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By Zach Giordano | video by Sam Crimmins
Every day at Sarah Greenwood School, a K-8 dual-language public school in Dorchester, all students arrive ready to learn—and some arrive ready to talk.
For many children, opening up about how they learn, who they are, and what bothers them doesn’t come easily—at first. But one thing that makes Sarah Greenwood stand out, besides holding classes in both English and Spanish, is its incorporation of on-site mental health counseling into students’ weekly schedules.
“When I refer students to counseling, it’s not because they’re crazy, obviously, but that’s something I need to stress to parents quite often,” says Karla Gandiaga, Sarah Greenwood’s principal. “The benefit to having someone there for students who’s willing to acknowledge their frustrations or help them through difficult experiences is immense. And by integrating these conversations into their school day, it makes them even more beneficial.”
On the subject of feelings
According to a 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health, one in seven children between the ages of six and 18 struggles with a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Only half of these children received treatment in the 12 months prior to the survey, and a great number remained undiagnosed.
Franciscan Children’s—a regional leader in inpatient and outpatient mental health care—has been working to stay ahead of these statistics for the past 14 years with a program known as the Children’s Wellness Initiative (CWI). Designed to assist Boston Public School students living with mental health challenges, CWI increases access to outpatient mental health services while simultaneously decreasing the stigma surrounding it.
As of the 2018-2019 school year, the program provides eight Boston Public Schools, including Sarah Greenwood, with on-site counselors who collectively work with more than 350 students.
“The fact that these services are available in school removes barriers for parents and more easily integrates therapy into their child’s life,” says Kristan Bagley-Jones, LICSW and director of the CWI program. “And teachers are able to gather an abundance of information by seeing how kids play at recess or act in disciplinary hearings. That kind of data helps guide treatment and ongoing intervention.”
On a continuing basis, mental health professionals, educators, and principals, like Gandiaga, are working to dispel the idea that mental health counseling is only necessary when there is a substantial need. Oftentimes, children simply need a person to talk to, or the time and attention to work through something weighing on their mind. More often, mental health intervention comes when habits, like high frustration, acting out, or lack of motivation, are identified. Counseling can help students learn to recognize these behaviors, while also teaching them coping skills they can use in the classroom and in the real world.
Students’ perception of counseling is another reason why being on site at school works in CWI’s favor. “Since we’re at the school full-time, our team is seen as part of the fabric of the schools,” Bagley-Jones says. “Like the school nurse, or the reading teacher, we’re the feelings teachers.”
Counselors, educators, and principals keep in constant communication about students’ progress and performance during the school year, but access to the CWI program doesn’t stop once the school calendar ends.
“To provide a continuum of care, we see students over the summer and in different environments outside of school as well,” says Tamara Iwanski, a school-based clinician and site manager at Sarah Greenwood. “We meet with kids at home and work with their families and camp counselors, visit them at camp, and provide them services there to better bridge the gap before a new school year starts.”
Support all around
In her three years as principal of Sarah Greenwood, Gandiaga has made a lot of upgrades. She started by painting over the mud-brown doors of every classroom with a bright emerald green. Hallways were transformed into abstract galleries as student work began filling up the walls. Laminated, prefabricated posters were removed from bulletin boards, replaced with handmade, hand-written reference materials for students.
“I believe that being in a space you’re proud of, one that reflects who you are, makes you feel like you’re a part of the community and able to grow,” Gandiaga says. “By being welcoming and bright, the school makes students feel like they can learn, take risks, and talk to people.”
One upgrade Gandiaga made was directly influenced by the school’s relationship with the CWI program. This year, Franciscan has added a third, Spanish-language dominant counselor to the roster. As a dual-language school, it was imperative to ensure that every family, no matter their primary language, has an equal chance at benefitting from CWI’s services.
“Between our faculty and the Franciscan counselors, we have a very mutually supportive relationship,” Gandiaga says. “It’s really great to see that when they’re struggling to solve something, they’ll come to me or I’ll go to them to help figure something out.”
In the classroom, teachers feel CWI’s impact daily. Mental health directly affects a child’s ability to learn effectively, and the more effectively a child is able to learn, the more successful (and less stressful) an educator’s job becomes.
Sarah Greenwood kindergarten teacher Jessie Auger says that her job “would be so much more difficult” without the support of the Franciscan Children’s counselors. “We have a huge amount of social and emotional need at the school, and I don’t feel I could do the same job without them.”
Signs of progress
“The earlier a child starts counseling, the better we prevent problems from getting worse as they grow older,” Bagley-Jones points out. “Our counselors talk to kids about their feelings, teach them coping skills” and, in effect, she notes, give them the tools they need to feel comfortable opening up and succeeding in their own skin.
And, most importantly, the students see the value in it, too.
Gandiaga recalls bumping into a first-grader who graduated from the CWI program in kindergarten, who conveyed that he could still benefit from having someone to talk to.
“He asked me, ‘Karla, do you remember Mary?’” Gandiaga shares that Mary was a former program counselor. “When I said ‘of course’, he told me, ‘I miss her.”
Soon after, Gandiaga spoke with the student’s teacher, who recommended continued counseling for him.
“I found it very curious that the student expressed this very thing to me, simply by saying that he missed his counselor,” Gandiaga says. “That was his way of reaching out and saying, ‘I graduated from counseling and maybe I wasn’t ready.’”
“That level of social-emotional and mental health awareness in a first grader is really incredible and a true testament to the power of this program.”
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