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School Psychologists Work with Teachers to Help Students

School psychologists help teachers understand how a student's mental illness will show up in the classroom and how the teacher can deal with it in an effective way. KSMU's Missy Shelton reports.

Consider this statistic from the federal government: at least one in five children and adolescents has a mental health disorder. That’s why teachers in public schools find themselves coming face to face with mental health issues on a regular basis.Some school districts have responded by providing school-based clinicians, mental health professionals who provide counseling to students at school. Funding for school-based clinicians has run out for the Springfield Public School District. But there are school psychologists employed by the district who help teachers develop plans to deal with students suffering from mental health problems. One of those psychologists is Dr. Anne Gardner. She says teachers are often the first to notice when there’s a problem.

Gardner says, “Because teachers know what normal kids do, they quickly recognize when someone has some kind of issue. They’re the front line people who identify social, emotional, or behavioral concerns. Then they alert other people who might have more expertise.”

Gardner gets involved to share her expertise on mental health and to talk to teachers about how mental health problems might impact a student’s behavior.

Gardner says, “Sometimes teachers don’t have the training to translate that into what they see in the classroom. A good example I’ve gotten through the years is, ‘Yeah, I know he’s depressed but he’s not turning in work and he’s just not doing his homework,’ without understanding that depression makes you not have the energy to do the normal things you know you need to do.”

Gardner works with teachers to develop a plan to ensure students with mental illnesses are able to learn. Gardner says she works with students of all ages, even very yung students.

Gardner says, “A kindergartener was oppositional, defiant. That came not from attachment disorder but some serious attachment issues. If you knew about his home situation, you’d understand why he doesn’t trust anyone. So he was noncompliant. If the teacher said ‘Come to the carpet,’ he sat in his chair. He wouldn’t do work. Everyone understood his attachment issues but they didn’t understand how that would lead to noncompliance. It took them a long time to understand that when we’re compliant to someone else, it’s because we trust them. There’s some guard that we let down and we say, ‘Ok. I’ll do that.’ And he just didn’t have that kind of trust. He was all about maintaining control of himself. And that’s very sad for a 5 year old. No adult had ever really been there for him.”

In this case, Gardner worked on helping teachers build trust with the student.

Gardner says, “We really turned that around so he comes to school trusting school people. And at first, it was just a couple of people but now he’s moved on and he trusts his first grade teacher. And for the most part, he’s doing what people ask him to do.”

That’s just one example of how teachers, with Gardener’s help, work to accommodate a child’s mental health problem. There are a variety of accommodations that schools can provide students with mental health problems. With proper diagnosis from an outside professional, some students with mental illnesses qualify for special education. In some cases, students have such a severe problem, their family places them in residential case. The Springfield School District provides teachers at several residential care facilities in the area. For students who don’t require residential care, Gardner says being in school can actually be therapeutic.

Gardner says, “Classrooms are some kids’ therapy. They’re the most therapeutic environment some kids have because it’s the same person every day, you always know what’s going to happen in terms of the schedule. There’s almost nothing more structured than a school setting. A lot of times, I think we sort of head off mental illness because kids spend so much time in school.”

Gardner says the structure, the interaction with other kids and adults and the social skills taught in school help kids understand what it means to be resilient. She says learning how to be resilient is a very important skill when it comes to mental health.

Gardner says, “We all want lots of resilience strategies because that counteracts the negative things that we all have in our environment. It’s the ability to cope, to see the positive side of an event, to interpret accurately, to interpret the actions of other people accurately, to move on from an unfortunate event, to see into the future, to problem-solve, to encounter some kind of event and weight options. It’s that ability that well functioning adults have, kids have it on a baby level. The more they’re able to do that, the more resilient they are and the more they can cope with whatever unfortunate circumstances they’re dealing with.”

Even if schools are able to teach students coping skills, Gardner says the leading predictor of good outcomes for people with mental illness is family support. That’s why it’s crucial for families and school officials to work together to make sure students are successful.