The Montana Gap: A curriculum to help students build healthy relationships

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(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Montana Gap, a Solutions Journalism Network project in which The Western News is participating.)

Strings, anchors, balloons, the colors of the rainbow: To hear students and teachers talk about the Kaleidoscope Connect program’s lessons sounds like listening to attendees of a New Age carnival. But to the seventh and eighth graders at Seeley Lake Elementary, each color and code word represents a concrete aspect of what each student needs in order to be resilient and healthy.

Kaleidoscope Connect is a program Seeley Lake Elementary uses to help middle school-aged students build resiliency and healthy relationships. It is intended to strengthen the services the school can provide by giving students the tools to develop good relationships with stable, healthy adults.

The program has been in place in Seeley Lake for two years, but it is still in its beginning stages. It’s been shown to make a difference in students’ mental health too, but once they move on from middle school, students no longer receive education in the program.

Jacquie Brown, an assistant professor of psychology and a researcher on a project studying the effects of Kaleidoscope Connect in Seeley Lake and other small towns said rural youth can have higher rates of depression and substance use than youth in urban communities. This can be due to distance from healthcare resources, the negative stigma surrounding mental illness, poverty and isolation.

“Although there isn’t necessarily a formula, years of research in the area of resilience has emphasized the importance of youth-adult relationships,” Brown said. “The program that we are implementing in Seeley Lake focuses specifically on building youth-adult relationships both within and outside of the school setting.”

Angela Harris, Seeley Lake Elementary’s director of student support, selected the program because of its proven success in other rural communities, especially in Alaska. She saw a lot of similarities in the disadvantages students face in the two states, including isolation from mental health services. However, Harris said small towns in both states have strong relationships between people, which Kaleidoscope Connect builds on.

“This is how we can enhance [those relationships] so the youth can see that we do have people right here for them,” Harris said.

The program doesn’t require any special preparation or skills. Adults participate in training and receive curriculum tools from Brightways Learning, the publisher and facilitators for the Kaleidoscope Connect program.

Kaleidoscope Connect curriculum pairs ingredients for resiliency with a color and a symbol. For example, red symbolizes the need for healthy relationships with five trusted adults, called “anchors.”

Other ingredients include tangible and intangible needs anchors can provide students to lead a healthy life. Tangible needs include a safe home, food and clothing. Intangible needs include a humor, positivity and faith. These are symbolized by “strings,” which connect with the anchors to form a “web” of support for a student’s sense of self and resiliency, symbolized by a balloon.

These positive symbols can be affected by other things, however. Scissors represent anything in a student’s life that can make “cuts” to the strings that tie them to their anchors.

Phlight Club retreats, based on Kaleidoscope Connect curriculum, reinforce students’ understanding of these concepts through games and team building activities that connect to different pieces of the metaphor.

The eighth grade class at Seeley Lake Elementary is the first to have gone through the full Kaleidoscope Connect curriculum. This means they have participated in multiple Phlight Club retreats as well as learning more deeply about the skills it teaches in health class on a bi-weekly basis.

Chase Haines, 14, says that his experience in the program has helped him develop more trusting relationships with adults and has also made Haines and his friends re-evaluate some of their relationships with other students.

“You might think ‘I can have friends who do certain things and I can be friends with them without doing those things’ but the truth is, you kind of can’t,” Haines said. “Look at what friend group you’re in and if it’s a bad situation, it’s okay to start again.”

According to Brown, previous studies have found that when young people have effective adult support, they exhibit decreases in problem behaviors and increases in social and school engagement.

Other students agree that support from adults has helped them make better choices in social environments. Tara Cahoon, another eighth grader, said that although it can be difficult to leave a friendship that isn’t healthy, the trusted adult anchors in her life have helped her make those choices.

“It’s a lot harder than it sounds,’” Cahoon said. “It’s a lot more helpful [to have adults around] just to talk it out and because they can understand both sides. They’ll help you make the right decision.”

Although Seeley Lake resident Rachel Homen homeschools her children, she volunteered to be an adult participant in the program. She learned about the program after talking to Harris, the school counselor, about a student who was potentially in an abusive situation.

“[Harris] said they were in the process of learning how trauma is affecting the kids in school,” Homen said. “That’s when she invited me to the first Phlight Club. They’re trying to bring this program into the school so they can help kids [who faced trauma].”

Homen chose to bring her daughter to the Phlight Club retreats. She feels the skills taught are valuable to all youth.

Many youth, like Homen’s children, who participate in the program already have a strong support system at home. However, it also gives kids who may not have good role models a chance to learn more about healthy relationships.

“For these kids that come from trauma, and a lot of them do, they have never had any sort of say in anything,” Homen said. “When you grow up in abuse, you think that’s normal. You think that it’s normal to be treated like crap. You don’t know there’s another way until someone teaches you.”

Originally, the program was an optional summer retreat, first offered in the summer of 2016. Now, Kaleidoscope Connect’s main tenets, symbolized for students’ easy retention by the colors of the rainbow, are a regular part of the school’s health curriculum. Phlight Club retreats now occur during the school day and are held twice a year.

“We wanted to implement it as part of the curriculum so it wasn’t just a camp they could participate in, but to try and expose youth from all different walks of life to these concepts,” Harris said.

Seventh and eighth graders at Seeley Lake Elementary go to health classes every other week, where the Kaleidoscope Lessons curriculum covers topics ranging from healthy relationships to self-care and healthy eating. Although students at Seeley-Swan High School also attend health classes, the curriculum is not related to the Kaleidoscope Connections program.

Harris does not see this as an ending to the program’s ability to benefit students.

“I think the concepts [of the high school curriculum] are the same,” she said. “We need to do work in the future on what the connection will look like. We just have to make extra efforts to connect the dots between the schools’ programs.”

So far, the program is showing results. From the fall of 2016 to the fall of 2017, students in the program increased the number of adults they considered to be “caring and connected” from 4.4 to 5.5. The students also reported that the number of tangible and intangible benefits of their relationships with those adults increased in the same period. This means that the overall resiliency of the students increased as well.

According to Harris, the annual surveys the school conducts of the students showed an increase in the students’ average percentage of connectedness with adults from 49.7 to 65.3 percent. The percentage of students who reported a school staff member as one of their anchors increased from 18.1 to 21.3 percent.

Eighth-grader Sara Stevenson identified her mom, a woman from her church and Harris as some of her adult anchors. She said she has noticed the adults already present in her life more and was able to get to know them better after being encouraged to do so by the program.

“Before, it was mostly my friends who I relied on,” Stevenson said. “It’s good to have those, but it’s also good to have adults to help you. It’s like a weight lifted off my shoulders, because I know there’s someone to help me.”

Stevenson’s ability to rely on adults in her life fit the goals of the program exactly.

“Through programs like this we’re opening up the channels for kids to navigate the difficult decisions they’re making daily,” Harris said. “We live in this world where technology is at our fingertips but socially it’s difficult to ask people for help. This is giving them tools to really use those relationships to become successful.”

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