PSFA helps provide counseling for elementary students
For kids struggling with family problems or coping with a personal trauma, sitting in a classroom and trying to focus on schoolwork can be like “playing chess in a hurricane,” says Brian Patrick, Methow Valley Elementary School principal.
Often, those students end up in his office because they are disruptive in class. “They blow it sometimes and it affects the learning environment of all the kids in the class,” Patrick said.
Fortunately, the school is able to give these students immediate attention and help. Through a partnership between the Methow Valley School District and Public School Funding Alliance, psychologist Megan Schmidt was hired last year to provide support for children at the elementary school.
Public School Funding Alliance (PSFA) shares the cost of the counseling services with the district, with the goal of helping individual students, and therefore improving the overall learning environment for all students.
“When I arrived in the district, one of the first things I heard from teachers was, ‘We need a counselor at the elementary school,’” said Superintendent Mark Wenzel. “Many of our students have a lot of hardship in their life – as evidenced by our 52 percent free-and-reduced lunch rate, compared to 35 percent 10 years ago. Teachers saw the lack of a counselor as a huge impediment to the learning environment,” Wenzel said.
“When children get frustrated, they often act out. This creates barriers to learning for all students. The counselor allows students to talk to someone about their problems and devise strategies to overcome them. It’s such a critical role in public schools. We’re thrilled to have this partnership because we see it directly benefiting students at school and helping us build a positive culture for learning.”
Last year, 40 students were referred to her by teachers, the principal, or the school’s Family Empowerment Coordinator. “My goal was that for each student who was referred, I met with them and at least did an initial assessment about what the needs were and how they could be served,” Schmidt explained.
For older elementary students Schmidt provides one-on-one counseling if needed. “For many kids who were frequently in the principal’s office, having a lot of disruptive behavior, the curative factor is the relationship, the consistent, stable, quiet relationship,” Schmidt said.
For younger students – kindergarten through second grade – she conducts group sessions to help the children build their social skills. “With the little guys we do a lot of self-control games. I can teach self-soothing, emotional regulation.”
In some cases, when family issues are the source of a student’s problems, Schmidt arranges to meet with parents and other family members to help identify and address issues. “I do psycho-social education about the issues going on in the family that might be affecting the child,” she said.
She also works with teachers to help them identify and understand the “function and purpose” of disruptive and aggressive behavior. Some kids, for example, use disruptive behavior as a way of covering up perceived deficits in their abilities, Schmidt said. “Does a child punch another because they are ashamed they can’t read?”
This year, Schmidt is providing training to help teachers understand social and emotional behavior based on “functional behavioral assessments – a fancy way of saying what is the function of a behavior?” Schmidt said the training helps teachers identify motives that might prompt disruptive behavior, such as seeking power and control, avoiding difficult situations or tasks, and seeking attention.
Once teachers understand the function behind a child’s behavior, “there are methods you can use to engage those kids. You can customize for that child,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt has a special way of connecting with elementary school children – she brings a therapy dog with her to work. Her dog, Stellar, “is a warm presence” and simply petting the dog can help a distraught child “self-soothe” and calm down.
“A lot of times we’ll go walking with her,” Schmidt said. “I feel kids and adults process better when out in nature, moving their bodies.”
Schmidt also uses Stellar to help children develop self-control. “With the little guys we do a lot of self-control games. I’ll ask them, ‘How can we help Stellar with her self-control?’”
Schmidt devotes two days a week to her elementary school work, a total of 15 hours. In addition to funding from PSFA and the district, the Methow Valley Community Fund has also provided support for the counseling position.
Principal Patrick said investing in counseling at the elementary school has had a positive impact on all students by reducing the intensity and frequency of classroom disruptions.
“Kids that were coming to see me for behavioral issues on a regular basis are coming less frequently. And the time that it takes to de-escalate is much shorter.”
Research indicates that young children with aggressive behavior are at higher risk for developing substance abuse problems, dropping out of school, and engaging in delinquency and violence. Early intervention for these students is especially important, Wenzel said.
The counselor “is a vital link to the overall health of the school,” Wenzel added. “We’re thrilled to have this partnership. It’s making a big difference.”
Reprinted from Methow Valley School District's MV Pride Publication, with permission.