‘Start with Hello’ week targets social isolation at LH Junior High

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To address the issue of social isolation, Liberty Hill Junior High School launched “Start with Hello” week to help students become more aware of others at their school who may be isolated or feeling left out. Student leaders who facilitated the week-long activities included, from left, Logan Warr, Chance Pogue, McKenzie Plott, Logan Dyer, Isabella Jaimez and Alyssa Lee. They were assisted by members of the National Junior Honor Society. (Courtesy Photo)

By Dana Delgado

It is a place few students ever want to be alone and isolated; yet, it happens every day in schools across the country.

Liberty Hill schools are no different. With the growth in enrollment and the influx of new students along with the normal, sometimes awkward transition from one grade level to another, social isolation is often the unwelcomed and oft-dreaded by-product.

The feeling of being left out, lonely, and treated like you are invisible can be excruciatingly painful especially when others gather to socialize, said Courtney McVan, Liberty Hill Junior High School counselor. This school year alone, McVan reports, the school had 80 new students who had to settle into a new environment and social group.

To address the issue, the Junior High launched “Start with Hello” week — the first phase of what the school expects to be a far-reaching, year-round program that will bring students together who may not ordinarily be engaged with each other.

“Young people who are isolated can become a victim of bullying, violence, and/or depression,” said McVan. “As a result, many further pull away from society, struggle with learning and social development and/or choose to hurt themselves or others.”

The new student-directed program targeting social isolation involved a series of activities implemented each day during the week of March 19. The program was designed to teach students the skills they need to reach out to and include those who may be dealing with social isolation and create a culture of inclusion and connectedness within their school.

“I’m excited and anticipate students will begin friendships with some that were just there,” McVan said. “In the future, as they move on, they can establish new relationships.”

The campus initiative got traction in January after student leaders attended a “Start with Hello” program at Burnet Middle School in Burnet, which has been imbedded for several years and has widespread community support.

The “Start with Hello” program was developed by Sandy Hook Promise, a non-profit organization founded and led by several family members whose loved ones were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012.

McVan said the activities implemented at the Junior High challenged students to “get out of their comfort zone” to seek out others. On the first day, student leaders Alyssa Lee, Chance Pogue, Logan Dyer, Isabella Jaimez, McKenzie Plott and Logan Warr along with select students from the National Junior Honor Society surprised students by greeting them at the doors as they entered the building. The greeting drew a variety of reactions from both the students and the student leaders coordinating the event.

“It was exciting and nerve-racking,” said Dyer, “but it was nice meeting others.”

Lee found that “many students smiled” while co-leader Pogue had students thanking him.

“It was a lot more than I had hoped for,” added Warr.

On the second day, the cadre of student leaders shared a video they created with all the classes. The video, which focused on “Ten Things We Have in Common,” had student volunteers lead the ice breaker/team building exercise. The next two days, two additional team building activities including “Human Bingo” and “Speed Friending” were implemented.

“I think we learned that we are not so different from each other and learned new things,” said Warr.

On the final day of launch week, all students were involved in a “Mix-It-Up” exercise in the cafeteria during their lunch period. As each student entered the cafeteria, they were assigned an arbitrary seating number moving them away from their normal peer group and towards unfamiliar students. Discussion topics at the tables encouraged conversation.

“Students were not very happy at first,” said Pogue, “but it was not as bad as they thought.”

The week-long activities not only raised awareness, but according to McVan, drew praise from students, parents and teachers alike. Student leaders all agreed they had new-found confidence, learned how to take control and overcome anxiety, and had gotten to know each other much better from the experience.

“I also think students will be able to reach out if they need help or are thinking about suicide,” added Lee.

McVan said plans are to expand the program and begin earlier in the school year.

Research supports the need for intervention.

According to a 2015 study published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers from Brigham Young University sounded the alarm on what could be the next big public health issue, on par with obesity and substance abuse. Researchers noted that while the subjective, self-reported feeling of loneliness and the objective state of being socially isolated are different, both are potentially damaging. The study found that relationships can improve health in a variety of ways including dealing with stress, improving the functioning of the immune system, and providing meaning to people’s lives.

The “Start with Hello” program is projected to be a part of the school’s efforts to become recognized as a “No Place for Hate” campus, a district initiative.

“No Place for Hate” is a self-directed program helping all of the stakeholders take the lead on improving and maintaining school climate so all students can thrive. The program calls on students, educators, and family members, to assume a role in combating bias and bullying as a means to stop the escalation of hate.

Dana@LHIndependent.com

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