Op-Ed: Mike Sparks: "Uncommon solutions can help fix student behavioral health problems."

Apr 09, 2024 at 08:12 am by WGNS

(L to R) Rep. Sparks and Priscilla Presley on Capitol Hill

(OpEd from 49th District State Rep. Mike Sparks - "Behavioral Health")  During my years in public service, I’ve always had a simple goal: to improve my community and the people that reside here.

Middle Tennessee is growing rapidly because of conservative policies and fiscal responsibility. We’re moving in the right direction, but there’s no doubt we still have work to do.


A major issue facing our country today is mental health and behavioral issues in young people. Several American children’s health organizations in 2021 declared a national children’s mental health emergency. A survey released two years later by the EdWeek Research Center found that 70 percent of teachers reported students misbehaving more than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

This behavioral health crisis must be addressed. It’s possible to develop character and foster a spirit of hope in struggling students. Reduced screen time and increased outdoor activity are certainly beneficial, and I believe strategy games like chess could also play a part.

That’s why I passed a resolution this year recognizing the benefits of chess in schools and correctional facilities in Tennessee.

Chess offers unique advantages to children, including improving cognitive development, concentration and patience. One study of preschoolers even found that playing certain board games decreased aggressive behavior and increased cooperative behavior.

I recently visited a youth correctional facility in Nashville and one young man – who I could tell didn’t want to be there based on his demeanor – perked up when I mentioned the game. He told me he knew how to play and became excited just thinking about it. He even asked me to pray with him before I left.

A few months later, I had the pleasure of meeting Priscilla Presley on Capitol Hill. I told her about my work designating “Amazing Grace” as one of Tennessee’s state songs and, to my surprise, she told me that it was Elvis’s favorite hymn.

These experiences reignited my passion for improving the lives of children through unique channels like chess and music therapy.

Our state is known for its rich music history but we also have a thriving music therapy industry, with 130 board-certified music therapists across the state. Music therapy using songs, sounds, rhythm and harmony can improve emotional health, social skills, self-confidence and concentration levels for people of all ages, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

Both last year and this year, the House approved a resolution I sponsored designating the week of Feb. 27 as Tennessee Music Therapy Week to celebrate the industry’s important work.

I know first-hand how powerful music is. I played “Amazing Grace” during my mother’s final hours on this earth and I watched music therapy in action – her breathing calmed and her pains subsided.

I recently visited my sister who has a traumatic brain injury, and while she doesn’t know my name, she does know the words to John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” If that’s not a testament to the importance of music, I don’t know what is.

Chess and music therapy may sound like unconventional solutions to common problems, but they are tools in the toolbox to help solve our students' behavioral issues. In 2019, then-Murfreesboro City Schools Director Linda Gilbert sent my office an email expressing the need for solutions focusing on the “whole child.”

And while Gilbert has passed away, I have never forgotten that email and the need for out-of-the-box solutions for our kids. Chess and music therapy are a good start.

If you’re a teacher, school staff member or parent please reach out to my office with other recommendations on how to fix the behavioral issues our students are facing. I can be reached at rep.mike.sparks@capitol.tn.gov.

State Rep. Mike Sparks lives in Smyrna and represents the 49th District of the Tennessee House of Representatives, which includes part of Rutherford County.

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