown, usually confident, teenagers cup their hands together for stress relief lotion like preschoolers asking for an afternoon snack was humbling and so heartwarming. They understand the importance of protecting their peace, including their emotional well being.

Thanks Malene for the spotlight! Read more Possip Partner spotlights here.