The 2019-2020 school year wrapped up in the most unexpected way due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This fall, education will continue to look different and SaintA’s school-based therapists are adapting in order to provide students with the care they need – whether in-person, online or blended.
Anxiety, depression, unresolved trauma, and now isolation, are hurdles children will need help navigating. The expansion of school based mental health seems to be coming at just the right time, especially for students in the South Milwaukee School District.
Success for South Milwaukee Students
SaintA Child and Family Therapists Nancy Nedland and Jenna Radowski will continue to work across four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school in the South Milwaukee School District. An additional therapist has been hired to start in the fall to allow even greater access to services and support the growing mental health needs of students and staff. The program was instituted at the request of the community, which wants to see the specific needs of its children met.
Despite the new challenges of online school, therapists like Nancy and Jenna are working hard to meet student’s needs.
Shift in Perspective
The moment Nancy entered South Milwaukee Middle School, her priority was to build trust with every student, their families, teachers and other staff. There was one 8th grader, who we will call “M,” whose long-term behavioral difficulties and limited support system made school challenging. Alone, it would be difficult for a teacher to help M overcome his barriers to educational success.
A collaborative approach to care brought the entire family into a therapeutic setting and resulted in improvements not just for M, but another family member as well. Nancy developed a trusting relationship with the parent of M, encouraged family therapy, as well as listened to parent questions and concerns.
Integrated School Based Model
Recurring disruptive behavior was one of many reasons an integrated approach was needed. Nancy says, consultation regarding the benefits of a shift in perspective often results in new and effective strategies to managing difficult times.
For example, discipline from an authority figure would cause M to shut down, but once he was introduced to regulation tools, like an exercise ball, he was able to engage and discuss the struggle he was experiencing. According to Nancy, this is an example of utilizing strategies that are based upon neuroscience and engage the mechanisms of self-soothing activity. This allows students to benefit from therapeutic interaction.
Trauma sensitive schools have emerged as an educational best practice due to an increased understating of prevalence of adversity – and its impact on the developing brain. SaintA uses the integrated School Based Model, which is a three-tiered approach that focuses on collaboration to meet a student’s mental and behavioral needs.
Regulation is a trauma informed intervention that helps students manage their behavior and emotions. Practices can include, mindfulness and breathing exercises.
Teachers can also benefit from the school-based therapist, Nancy says. They learn to regulate as well and gain support systems that guide them through their shifting role as an educator. SaintA currently has plans to launch a mental health program for teachers to help them care for themselves as they teach and keep students safe during COVID-19 and beyond.
Bringing Therapy to Clients
Part of the mental health model used in South Milwaukee is the addition of an outpatient mental health clinic within the educational setting. Previously, students and families were challenged in getting the help they needed because it wasn’t easily accessible. A visit to an outpatient clinic could easily take a number of hours and students would miss a large portion of the school day – and that was if a parent could get time off of work to take them. If they wanted an appointment after work, those openings filled up fast and the waitlist to begin services was long.
Even if time wasn’t an issue, getting started with mental health care would still be anxiety-producing or overwhelming for families. With therapists like Jenna now in the schools, students can access the help and resources they need in one place.
“We can introduce therapy, so it isn’t so scary,” Jenna says. Last year, there were three students she worked with who initially didn’t want therapy at all. But because she and the services were part of the school environment, they slowly started participating which allowed them to realize mental health services weren’t as intimidating as they thought.
For high school students, therapy may look like a traditional talk therapy session, while little ones may focus on integrating skills through play, art and movement.
Ready for Year Two
At the end of their first year at South Milwaukee, Nancy and Jenna observed something very common: Students who normally thrived around their peers had a particularly hard time when they were forced to learn from home. They missed their friendships and the feeling of being connected.
Those who may have experienced bullying or who are just less social in general, appreciated online school far more.
Nancy and Jenna are grateful they were able to get started with these students last year and had some time to get to know them and get established inside the school walls and days. Even with these new challenges brought on by COVID-19, they both agree that building a program like this, that focuses on a student’s full social emotional health, is a major success.
Now, it’s a matter of adapting regardless of what the fall brings.