NEWMAN - Local schools are continuing to expand resources to support students and families facing social or emotional issues.
The new school year started Tuesday with a restructured, tiered system of intervention in place to better meet those needs.
Those resources now include a new, digital program which address a wide variety of age-appropriate topics, an additional psychologist and the addition of a mental health clinician to the Newman-Crows Landing district staff.
The foundation for the system, however, remains the classroom teachers and other front-line staff members who administrators say have reached out to the district asking for guidance in identifying and responding to students who may be struggling with social or emotional issues.
“If a student is experiencing depression or anxiety, teachers want to help but they also want to know how to help,” explained Kim Bettencourt, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction. “That is where teachers want direction. They are telling us that they know it is an issue. They are conscientious about how we deal with kids with these needs, and don’t want to do the wrong thing.”
Bettencourt said the district is providing additional training to better equip staff members in addressing social/emotional issues. One new resource this year is the digital Suite 360 program, which offers an extensive library of materials addressing issues ranging from depression and anxiety to suicidal thoughts and body image issues.
The brief videos may deal with something as basic as the importance of showing respect to others at younger grade levels to addressing the need to be empathetic toward others at the high school level, Superintendent Randy Fillpot commented.
The program, he and Bettencourt said, is a resource for teachers, parents and students alike.
“Kids are sometimes reluctant to get information about dealing with things such as depression from an adult, but are more comfortable getting information on line,” Fillpot stated. “It is for parents as well. What do you say to your kids (in certain situations)? What do you do? There are a ton of subject areas.”
Teachers can share presentations on selected topics with their class as a whole, Bettencourt said, or can assign a student a specific presentation which addresses the need at hand.
She emphasized, however, that Suite 360 is just one social/emotional learning tool in a comprehensive approach to better serve students and parents.
“This does not replace the teacher being empathetic or the human touch,” Bettencourt said, “but if you are having a bullying issue in your classroom, you now have a tool that you can share with students and parents and start conversations about that.”
Beyond the classroom level, a tiered intervention system is in place to support students struggling with social or emotional issues.
In addition to counselors being available at the high school and middle school, each elementary site had its own counselor starting last year (although Hunt and Bonita share one staff member). Identifying social/emotional issues and responding with support at an early age is critical, Bettencourt stressed.
“Over the last couple of years, it has been very clear that our staff, students and parents wanted counselors at every site. We worked on that,” Bettencourt said.
The district also had two psychologists and two behavioral specialists on staff. This year, a third psychologist was added.
“All of our psychologists will do academic testing but will also support students with social/emotional needs,” Bettencourt explained. “Hiring the third frees them up to provide support for kids on a one-to-one basis or in a group setting.”
The addition of a mental health clinician this year adds another crucial layer to the resources the district is able to provide.
Previously, Bettencourt said, a student needing the resources of a mental health clinician would be referred to county mental health services. But students actually being able to access those services required a parent who had transportation, didn’t have work conflicts and could make the appointments, Bettencourt said.
Now, those services can be provided in-house.
Bettencourt said the clinician will serve multiple roles. In addition to working directly with individual students, that staff member will visit classrooms to talk about specific issues and work with staff members to help them recognize signs of social/emotional struggles.
“By doing this, she will raise awareness in our community and in the classroom,” Bettencourt commented.
Students, she reflected, may come to school bearing a number of social/emotional burdens.
Life events such as divorce or the death of a loved one can deeply impact students, she said by way of example.
Social media is another prominent factor which contributes to the pressures facing students.
“We have to be more responsive to that and understand it,” Bettencourt emphasized.
A series of tragedies experienced in Newman last year deeply impacted the school community and underscored the importance of enhancing support and resources in an effort to better meet the social and emotional needs of students, Bettencourt reflected.
Building relationships with students is one critical component, she said.
“You always have to be talking to them,” Bettencourt shared. “The more you talk to them about situations the better.”
But having the additional layers of support and resources available is crucial, she added.
“We can’t stick our heads in the sand. We can’t say that this is not our problem,” Bettencourt stated. “There is a lot in place for kids right now. I think we are much better prepared to deal with social emotional learning than we ever have been, but we can’t stop trying to make it better.”