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Culver Academies teachers provide students with tools to help with mental wellness

Tom Coyne

Instructors take time in class to help students work on mental well-being


Dec. 15, 2022

Culver Academies instructors are taking class time to work with students on ways to alleviate anxiety and provide them tools to improve their mental well-being.

Teachers are playing stress-relieving games during classes, leading guided meditations, playing music during tests, and helping students recognize what they are feeling and steps they can take to regulate those feelings.

“The main thing about our teaching philosophy is that we’re seriously concerned about our students’ emotional health,” said Don Fox ’75, a senior instructor and Richard W. Freeman Chair of Leadership.

In July, the White House called the recent rise in depression and anxiety in teenagers an “unprecedented mental health crisis.” The report said that more than 40 percent of teenagers state that they struggle with persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and more than half of parents express concern about their children’s mental well-being.

Mental well-being has been a focus in Ethics and Cultivation of Character, is a required course for juniors in the Department of Leadership Education taught by Fox, Evan Dutmer, Ph.D., and the Rev. Sam Boys, Ph.D.

“We build on the ancient foundations with Aristotle and other great thinkers,” Fox said. “Aristotle, for example, says that virtues come out of the emotions. They come out of the ability to harness the power of the emotions and to regulate some of the destructive power of emotions.”

Each instructor takes different approaches to how they teach the course, but all three use the Mood Meter, a chart developed by the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, that helps students understand their feelings.

“It is a way for people to be able to practice self-awareness and think about how they come into a particular space,” Dutmer said. “The Mood Meter helps students understand what they're feeling with a kind of recognition and understanding and labeling of their emotions in a nuanced vocabulary.”


Students in Ethics and Cultivation of Character use the Mood Meter to help understand their feelings.


Anger, sad, happy, and calm are in the centers of the four quadrants of the chart. Uneasy, complacent, satisfied, and easy-going are at one extreme, and livid, despair, exhilarated and serene are at the other.

“The students can use the chart to figure out how they're feeling. They don't necessarily even have to come in knowing how they feel,” Dutmer said.

The students are then told to ask themselves: How do you want to feel? How do you want to feel in this class?  How do you want to feel by the end of class?

“Those are powerful questions,” Dutmer said. “That's something that people often don't consider very much.”

Thinking about self-awareness and self-regulation allows students to reflect.

“Who am I? What do I believe? What are my values? What are my triggers?” Boys said.  

The Mood Meter takes about five minutes. The instructors also use a chart of character strengths, created by the VIA Institute on Character, to help students identify strengths, such as the cardinal virtues of wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice.

Students are asked to identify where they’ve seen a strength in themselves today. Then they’re asked what strengths they are going to need today.

Fox says the class takes a holistic approach.

“We keep building, so the strengths and virtues are displayed in different ways,” he said. 

Boys sees it as another opportunity to build on the spirit component of the Culver Mission.

“For a person of faith at the beginning of class there’s some time to pray the rosary or whatever is meaningful for them,” he said. “Bringing it into the classroom is another way that we’re truly mind, spirit, body and it’s more than just Sundays.”


The Rev. Sam Boys, Ph.D., believes helping students work on their mental well-being is another opportunity to build on the spirit component of the Culver Mission.


Instructors use other techniques, such as breathing exercises, and body movement, such as yoga, to help students feel less anxious.

Aaron Bardo, a Spanish instructor in the World Language and Culture department, starts every class with “concienciacion,” 0r mindfulness. It sometimes starts with a breathing exercise, such as box breathing, and then transitions into a guided meditation in Spanish.

As an example, he will tell students to act as though their mind is like a blue sky and their thoughts are clouds. They don’t have to interact with the thoughts, they can just let the thoughts drift by.

“It’s hard for some students at the beginning, but then they start to adapt,” Bardo said.

Bardo also gives his students “brain breaks.” He limits learning activities to 15 to 20 minutes, because that’s the attention span of students, and then plays a game such as hot potato or holds a rock, paper, scissors tournament between lessons.

“It’s just a way of giving students a little break, letting them move, and getting some energy out,” he said. “It’s a chance to be creative, bond a little bit.”

He also plays “culturally relevant music” during down time, during games and while giving tests.

Catherine Tulungen, a master instructor and chairperson of International Student Achievement, said that on the first day of class she tells students to arrive each day with a positive attitude.

“That helps to build up everyone in the class and helps everyone feel happy and motivated,” she said.


Catherine Tulungen, a master instructor and chairperson of International Student Achievement, has her students cheer when she announces its time for a quiz.


To help with that, she has her students cheer when she announces it’s time for a quiz or to write an essay or when she hands out a homework assignment. The students even practice cheering early in the term.

“It changes the atmosphere completely,” she said. “A student may not be looking forward to a test or doesn’t want to do the work. But when they cheer, they smile and they laugh.” 

She said every class there is at least one student who makes it their mission to cheer as loud as they can.

“The other students join in because it’s fun,” she said. “It rubs off on them.”


Noah Tomkins '26 leads a wellness exercise on "grounding" to begin Living, Learning, Leading class with master instructor Susan Freymiller deVillier.


Susan Freymiller deVillier, a master instructor and chair of Leadership Education, uses mindfulness techniques aimed at letting students in her Living, Learning, Leading class be present in the moment and set aside outside worries. These include breathing exercises, guided meditations, and other techniques. She has students bring in a favorite photo and talk about the people they love or their pet or places they’ve visited. Then other students ask questions. She said it inevitably leads to laughter.

“Just a chance for us to laugh together,” she said.

One might question why teachers would give up valuable teaching time, but the instructors say they work from a wide body of research that suggests that attending to one’s well-being and character development results both in improved student belonging and happiness and also achievement. The instructors also say the time is spent is worthwhile because it helps ensure students are ready to learn.

“The power of learning can happen when our brains are finely attuned and ready to do the work,” deVillier said. “It’s almost like an athlete. You want to make sure you are stretched, ready to go. You are preparing for the work ahead. This is five minutes for students to connect with each other. If we are laughing together and appreciating each other, we have shifted the environment. We are ready to learn. We are ready to challenge each other’s thinking. We’re ready to offer new ideas and take academic risks with each other.”

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