News Article Details

Carrie Seidman: Repairing, rather than building, our children's mental health

The Herald-Tribune - 11/13/2018

Nov. 13--Last week the school district held a digital town hall to discuss how the funding for mental health earmarked by the state legislature as a result of the mass shootings in Parkland last February is being spent in the county's schools.

I was already aware that 90 percent of this $1 million-plus went to hiring mental health counselors at more than a dozen "highest needs" schools to provide faster, more accessible assistance to students, staff and local families.

"I feel very, very strongly that those funds are well spent, because children and their families, staff, administrators and all get immediate expertise that's right here," said Assistant Superintendent/Chief Academic Officer Laura Kingsley. "Expanding our deep understanding of what it takes to help a child who may be experiencing mental health difficulties so that child can be a success in school and not stigmatized is where it's at for me."

This approach, which also connects families to "wrap around" social services, has already proven successful at Alta Vista and Gocio elementary schools, where positions have previously been partially funded by nonprofits like the Community Foundation of Sarasota County.

The remainder of the funding, said Deb Giacolone, the district's supervisor of student services, is going toward training and curriculum that "follows the social and emotional learning framework." That means strengthening five "competency areas" -- self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, relationship skills and social awareness -- that have been identified as essential for mental well-being and student success.

These goals are being achieved through a variety of approaches, said Giacolone, including implementation of the "high expertise teaching" principles of educator Jon Saphier (which emphasize building relationships and committing to the success of every child); the Gulf Coast Community Foundation's "Civility Squad," which teaches the importance of kindness, respect, empathy and civil communication; and "community-building restorative circles," used at a teacher's discretion to create a safe space for students to process and problem solve without judgment.

"Every child is getting that kind of training in what it takes to stay mentally healthy, in the way we should treat others and in the way we communicate," Kingsley said.

What they aren't getting, at least in the opinion of Dr. Christopher Cortman, is the kind of proactive, preventative training that would empower them to handle adversity when it occurs, and before it manifests in behavioral issues.

Ever since developing "The Social Black Belt" -- a resiliency training program for children based on a book for adults he wrote more than a decade ago with Dr. Harold Shinitzky -- the Venice psychologist has been working to get his curriculum into district schools. The 10-week program, which teaches children the practical skills they need to deal with and move on from trauma, loss, grief or rejection -- "to put pain in the past," Cortman says -- has already been tried at a half dozen district schools (paid for in part by private donors) with promising results. It had also been under consideration by Superintendent Todd Bowden during the past year, for potential use in every sixth and ninth grade classroom.

"Anyone is going to have thousands of losses in life," says Cortman. "You need to learn at an early age how to grieve and how to heal. This is self-empowerment, and the difference between helping and enabling. If kids learned these things at an early age, they'd be more prepared for the rest of their lives."

Cortman said he got a verbal commitment from Bowden to implement the Social Black Belt, at a cost of $250,000, last spring. But after a reassessment this fall by a team led by Sonia Figaredo-Alberts, executive director of pupil support system, the board voted it down, citing cost and lack of an implementation plan.

Instead, the district went with a "classroom management system" called CHAMPS, which puts in place a uniform structure of "expected classroom behaviors in real time," according to Giacolone.

"It's not ritual compliance," she said of the program, which is available free of charge to the district. "It's having expectations in place, teaching those expectations and then helping hone those behaviors."

Giacolone tried to explain to me how these structures would support the same goals of student stability and success. But after taking a look at some CHAMPS materials, I wondered. CHAMPS is an acronym for the behavioral expectations for students in the classroom: C is for "conversation" (when it's appropriate to talk), "help" (when and how to ask for assistance), "activity" (the need to focus on the activity or assignment) "movement" (limitations on leaving your seat), "participation" (when and with whom you may interact) and "success" (what will be achieved by adhering to all the other principles).

Now I certainly understand the need for student decorum; no one can successfully teach in an out-of-control classroom. And I applaud all of the efforts the district is making to strengthen its focus on mental health, especially since, by not having made it a priority for far too long, there is a lot of work to do to address existing behaviors. But I think we're comparing apples to oranges.

I can't help but feel that -- just as in our adult mental health system -- all the money and the focus is going to the crisis end of the equation. Since we can't create a world free of trauma and adversity, shouldn't at least part of the solution be to equip our children, from a very young age, with the tools to better handle the challenges they will inevitably face? As Frederick Douglass said, "It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." The only thing I'd like more than having every child in crisis receive the help and support they need would be to have them not need crisis management in the first place.

"I would hope in the future we'll get more money for mental health this year and we can begin to do more on the front end and not so much on the back end," said board member Jane Goodwin, who cast the decisive no vote against Cortman's program, proposed by Eric Robinson and seconded by Bridget Ziegler.

"Common sense tells you it's better to be proactive than reactive and trauma is what all our kids are facing. I think the Social Black Belt could be a wonderful part of dealing with things. But right now we have to clean up what exists with our students who are in a really bad place."

Contact columnist Carrie Seidman at 941-361-4834 or carrie.seidman@heraldtribune.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarrieSeidman and Facebook at facebook.com/cseidman.

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