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Students Navigate Emotions and Stress with the NESTT

High school can be a difficult time. Between making new friends, going to a new school, and facing new experiences, many students face mental health issues and lack a space where they can learn about how to care for their well-being.  

Hallway leading up to the NESTTCity High has recognized a need for a centralized space for students who are experiencing mental health needs. This space is called the NESTT (Navigating Emotions and Stress Through Training), which opened in January 2021. 

“When I was the Dean of Students, I realized two things: one, I was not very knowledgeable about mental health, and two, many of the issues, to me, that we were calling ‘behaviors’ were in fact mental health issues,” said Doug Lestina, a teacher at City High. 

The concept for the NESTT was put together by a group of Student and Family Advocates (SFAs), school counselors, school social workers, and teachers. They received a grant from the Big Idea Hunt, a program funded by the Foundation for the Iowa City Community School District, to get the concept started. 

“A lot of the skills we focus on here are from the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) curriculum,” said Thos Trefz, an SFA at City High. “DBT works on building skill areas, emotional relation, and stress tolerance based a lot around mindfulness skills, so those are the things we focus on whether it’s breathing activities or other mindfulness activities.”

The NESTT also has a virtual calming room that offers online tools, which are not only useful to students but can also be used by staff, parents, and community members. 

How does NESTT work?

If a student needs help navigating a mental health situation or stress, the student can go to the NESTT. When they first arrive, students check in with a trained staff member and are asked to put away their phones. 

Table at the NESTT with fidget toys, coloring books, and small zen gardens

They then have the opportunity to write their emotions in a comment box. Many responses mentioned feeling anxious, worried, nervous, stressed, or overwhelmed when they came to the NESTT. 

The student then identifies a skill or tool that they think will be helpful such as art, talking with staff, playing with fidget toys, and listening to music. Each student spends about 15 minutes at the NESTT per visit. 

“It is a welcoming space where a student can come and take what they need,” said Annie Gudenkauf, an SFA at West High. “That can include talking to somebody, but it can also include doing more independent self-care with using items in the room like puzzles, colors, Kinetic sand, or things like that to kind of just be mindful and recoup for 15 minutes and then be able to transition back to the classroom from there.”  

After visiting the NESTT, students said they feel more relaxed and calm than when they arrived. 

The Future of the NESTT

Looking forward, Lestina hopes to have a NESTT in every school in our District. That begins with Liberty and West high schools. 

Liberty and West recently received a grant from the Big Idea Hunt. This grant will be used to purchase supplies for the NESTT at each of these two schools. 

“We are very grateful for all the work City High has done and they’ve been really generous to share their list of supplies with us,” said Rick Spear, an SFA at Liberty. 

Inside the NESTT at City HighLiberty and West already have a space for each NESTT and will begin purchasing supplies in July of 2022. 

“We are trying to be proactive and meet student needs as they arise and hopefully help students learn the skills that will help them manage their own mental health needs and provide them resources if they need help,” said Spear. 

Similar to the NESTT at City High, Liberty and West’s spaces will be dedicated to helping students learn how to take care of their mental well-being and will provide students with a variety of ways to do so. 

“The thing that I found most important as we worked on developing this was the widespread community support that we had from families, students, and outside groups that really advocated for the space to be created,” said Gudenkauf. “I’m just super grateful for the Iowa City community coming together to help improve mental health among students.” 

Liberty and West are planning to open their NESTTs during the 2022-2023 school year.