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"Start with Hello" Reminds Students to Practice Inclusion and Kindness

On a Wednesday morning in mid-September, Glenwood Elementary School (GES) counselor, William Rathbun, joined a class of Mandarin dual-language fifth grade students at 8:00 online to talk with them about loneliness and connection during remote learning. “I want you to think about how we take care of each other and connect with each other while we’re learning online,” Rathbun said. “We can still stay connected -- it’s just different.”

“Try to notice if someone is feeling lonely, excluded or ignored,” Rathbun said to the many young faces on Google Meet. He asked students to think about the steps to reaching out to peers who might feel isolated or alone, and he noted how easy it is to simply reach out and say “hello,” online or in person.

At GES, the full Student Services team made visits during morning meeting to every class, K-5: Rathbun and School Social Workers, Wendy Johnston and Patty Moore and School Nurse, Traci Hewes. 

The reminder to “start with hello” is both basic and straightforward as an essential part of an inclusion toolbox in national efforts to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children and adolescents. It’s so basic, yet so important as an initial act to connect students with their peers. 

The Sandy Hook Promise (SHP) nonprofit has developed successful school programs in response to the epidemic of gun violence and self-harm of recent years, and “Start with Hello” is a campaign promoted every September. For the past three years, that campaign has been shared in our schools by student services teams, and this year the need to start with hello is even more compelling, during a time of heightened isolation.

In October 2018, a SHP trainer offered day long training sessions to all CHCCS student support staff. Now, those who received the training continue the development and use of SHP programs embraced as “Know the Signs,” which also includes “Say Something” and SAVE (Students Against Violence Everywhere) Promise Clubs. “Start with Hello” introduces brief lessons to share in K-5 classrooms, with an adapted curriculum for grades 6-12.

“Social isolation can lead to increased depression and, for some students, thoughts of harming themselves or others,” said Nicole Hockley, co-founder and managing director of Sandy Hook Promise, and mother of Dylan who was killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy. ”In today’s virtual environment, keeping students connected and feeling included by their peers is more important than ever. We have to do everything in our power to keep our children safe.”

The core messages of “Start with Hello” are unchanged, but there are new messages, such as why it’s so important to turn cameras on during Google Meets, and to take opportunities to connect with peers in specials and smaller groups. Rathbun at GES reminded students that when they all have their cameras on, they can more easily check in and see how each other is feeling. “How can we connect with each other if we can’t see each other?” Rathbun asked.

Stephanie Bruce, the counselor at Morris Grove Elementary School, said, “We actually did our ‘Start With Hello’ program the first week of September. We felt we needed to do this sooner rather than later, especially while students and teachers were building their classroom communities.  On September 4, I introduced the program using our Morning News Show, which is shown in every classroom. Afterwards, teachers led classroom circles around guiding circle questions we provided. In addition we created a universal ‘distance’ greetings poster that was shared in all classrooms.” That poster invites people to try out a range of “hello’s” from air hug to spirit fingers to ASL hello.

Emily Picquet is the School Counselor at Mary Scroggs Elementary School. She said their team has been using the school’s weekly news program to share “Start with Hello” presentations. “We will wrap this together with our character education trait of respect for the month of October,” Picquet said. “Teachers will do restorative circles designed to reinforce the importance of ‘Start With Hello.’”

“At Ephesus we had a mini-lesson on ‘Start with Hello’ shared on the Friday morning news , said School Counselor, Ashley Sherman. “We wanted to use the news since it reaches the whole school community. All classes watched the news during their Friday morning meeting, and then individual classes facilitated circles to discuss the SWH information. Students brainstormed ways to help one another feel connected even during our virtual learning time.”

The simplicity and logic of “Start with Hello” is grounded in three steps: 1) See someone alone  2) Reach out and help and 3) Start with hello. Even with the youngest students, lessons point to ways they can recognize signs of loneliness and isolation, followed by strategies for helping peers feel included.  

At Culbreth Middle School, School Social Worker, Stefanie Mazva-Cohen, said, “We are following the Sandy Hook Promise intro lesson within each advisory. We will follow up with lessons on Bullying vs  Teasing within the next few weeks. We are also looking to add a SAVE Promise Club within the next month or so. As always, the Culbreth GSA and Peer Buddies work to combat social isolation in the same vein as the ‘Start with Hello’ initiative.”

School counselor Susan Norris at Smith Middle School, said, “We are participating in ‘Start with Hello Week’ with several activities. The counselors are going into classes to deliver the lesson to all Smith students.  We also had an advisory announcement go out to all students, and we conducted circle discussions during advisory.” 

At Carrboro High School, the Start with Hello powerpoint was adapted for usage with CHS Real Talk advisory groups. On September 15, School Counselor, Matt Harkey, and Linda Karcher, Student Assistance Program Specialist and 504 Coordinator, co-led their Real Talk group through this very important lesson during a time of increased social isolation and loneliness that many are experiencing, especially during remote learning. They began with an overview of Sandy Hook and the rationale for “Start with Hello.” 

Karcher said, “Our students responded well and indicated that reaching out to others in many ways was easier remotely, either to someone in their class that might seem isolated, quiet or lonely or in their Real Talk group. A couple of students expressed interest in joining a SAVE Promise Club. The PowerPoint was shared with the Real Talk Committee Chairs and asked for it to be shared with other advisors for this purpose. Follow up connectedness activities and other SEL activities are planned throughout to increase awareness, evaluate stress levels and for violence prevention.”

Erich Priest, the Mental Health Specialist at Chapel Hill High School, said, “It has been quite the challenge to find different ways to connect with students, and find ways for them to connect with each other, that do not ask them to spend more time staring at a computer screen or sitting in a Google Meet. This includes activities and events that we have always done, such as ‘Start with Hello’ week.”

“While we have not yet been able to meet as an official club yet this year some of our members from last year are meeting this to create and send out social media messaging around ‘Start with Hello,’ and share their ideas for helping to reduce social isolation,” Priest said. “Once the SAVE Promise Club is able to meet, we will then begin planning for ‘Say Something,’ which has typically included the ‘Say Something’ training for SAVE members - which will happen virtually this year - and outreach and resourcing to the school community through social media. We are hoping to have the students take the lead to come up with ideas for connecting with other students, so that they can build that community.”

Coordinator of Social Emotional Learning, Vernon Hall, said, “Over the last six months, many of us have craved the need to connect with people other than our family members.  This year's ‘Start With Hello’ campaign is giving our students and staff a chance to reconnect and establish new relationships in a virtual environment.  We are appreciative of all of our staff members who help coordinate their school-based Start With Hello programs this year.”