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Danyelle Kuss teaches fifth grade students at the Blaine County and Major County Wellness Day. Photo courtesy of Danyelle Kuss.

Headway for Headspace: OSU Extension educator teaches youth about healthy coping skills

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Media Contact: Sophia Fahleson | Digital Communications Specialist | 405-744-7063 |

Growing up near Birmingham, Alabama, Danyelle Kuss played board games and read during her alone time.

Although a neighbor’s cattle grazed outside her kitchen window and tractors drove through her rural community, she had never heard of the Cooperative Extension System or 4-H until she interviewed for the youth mental health specialist position with Oklahoma State University Extension.

Kuss has a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from the University of Southern Mississippi and served as a therapist in Mississippi before coming to OSU.

She worked with families, adults and youth and spent several years working with inpatient substance-abuse treatment and co- occurring disorders.

“I was looking for a step back from direct patients, so I started thinking how I can still have an impact in mental health,” Kuss said. “I was looking for educational ways to do some advocacy and found this position with 4-H.”

Kuss serves as an OSU Extension specialist and 4-H educator, teaching mental health-related workshops to fellow OSU Extension educators, adult volunteers and 4-H’ers.

“The goal of OSU Extension is to meet the needs of the local community, and 4-H fosters positive youth development to help youth acquire the skills to be successful,” said Steve Beck, Oklahoma 4-H program leader.

Kuss is certified in youth mental health first aid and can teach educators, volunteers and teens how to look for signs of a friend in crisis, Beck said.

“I appreciate how Danyelle has a real heart to look at our program and see where we can provide more effective processes,” he said.

Beck and others saw the need for positive youth mental health within the 4-H program in 2020.

“I remember years ago at a 4-H event we were talking about needs in communities,” Beck said. “I was surprised to see how many 4-H members wrote or listed mental health as a need for their community.”

Kuss has worked with Cathy Allen, OSU Extension senior specialist in 4-H Healthy Living and curriculum, to incorporate their two areas of 4-H to benefit the youth and education of volunteers and educators.

The Healthy Living program in 4-H provides social, emotional and physical activities, such as Food, Fun, 4-H and 4-H Yoga For Kids, to encourage healthy habits in youth.

“Mental health is an essential part of health education,” Allen said. “We have always pledged our heads to clearer thinking, and even addressing things such as stress can be critical.”

Kuss has worked with Ty Gregson, OSU Extension assistant state specialist in opioid and substance misuse prevention, to create curriculum and a card game for children to learn how to have healthy coping skills.

“Danyelle and I both have a background in marriage and family therapy, so we were able to relate to each other,” Gregson said. “Our backgrounds 100% influenced the game because it specifically talks about therapeutic patterns.”

The four-week curriculum teaches youth the differences of positive and negative coping skills and gives them new skills to use in their futures. At the end, youth create and keep their own coping plans.

Gregson and Kuss wanted to create something engaging and hands-on, rather than a presentation, he said. They developed the card game and called it “Cope-Able.”

The card game contains two different decks of cards. One deck has various life events, such as receiving a driver’s license or graduating high school. A player chooses a card from that deck and places it on the table in the middle of the participants, each of whom have their own set of cards with coping mechanisms.

“All students have to use the coping skills in their hands to overcome whatever life event has been shown,” Kuss said.

Each card is numbered in the upper right-hand corner with either a negative or a positive number. These numbers show the difference between a positive coping skill and a negative coping skill, Kuss said.

Some of the positive coping skills written on the cards include spending time with family or partaking in personal hobbies, Kuss said. A negative coping skill includes self-isolation, which is a common coping mechanism, but is not always positive, she said.

“You’re trying to play coping skills that get you to a zero or a positive score,” she said.

Kuss and Gregson piloted the curriculum and card game to two schools during March and April 2024.

Kuss’s love for gameplay allows her to be creative in her position.

“One of my biggest challenges in this position is making the information engaging, especially with youth,” Kuss said. “I always think about how to make mental health experiential, so kids can get their hands dirty and feel like they have touched the topic.”

Gameplay helped Kuss gain more social skills growing up.

“Part of my personality that draws me toward working with youth is that you get to be enthusiastic about things,” Kuss said. “I played a lot of games that helped me socially, but I think those are tools we sometimes overlook for youth.”

Even though Kuss was unfamiliar with OSU Extension and 4-H, she has learned more about the missions and roles of both programs, she said.

“It’s fun when I meet people and I say, ‘I’m from OSU Extension,’” Kuss said. “I get to tell them, ‘Oh, we do so much more than that now,’ because we still do things like gardening or working with livestock, but it’s more than those specific areas.”

As Kuss approaches her one-year mark with OSU Extension and 4-H, she hopes her voice helps make progress in Oklahoma.

“I feel like the projects I am doing will have a broad impact,” Kuss said. “4-H is all about making leaders to go out and make better communities, and my goal and hope is to make these youth feel more confident and empowered on this topic.”

Story by: Keona Mason | Cowboy Journal

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