WSU-created kits help tribal youth overcome pandemic stress, isolation

Breathing ball play
Two young brothers play with a “breathing ball,” a tool used in WSU Extension-developed learning kits used to strengthen youth emotional resilience. A new partnership between Extension, 4-H, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation is helping tribal youth access these kits (Linda McLean/WSU Extension).

Native American youth face historical trauma and high rates of drug and alcohol use and suicide in their communities. The global pandemic only increased their stress and isolation.

To help children in Washington’s second largest tribe become resilient, educators with WSU Extension and Washington State 4-H partnered with the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation to deploy hundreds of stress-relieving kits for youth.

Last year, Extension specialists created, assembled, and shared 600 kits with rural Washington families, using financial support from a private donor and the university. Containing roughly a dozen items, from fidget toys to a plastic ‘breathing ball’ used in breathing exercises, as well as step-by-step instructions for children and adults, the kits help young people understand and regulate their emotions.

“Self-regulation is a fundamental skill we use all our lives,” said Catherine Glen, a project associate specialist with WSU Extension’s Child and Family Research Unit (CAFRU) who created the kits. “It’s our ability to identify and regulate our physical and emotional states.

Catherine Glen, WSU Extension Child and Family Research Unit specialist

“When we’re too excited or nervous, we can calm our bodies, minds, and emotions back to a place where we can learn,” she added. “When we’re low, we can get our bodies and minds moving.”

Children learn how to do this in part through school. But during the pandemic, “kids were at home,” Glen said. “They didn’t have the same opportunities to learn self-regulation.”

“Our seventh graders haven’t seen what we’d call a typical year since fourth grade,” said Linda McLean, director of WSU Colville Reservation Extension program and an enrolled Colville tribal member.

This winter, McLean connected with Dr. Ehab Mustafa, director of the Colville Tribes’ Clinical Behavioral Health Services, to put 200 kits in the hands of Colville tribal families through the tribe’s Resilient Schools Project, a national program that helps children reframe and cope with negative experiences.

Tribes face historical traumas from loss of land, lives, and culture, as well as poverty and substance abuse. Tribal youth have the country’s highest rates of suicide, drug and alcohol misuse among young people.

Through the Resilient Schools Project, Colville educators and specialists are teaching young people how to be self-reliant before they turn to risky behaviors, Mustafa said. Kits will be shared through three school districts on the reservation as well as through 4-H programs.

Linda McLean
Linda McLean, Director, WSU Colville Reservation Extension, connected with tribal specialists to share kits.

“We’re teaching life skills,” McLean said. “The more tips and tools we can provide to help young people manage their stress levels, the more they’ll be strong and resilient in the future.”

Among the first to try the kits were Inchelium school specialists Johanna Miller and SimHayKin Jack. Their program, “Connecting With Our Roots,” combines tribal culture lessons with resiliency and social skills training, and is currently being piloted with a class of sixth-grade boys.

Middle-schoolers face loneliness, peer pressure, bullying, and addiction among family and friends, and there have been frequent upheavals in their lives and routines due to the pandemic.

Johanna Miller
Johanna Miller, Mental Health Professional, Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation

“They’re isolated from their friends, family and elders,” said Miller, a mental health professional with the Colville tribe. “We see the deaths of elders, who are a huge part of intergenerational lives.”

Schoolwork is another big stressor, and young people must navigate real-world and online hurdles that can be challenging for adults.

“It all accumulates,” Miller said. “At a point, you see kids shut down.”

Stress tool kit
WSU Extension-developed kits include a breathing ball, fidgeters, and other tools that children can interact with to learn self-regulation.

To help, Miller and Jack combined the resilience kits with language lessons and a message from a tribal elder. Students who took part seemed more focused and willing to participate afterwards.

“A fidgeter in their hands gives them an extra little boost to share what’s weighing on them,” said Jack, a clinical cultural specialist with the tribe. “When big things are going on in their lives, they have this tool in their hand that helps them talk about things they might not normally feel comfortable talking about.”

There is a need for more programs such as this, ones that confront generational trauma and systemic racism and help heal native communities, Jack added.

“Right now, life is crazy,” she said. “We want kids to know that they can turn to their culture and language, and to the tools we gave them. We want them to remember that they’re not alone.”