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Fostering Mental Health through Stronger Connections

When I look at the world our Gen Z students are experiencing today, in some ways, I see similarities to my own, but in others, I see vast differences. The internet, social media, and smartphones–the devices and services we tune into for hours a day, every day–didn’t exist. In-person relationship building has plummeted and, for Gen Zers especially, was completely disrupted during the pandemic. Those critical moments at school where students are learning who they are and how they relate to others disappeared. We need to do more to foster mental health through stronger connections.

A diverse group of middle school students sit in a circle to practice relationship building

Compass Circle, a program created by Valor Collegiate Academies in Nashville, has served as the key tool we use to encourage self-discovery and teach students how to build healthy relationships. Starting next school year, Kairos is taking Circle to the next level, complete with student badge work and hands-on staff training, thanks to a $400,000 Stronger Connections grant to support student mental health.

Mr. Jason Kennedy, a 7th-grade teacher at Kairos Academies Middle School, sees the immense value of Circle in his students’ lives. 

“The best thing about this age, and really the hardest thing about this age, is they want to talk. They want to communicate, but they don’t know how. Circle is a time where we are communicating how we feel. And it has really created a space in our room where everyone is okay being a little bit vulnerable.”

For families who have never seen Circle in practice, students begin by sitting together in a small group. Everyone takes a moment to settle their minds, take a deep breath, and make themselves present.

“We all start off at first with just one word about how we’re feeling.” In Mr. Kennedy’s eyes, this simple gesture not only builds a sense of inclusion, but it’s also a great way for him to gather clues about how his students are doing. “So if I have a student who says they’re feeling tired, I can later on ask them, ‘oh well earlier you said you were feeling tired or you said you were feeling stressed. Would you like to go a little bit deeper into that?’”

Students don’t always choose to follow up in these “check-backs,” but as they build trust and grow more comfortable, more speak up. “I do have some students who are willing to speak…and tell me a little bit more about why they’re stressed. And then we, as a collaborative team, are able to weigh in on that–offer them support, offer them love, or even just offer them an ear.”

Two middle school boys shake hands after sharing a positive shoutout during Circle

These moments of shared vulnerability and encouragement are how we make sure Kairos students know they’re loved, supported, and aren’t alone. 

You can feel the spirit of love in our students’ personal experiences. Chloe, a Kairos Academies High School student, values Kairos “because they help people figure out who they are and they embrace everybody for who they are.” Isaiah, another KAHS student put it this way, “This school has helped me not only academically but mentally as well. It was hard to find a place where I belonged up until now.”

Mr. Kennedy witnessed this acceptance firsthand. “I have a group of girls in my homeroom, who I kind of pushed to be closer to each other because I know that they all are a little bit quiet. And now they’ve developed this relationship where they’re the best of friends. So, the very first time that one of them stood up and spoke in Circle…she stood up and thanked all of these girls for being her friend, for showing her love, [and] for being there when she didn’t know anybody.”

“[These girls] got to develop into these people who I don’t even recognize now. Because at the beginning of the year, I couldn’t even get them to look me in the eyes. And now it’s completely different. They are wanting to be social, they have that love for friendship, and they are happy to accept other people into their groups and venture out to meet more people.”

For the 2024-25 school year, our Stronger Connections grant award will allow Kairos to strengthen our bench of school counselors and support services. The award will also allow the entire Kairos team to participate in Compass Camp next school year–an intensive program to learn to facilitate Circle with greater depth. Staff will participate in Circles together, not only to practice the process, but to build deeper connections and trust among our own team. We will also use this time to learn the Compass Badge curriculum, which begins in 5th grade and expands through high school, to teach students the value of commitment, exploration, responsibility, community, leadership, and service.

Beginning in the 2025-26 school year, with a fully-staffed and well-trained team, we will roll out the complete Compass Circle program to both of our schools. Students and staff will continue to participate in Circle on a weekly basis with the addition of badge work that will help guide their discussions and direct their social and emotional growth.

For Mr. Kennedy, Circle is the tool that makes the Kairos experience exceptional. “I really wish I had some kind of support [in middle school] from someone who looked like me, who acted like me, who lived like me. And now I get to be that for so many students. Everybody is working on this. One of the coolest things I’ve noticed about Kairos from the beginning is everyone has the chance to be their most authentic selves. It’s okay to be a little bit different. And it just makes it feel a lot more relaxed when we can have these open discussions.”

We’re so excited to begin this work together and look forward to delivering a truly robust system of support that empowers our students to thrive in the meaningful life path they choose.


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