Iowa City students learn to manage stress and anxiety in a new mental health classroom

Iowa City West High School seniors Helelia Wa Kalala (left) and Nao Oya, pictured Friday, are student mental health leaders in the school’s Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training (NESTT) room in Iowa City. The space provides students with a safe place to manage emotions and stress. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa City West High School seniors Helelia Wa Kalala and Nao Oya spell “West Cares” on the mini-fridge in the Iowa City school’s Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training (NESTT) room. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa City West High School senior Helelia Wa Kalala rakes sand in a mini zen garden on a table in the NESTT (Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training) room. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa City West High School seniors Nao Oya (left) and Helelia Wa Kalala clean up a table with malleable sand Friday in the school’s Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training (NESTT) room. The space offers calming activities for students to relieve stress. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa City West High School’s Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training (NESTT) room offers activities that students can participate in to help reduce stress and negative emotions. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Flyers in hallways educate students in Iowa City West High School’s Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training (NESTT) room. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — After seeing too many of their peers cry at Iowa City West High School, Helelia Wa Kalala, 18, and Nao Oya, 17, both seniors, advocated a space for students to have their feelings before they move in return to class.

The school transformed a classroom into an NESTT — which stands for Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training — where students can check in at any time during the school day to learn mindfulness, emotional regulation, and stress tolerance.

“It’s like a home away from home where students can feel safe,” said Wa Kalala, co-president with Oya of a mental health advocacy club at West High.

Wa Kalala was hospitalized with “crippling fear” at the start of the pandemic. Prior to this experience, mental health wasn’t something her family talked about, she said.

“I realized that a lot of my friends were going through the same things and didn’t know what to do,” Wa Kalala said. “I don’t blame my parents for not understanding me. It’s not the culture they grew up in. Having someone to talk to at school would have helped me a lot.”

Students can visit NESTT at any time during the school day if they need help coping with a mental health situation or stress. Your time and activity is monitored by trained staff and check-in and check-out forms.

The goal is for students to spend no more than 15 minutes in the NESTT focusing on learning or practicing a coping skill before returning to class. Skills or tools offered at NESTT include art, talking to employees, playing with fidget toys, and listening to music.

Students have the opportunity to write their emotions in a comment box. Many responses mentioned that they felt anxious, worried, nervous, stressed or overwhelmed when they came to NESTT. The students state that they feel better when they leave NESTT than when they arrived.

“The first step to taking care of yourself is acknowledging when you need a minute or a break from something that’s stressing you out,” said Lora Daily, Iowa City Learning Support Principal. “The NESTT affirms that we all have these feelings, encourages students to take that first step and teaches them simple skills to help them when things feel stressful.”

The first NESTT started in January 2021 at Iowa City High School. The concept was created by students, school counselors, school social workers and teachers. The school received an $11,000 grant from Big Idea Hunt, a program funded by the Foundation for the Iowa City Community School District, to purchase equipment such as furniture, books, and other resources.

That school year, the model was replicated at every high school in Iowa City. According to board documents, about 2,500 students have used NESTT in the district’s schools.

About a third of 14- to 18-year-olds experienced a mental health crisis each year before the pandemic, Daily said, and schools became a place where students could seek mental health support.

“Everyone handles stress differently, and once you know what it feels like, you’ll notice it earlier in your body and allow you to use the tools you’ve learned to mitigate those feelings before they become overwhelming.” ‘ Daily said.

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