What if we knew what kids with emotional burdens needed? What if we could pinpoint and address their needs without stigmatizing them? What if our highest risk students looked forward to school and developed a little bounce in their step? What if it were unbelievably simple?
"We no longer chase after services for our high needs kiddos.
Mental health is built school-wide and everyone belongs."
-- High School Principal
My transition to high school principal coincided with the development of a new program by SOASTC. The program seemed pretty loosey-goosey to me. A School-Community Advocate would be in our school for 10-20 hours a week, would not open charts for students or provide standard on-the-couch therapy but would focus on mental health as a school-wide concept. I was skeptical but anxious for any level of service we could get. The program as it unfolded and the results were stunning.
"Our Advocate brings students together and makes everyone feel important. He has made a huge impact on our lives and has shown us the importance of helping others."
-- High School Student
"At North Valley, our Advocate has been a great inspiration in helping us develop into who we are." -- High School Student
When we intervene with kids, too often we focus on their deficiencies. But every kid comes to us with strengths as well. Through the School Community Team, we learned that a strengths focus is more effective than a deficiency one. When our Advocate worked with a student, he helped the student identify needs and strengths and ways to approach problems.
For one who is as task-oriented as me, it was all too nebulous in the beginning. Stuff needed to get done. How would this undefined presence help?
Traditional mental health services look something like this:
- they involve a trainer giving tools to "the trained"
- they try to "fix" broken kids
- they are one-to-one and do not involve educators, partners or parents (except to elicit support)
- they are separated from normal school life
The School Community Team shook these assumptions and focused differently:
- it is mutual, meaning advocates look for ways to work together with students, parents and educators. the problems become experience used to help others with similar experiences. the victims or bad kids become helpers and contributors to strengthening the school community.
- it can be individual, group, classroom or whole school
- it involves a wide array of people (non-profits, businesses, agencies) in a variety of ways
- it works inside the normal school activities, not separate in an office
"Through direct contact with families and the teaching of parenting skills by program staff, two of our youngest students turned disruptive behavior around and are now making good progress in the classroom." -- Elementary Principal
First and foremost, I learned that human emotional health is dependent upon feeling socially effective. When students feel effective with their peers and adults, their brains change. They are able to address personal problems and to change behaviors.
Second, I learned that sometimes simple things can cause complex problems. Freshman anxiety about locker combinations can trigger problem behaviors and learning barriers. By seeing the source of the anxiety, we can overcome it and prevent other problems.
Third, I learned that family self-perceptions and negative views of schools and authority can be compounded by our typical approaches and require a different way of interacting and supporting parents.
A colleague at those mental health meetings was subjected to my persistent whining over lack of services. Later she heard me say, "I feel like we have all the service we need for our kids." She was shocked. If you're a school administrator or counselor, I'm guessing you would not make such a statement.
SOASTC and find out more. Maybe you can replicate this inexpensive and ridiculously effective approach in your school.