SHERIDAN — During finals week, Sheridan High School junior McKailyn Malles made it through her first period math final with a piece of candy and an encouraging note from student council sophomores. Malles said she felt empowered to take on the day because a simple gift showed how her peers understand her stress.
Also a student council member, Malles is involved with the Compassion Club at SHS, an initiative that joined dozens of similar movements across the U.S. last year to use simple acts of kindness to combat teen suicide, bullying and depression.
At SHS, each grade level of student council is responsible for one week of Compassion Club activities. While school organizations like Sources of Strength take a more involved approach to peer-to-peer interactions as a mental health support system, three student council members said not to doubt the power of a simple note or kind comment.
This year, freshman student council member Catie Kuehl read positive messages and quotes before morning announcements. Malles wrote jokes and encouraging messages on sticky notes to pass around the school — and spent about an hour illustrating a decent Spongebob for some unknown recipient. Last year, juniors gave gift cards and candy to janitorial and cafeteria staff.
“As well as being kind to your fellow peers, it’s also important to be kind to the people who take care of the school — without our janitors and without our cafeteria workers, we wouldn’t have the great school that we have,” junior student council member Emilou Justice said. “So it’s important to respect them and be kind to them as well.”
Malles said some students might not be willing to acknowledge when they received a message that made a difference. But for some, a simple message of encouragement is what gets them through the day.
Kuehl said spreading kindness is an easy but necessary part of cultivating a positive high school environment. Surrounded by constant pressure to succeed and participate, sharing a moment of kindness is simple yet effective, she said.
“Especially since so many of them are notes that get passed around, it becomes a whole school effort,” Kuehl said. “It doesn’t just stop at the limit of how many people are in student council, but really how many people choose to be kind that day.”
Malles said student councilors attempt to involve teachers by notifying them when messages will be floating through class and asking them to ensure a message finds each student.
Justice said she takes her positive energy and generous mindset with her into other clubs, student activities and the community. She maintains a goal to say something kind or stick up for someone once a day. Reminding someone they matter can be a powerful gesture, she said.
With SHS’ declining on-time graduation rate, Malles said the student council aims to cultivate a culture that convinces students they have a place at the school.
“We want this place to not be a place that you have to come but a place you want to be at,” Malles said. “Maybe that one note gets you out of bed every day.”
Isolation and loneliness have become easier patterns for high-schoolers to fall into, Justice said. Her personal mission is to help students feel connected, even if just by receiving a compliment from a stranger.
Anxiety and depression are among the top conditions U.S. teens see as major problems among their peers today, above bullying, drug addiction and alcohol consumption, according to the Pew Research Center.
Determining which peers are hurting and whose home situations are harmful is out of most students’ purview, Justice said. But cultivating a safe and supportive school environment is something students can influence.
Malles said the student council hopes to expand their presence at the junior high as a supportive pathway into the high school. Some students won’t approach a counselor with their troubles but an encouraging message might inspire that person to seek help, reach out to new friends or just make it through the day, Malles said.
“They’re not doing it for themselves,” Kuehl said. “They’re not doing it to be the kindest person in the school, they’re not doing it to be popular or to get a good grade — they’re doing it because they know that other people are going through stuff and they know that bringing kindness to someone else’s life can save a life…and can change the whole mood of the community.”