West Mifflin School District to create The Holistic Titan Sanctuary through SEEKS SES grant

Posted by Jeremy Tepper on 9/22/2023

A logo of a titan giving a thumbs up in front of the letters W and M


As the after-effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have become clearer in schools, the West Mifflin school district has made it a priority to find effective, creative solutions.


That mindset manifested The Holistic Titan Sanctuary, one of two rooms in the district that will be stocked with exercise equipment and staffed with counseling services. Effectively, the rooms will be designated hubs for students and staff to unwind, blow off steam and mentally clear their brains.


“There’s been a lot of sluggish, depressive and unmotivated behaviors since the pandemic. Because they were so used to sitting at home in front of a screen and not being physically active, that caused a lot of depression,” said Noelle Haney, the district’s Director of Pupil Services.


“And as far as social interactions — because they were confined to their house — there weren’t a lot of social interactions and friendships that make children happy.”


Tendrils of the idea for the rooms started from studies the district did with UPMC and Dr. Elizabeth Miller. Through the Healthy Allegheny Teens Survey, West Mifflin validated a need to focus on physical activity as a vehicle to address multiple issues.


“Among the findings — which are very consistent with what we see across the country — is that young people spend an inordinate amount of time on screen not doing school work, and similarly, many students are not engaging in physical activity,” Dr. Miller said. 


“So there are a few data points in the Healthy Allegheny Teens Survey that were helpful in underscoring why addressing emotional health and well-being from a ‘let's get our children moving and focus on physical activity perspective’ would be effective.”


Dr. Miller has made waves within the mental health and education realm for her work with the Pittsburgh Study, a “longitudinal, community-partnered study focused on child and adolescent thriving and racial equity.” The study — which began in 2018 — aims to study 20,000-25,000 children over the next two decades.


“The physical fitness rooms will be a holistic approach to the children here at West Mifflin. We’ve done studies with UPMC and Dr. Elizabeth Miller about how exercise and physical activity let out so many endorphins, that it makes them feel better mentally and physically. It’s also a great avenue to socialize and have friends do it with them,” Haney said.


“It’s a type of relaxation, calming of the brain, getting your mental capabilities back together.”


Dr. Miller, too, echoed Haney’s thoughts, adding that there are countless studies backed with firm science that validate the connection between physical activity and children thriving.


“It’s really one of those most important factors in terms of increasing mindfulness, increasing opportunity for relaxation and physiologically all the good things that happen with physical activity,” Dr. Miller said.


“The chance to get children moving, enjoying each other and being in that space to play cannot be emphasized enough as a really vital aspect of child health and thriving.”


Haney said the two rooms will be incorporated within students’ physical education and health classes or free periods. Students will also have the opportunity to use the room to blow off steam in the case of an incident, as part of the district’s restorative approach to discipline. 


“A lot of time for kids — if their behavior escalates — it’ll become a suspension or getting kicked out of school,” Haney said. “Instead it will be a positive reinforcement for them where they can go in, work with a teacher, calm down, release some steam and think about their actions. It’s a well-rounded, positive atmosphere for everybody.”


Additionally, the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Health and Rehabilitation Science will    provide assistance, guidance, and resources to create exercises that mentally and physically aid students and staff’s mental health.


“It’s a really amazing array of folks really thinking about physical activity, inclusion, accessibility, supporting children with special healthcare needs – all of this,” Dr. Miller said. 


“This felt like a really amazing opportunity to bring together university partners and school districts and Children’s Hospital to really help with some of the health and wellness activities and support existing folks and amplify the work that’s being done in the school district.”


Beyond serving multiple functions for students, Haney said the two rooms will be a great resource for staff to stay attuned to their health. 


“There’s so much burnout with teachers nowadays, especially with the shortage of teachers. Many teachers are picking up extra duties and extra classes and it’s putting a strain on them mentally and physically,” Haney said. “By having this outlet for them, it restores that and gets them back to where they need to be for the students and for themselves.”


All in all, West Mifflin and Dr. Miller are excited about what’s to come, and — most importantly — excited about how they can help more West Mifflin students thrive.


“I think this is such an exciting way to approach emotional health and well-being by creating spaces that are so inviting and so open and playful,” Dr. Miller said. “I’m really excited to see what we learn together.”