Welcome to our podcast, Conversations About Student Mental Health. I’m Chris Leonard, clinical social worker, working with adolescents for over 25 years. In this podcast, I talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians, and parents to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness.
As we record this podcast in April of 2021, educators, parents and students are anticipating the return to full-time, in-person learning. Our feelings about fully reopening schools are kind of a mixed bag. Some of us would jump right in tomorrow if allowed, others are feeling much more cautious, even fearful.
But one thing we can all agree on, or that most educators agree on, is that we can expect even more students to be struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues that interfere with their ability to participate successfully in the school environment. It’s pretty clear to many of us that there is a mental health gap that we urgently need to close in order to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our students. We share a widespread sense that we need to help teachers, administrators, and school counselors be ready to assist these students. So where do we start?
Nancy Sulla, the visionary educator I had as my guest in Episode 11 on effective hybrid learning environments, refers to helping teachers acquire certain super skills or superpowers they need to help students succeed in academics. We can think about building a parallel set of superpowers to help teachers, administrators, and school counselors work more confidently and effectively with students who are struggling with mental health issues. A great way of doing this is providing school personnel with targeted training on student mental health, and pairing this training with sustained coaching or mentoring experiences.
Joining me today is John Riley, Clinical Director of the Thrive Alliance Group. John is a certified psychoanalyst and a licensed clinical social worker with over 28 years in practice. He also served for 22 years as an owner and administrator of the Sage Day and New Alliance Academy therapeutic day schools. Currently, John provides weekly coaching sessions to cohorts of school personnel. And he’ll be sharing with us today how this process supports school staff in becoming more confident and more effective in working with students with mental health issues. John, welcome back to the podcast.
Hey, Chris. Nice to be here again. I love what you’re doing with this podcast. I love what we’re doing with Thrive. I’m real excited about sharing all that with the audience. But as I was listening to your opening, it made me think about coaching and how to talk about it, and you mentioned superpowers. We do try to have the professionals we work with develop superpowers, but they don’t have to be super people to develop superpowers. There’s some really good training and tenets of the work that we do together, that as we talk about it, people get more educated. People learn about different mental health issues, how to intervene.
They actually develop what feels to them like superpowers. They develop an empathy, an understanding that helps them better connect with the kids, better connect with other staff members. Another thing I was thinking about in your opening is the difference in people right now about the willingness to go back to school. Some want to stay home, some want to go back to school. One group that I work with, they’ve been in school literally for the whole year. They never really left. They are administrators, they are counselors, they stayed in school, and they have a real comfort level with being in school.
But there’s a lot of other teachers that don’t have that comfort level. And I really had to talk with this group of people about, while they’re comfortable being in school, they have to be prepared for the staff members that are coming in that have a whole different level of comfort. They really empathize with that. And it gave them pause because they realized, “Oh my God, yeah, the way I’m feeling about this isn’t necessarily the way everyone else feels. So I have to be prepared to maybe deal with the anxiety that comes in rather than be frustrated.” Because it can be frustrating if we’re used to something, if our way of doing things is jumping in and being ready and other people are a little hesitant about it. Reticent, that’s the work I’m looking for.
It can be frustrating for those people that are really ready to roll up their sleeves. So that’s what we try to do with some of the coaching sessions that we have. So I’m excited to talk about it.
Great. Well, that leads very nicely into the first question I was thinking about. You were talking about the different comfort levels that people have, and how we assume that there are certain people that have a comfort level that we don’t have and that we can’t have, or we assume everybody feels the way we do. And for certain, one thing I’ve noticed in my own experiences as a teacher, a school social worker, and an administrator, is that when it comes to mental health issues, many professionals are hesitant to intervene when they suspect a student is struggling. What have you observed? And what are your thoughts on how to address this?
Well, you and I have been together for, what? 25, 30 years in mental health. And I’ve had the benefit of working side by side with you. So we’ve had a whole host of professionals that we’ve worked with over the years, but one of the things that we’ve always been aware of, whether it’s counselors, teachers, or administrators, different people have different feelings about mental health issues. And for some people, it’s scary for them. When you work with people with mental health issues, there’s a lot of feelings that get brought up. Some people who are professionals have had mental illness in their own families or have had their own struggles with mental health issues or emotional issues.
So it does bring up a lot of feelings for people. Some people just want to deny that it’s even happening; some people want to kick the can down the road and assume someone else will pick it up; some people will over function for the person with some mental health challenges. So I think one of the things that we have to do is realize there’s different reactions and different comfort levels. And then, as I do in my coaching sessions and we try to do at Thrive with all of our trainings, is equip people with the knowledge and help them be more empathic to themselves and to the students that they work with, so they can really be prepared to help these students function to their highest level of functioning.
Excellent. So you’ve touched on a whole bunch of things that can get in the way of somebody really intervening most effectively. What our listeners have to be wondering about is, we’re trying to help teachers and school staff acquire these superpowers, and we talk about a coaching session. So, what exactly is a coaching session?
A coaching session helps to build a group of people that will be the leaders in a school district to help with the mental wellness and development in the school and awareness in the school. Cohorts can be made up of a teacher, an administrator, some school counselors. And how we try to approach that is to start with a little community, a little training community, a little support community. And it starts with confidentiality, mutual respect, so whatever we talk about in that coaching group is kept in the room.
It’s like Vegas.
Yeah, what goes on in that room, stays in that room. And it allows for people to feel very comfortable about talking about what’s uncomfortable for them, what they’re struggling with. What happens sometimes when there are struggles going on, if people go in their little silos and they keep it to themselves, it really can lead to burnout, a feeling of incompetence, an inability to help when you have someone who needs help. So this becomes a place where they can come in and we train them on understanding their reactions to people, understanding different dynamics that people have in classrooms, working with hostile parents, working with student-teacher conflicts.
So it’s a place that we come in and talk about theory and talk about the mental health training modules that they may have gone through, and we answer questions about that. But then, people bring in scenarios that they’re struggling with. If they have an upcoming parent meeting that’s very challenging for them, if there’s a school refusal kid that they’re struggling with, if there’s been a lot of suicide risk assessments going on, we really try to talk about what’s going on and how to best intervene. So it’s a way to really have a safe place for people to come in and talk about what’s going on, how they want to intervene.
And then, the idea would be for those people to mentor other people in the district. So it’s not just a team of people that are aware of mental health issues and mental wellness issues, but it’s setting up a culture and a community within a school to do that. So it all starts with these coaching sessions.
Okay. So one way in which it’s like other professional development is that you’re talking about training a small group of people and then having them turnkey their understanding to other staff members. But how is it different? There has to be people out there that are listening that are saying, “Oh, this is just training and this is just professional development. You’re only training a few people.” So, how is this different from the typical PD that people get in school?
That’s a great question, because I think any of us who have sent people to training, any of us that have gone to one-day or two-day training, what’s demoralizing is that people spend a whole day or even read a whole book, and they basically have one takeaway from that book. Maybe after a week or two, they don’t have any takeaway from the book or the training. So a lot of times they don’t benefit from it over a long period of time, and certainly, their colleagues don’t benefit from it. So what coaching does is reinforce what we’ve set up in Thrive’s training modules. So each person gets a training module, a group of training modules to go through, but we reinforce it with ongoing training and supervision through these coaching sessions.
So to me, any good learning, any good teaching strategy, provides reinforcement. It’s not just a one-and-done sort of thing. You get the training, get the base knowledge, and then it constantly has to be reinforced. And then you have scenarios. I think the best way to learn anything is through scenarios, through experience, taking what you’ve learned, discussing it, putting it into practice, then coming back with the group and talking about what worked, what didn’t work. And we brainstorm other strategies, what went well, what didn’t go well, what would try differently. So it’s really beyond coaching, it’s really ongoing reinforcement of what we’re doing in supporting students.
And in that community, it’s not just the coach that’s the most important person in that room. It becomes a group of colleagues mentoring each other and sharing information and ideas. And it becomes a very, very lively collaborative group. So that’s the real difference. Trainings are great, but the efficacy and then what people take and are able to utilize after a one-time training is sad. There’s a lot of great training but without reinforcement, being able to put it into practice and process it, I don’t find that terribly useful. And I don’t know how you feel about that.
Oh, gosh. What you’re taking me back to is when I was doing my training to be a school principal and I was writing my master’s thesis for that. I became fascinated with professional development. And the two qualities that made for a good professional development were one, that it was job embedded, and two, that it was sustained. That these one-and-done seminars and workshops can be great and fun, but they don’t have a whole lot of impact. What has impact is when somebody learns some skills and then in a sustained and job-embedded way, they get to practice the skills. Even better, practice the skills alongside colleagues so that they have that mutual support.
Right, Absolutely. Just think about our 22 years of running private, special ed schools and your training and my training as clinicians. The best practices in therapy include ongoing supervision. Good therapists have their own therapist and/or their own supervisor, because you don’t want to operate in isolation. The cases that we deal with tend to be pretty complicated, they bring up a lot of feelings. Two heads are better than one, four heads are better than two heads. So the idea of having a community where there’s some accountability and people can share their ideas and thoughts and reactions to certain scenarios, that’s really imperative.
Thinking about our experience running therapeutic schools, we had people of varying degrees of experience, if you think about it. We’d have teachers who were right out of school, we had seasoned therapists, seasoned teachers, but what we always did is have weekly meetings with people. We’d share writings, we’d share readings, we’d talk about things, but we’d constantly reinforce, every week, what’s going on in the school and come up with interventions for the teachers, for the clinical staff. Look, most districts, they have a lot on their plate. They have curriculums to deliver, teachers have curriculum to deliver, but now we have this mental health component that they have to take on without training or support.
In the last 10 years, there’s been a movement, but certainly, 20-something years ago, mental health issues were seen as someone else’s problem. They were seen as just the families’ responsibility or some other agency. Now, I think schools are starting to understand that mental health issues are something we have to deal with in schools. And that if a kid is struggling emotionally, socially and emotionally, they’re going to struggle socially and academically. 90% of kids go to school and they do well and fine, but then there’s another group of kids that need some additional support to really thrive.
And I don’t even know if that 90% is even valid at this point, because I think due to COVID and the stresses that are going on over the last year, there’s more kids struggling with some anxiety and some depression, some uncertainty. And teachers are dealing with that.
When you’re on an airplane, you hear that briefing, “Adults, put the mask on yourself first before you help your kids,” which always sounded crazy to me. Shouldn’t you put it on your kids first? But if you think about it, the adult has to be clear-headed, has to be able to breathe and know what’s going on in order to help other people.
We’re having to deal with adults coming back into the building that have gone through COVID themselves. So they have a level of anxiety and tension, too. So just being aware of the mental and emotional stress on everyone right now as we reopen schools is a big, big deal.
Yeah. As you said, I think some people are perfectly fine with staying at home. Some teens are perfectly fine with staying at home. One thing that hasn’t gone on much for the last year is bullying, right? It’s kind of hard to bully in a Zoom meeting, it just doesn’t happen the same way. And they already had their connections on social media and through texting, they were already doing a lot of that, so some kids are like, “This is kind of cool. Why would I want to stop doing this?” So there’s got to be anxiety that they’re feeling, alongside the teacher anxiety, about returning. What’s that going to be like when we go back?
Schools tend to be ground zero of identifying emotional problems. That’s where a lot of acting out happens. So if a kid is beginning to struggle emotionally, you’ll see their grades fall down, you’ll see some social problems, you’ll see them stop coming to school. I think there are a lot of kids right now that would have been picked up over the last year, year and a half, if school was in regular session, because they wouldn’t be going to school.
So now you have all the kids who had problems before COVID, we’ve got to help them rejoin the school. Then you have the kids that over the last year were not noticed at all. There is a lot of school refusal going on still, it comes out in different ways. Some kids aren’t logging on to school at all, some kids refuse to put their camera on, some kids won’t turn their mic on, some kids aren’t attending all the classes, or any classes, or handing in work that’s that sub-par. So there’s a lot of things that we can look at still where school refusal is manifesting.
We have to be ready, willing, and able to look at those signs and intervene. And that’s what we want to talk about here. I always talk with my teams about looking for some of the softer signs. Because where there’s smoke there’s going to be fire often. So kids that are not logging on, kids whose grades have really fallen down, do we have our eyes on them right now? And what’s the transition plan to get them back into the school and begin to function? I think that’s going to be a really, really big challenge for everyone this spring.
And everyone’s getting used to getting back to normal. But in the fall, after a whole summer and kids having to rejoin, I think there’s going to be a lot of issues with kids that really, really struggled, that didn’t get the help they needed over the last year. So we have to be prepared for that as educators. That’s why the teachers and administrators should get training and coaching and be more well versed on mental health issues.
Yeah, absolutely. So in thinking about the coaching, what do you think are some of the benefits that you’ve seen some of your cohorts receive from the coaching and training experience that you think are going to carry over into that difficult time in the fall?
That’s a great question. A lot of times when people are struggling in their job or dealing with difficult situations, they feel their reaction is unique to them. And what happens is, when you get a group of professionals together who feel open and safe and comfortable in talking with each other, they realize, “Oh my God. The thing I’m struggling with is not unique to me. You’re struggling with it too, or you’re struggling with something different.” That we’re all in this together, that I struggle, you struggle, everyone has these areas where they struggle.
It’s so important to have a place where they can feel safe to talk about the frustrations, the challenges. Incompetence has been a big feeling in a lot of professionals lately, even administrators. Because every week, there’s been some new challenge to take on, and kids are refusing to come to school, and parents are frustrated. There’s just been a lot of tension and a lot of anxiety in a lot of school professionals. So just having a place to talk about that stuff and experience some empathy for what they’re going through, and also help them develop some empathy for parents that are calling up frustrated.
Parents are feeling like failures too. They’re feeling frustrated, they’re feeling overwhelmed. So what do they do? They take it out on the school. So just really being more empathic to how challenging this is for everyone. Developing empathy is a big thing, and having some support. And being able to prepare for a difficult meeting or a difficult challenge that’s coming up by bringing into the coaching session and role playing some scenarios about how I’m going to handle this when it happens. That sends these professionals into a situation that would have scared the heck out of me, with a little more courage and a little more… “Here’s what I’m going to do if and when this happens.”
We prepare for the worst, hope for the best. And a lot of times, they’ve come back feeling very relieved and proud and happy for how they handle a situation that they didn’t think they would be able to handle in the past.
That’s interesting. I know you’re a pilot, and so the metaphor that just popped into my head is a flight simulator. When you do a flight simulator and you’re going for your instrument rating or whatever, you’re trying to deal with adverse circumstances that may come up, and, how am I going to address this? And you’re practicing.
Right. Absolutely. Just to harken back to my training as a pilot. Yeah, you practice scenarios over and over and over again, challenging ones, and you’re glad you’re practicing in a simulator rather than the plane, because sometimes the first few times don’t go very well. Same thing happens with interactions with hostile parents, sometimes they don’t go well. So we step back and we learn, we talk it through. There’s no shortage of those opportunities. So you’d go back there a little more experienced.
Some situations are very, very hard. We prepare for the ones that, with the right intervention that you can turn it around a little bit. But once in a while, you hit a situation that is just almost impossible, and we all have to deal with something like that. Most situations are not impossible but they may feel impossible. So we try to get people comfortable with those feelings that come up. And also, it’s not all on the therapist or the teacher or the administrator to solve a problem. We have to work with what’s getting in the way for the kid, what’s getting in the way with the parents. Sometimes we have to help parents to be more parental and demand things of their kid, rather than just saying the school’s not doing what they need to do.
So, as you know, there’s a lot of complexities to this whole thing. So again, the coaching session is a way to inject some reality into a situation about what’s possible, what’s not possible, and try to prepare for making the best intervention that we can.
Yeah. I’m just thinking that in the context of a coaching session, people have the opportunity to try something out. I know in my work with people, sometimes if you’re role-playing something about a difficult conversation they’re planning on having, you can talk all you want about what’s the best way to handle it. And then when you put somebody in the moment, they go right to their instinctual reaction. Which is probably the most ineffective thing that you can come up with sometimes. But they have the opportunity to make that mistake in the moment, but not with the person, and now they can rehearse it in a different way. Does that make sense?
Yeah. Well, it’s interesting, I’m sitting here laughing because I’m thinking about this training that I’ve been doing and have been sharing with all the people I work with. We use something called transference focused psychotherapy in a lot of our interventions. It’s a design and an approach to dealing with a very, very challenging personality, and it’s been expanded to work with less challenging people. But one of the things that we always try to do is clarification, confrontation, interpretation.
Clarification is when someone comes in upset with you about something, and rather than get defensive, get some clarification, what are they upset about? Help them to talk about what it is they’re upset about. Because for one thing, it shows them that you’re interested in them and you’re not getting defensive. And they may be right about what they’re saying. So you get to have them talk about it, and you understand their situation a little bit more. They get to hear themselves talk. And if you’re not getting defensive, then you can say, “Wow, it sounds like a situation where a parent will feel like a school is neglecting their child, doesn’t care about their child, and you just are in it for the money.” They’ll say all sorts of things that get brought up in these moments of anger.
But if the person who’s under attack at that moment could sit there and calm and ground themselves and get the parent to talk about that, then there’s interventions to really deescalate things and have the parent begin to be much more reasonable. It’s those things that we teach in coaching sessions and have been invaluable to a lot of the people that we work with. So it is a bit of a superpower. And people walk out of those meetings, who would have terrified them in the past, feeling a little more competent and feeling like, “All right, I did the best I could.”
And sometimes the outcome goes much better than they expect, but sometimes it goes exactly how they expected, but they go in there with a plan, and I think that’s important. So we try to provide people with a way of listening, a way of hearing things that helps them not be defensive, stay neutral, and then help bring the temperature in the room down. Whether we’re intervening between a student and a teacher, or a parent and a professional, there’s a lot of ways that the mental wellness people in the school can be trained to intervene.
Clearly, one of the long-term benefits of this coaching experience is that people start to develop these meta strategies that they can carry over from one situation to another. So it’s not like, “Oh, I’m doing this for the first time. I’ve now got some tools and some strategies that I can bring to various situations.” And you begin to develop a sense that, “Oh, I’ve seen this before. I feel more confidence. I know what to do here.”
Right. And as you mentioned before, how’s this different from regular PD? We can practice it, go out and do it, talk about it, do it again, practice it again, because there’s no shortage of scenarios in a school to practice the learning and practice the method. So rather than just having a one-off training, we can bring the training in, practice it out, talk about what went well, what didn’t go well. So that’s really the benefit of the coaching, it’s one of the big benefits, the repetitiveness of it, the support of it. People can gain a sense of confidence so they can generalize it into other situations.
And then ideally, they begin to mentor other people. The lead teacher here can also mentor some of the other teachers, counselors in the school, with guidance, can also mentor some of the other counselors. So the idea is to set up a community of people that can do that. We’re limited with our training course because to be effective, we try to keep them between three to six people so everyone has time to talk and listen. So a school can have a couple people going through the training cohorts, so they have a real robust approach to this from the get-go.
I’m thinking about some of the superpowers that develop over time. One of the superpowers you mentioned recently was “induced spider sense.” You were talking about how people develop kind of a sense, or they use their feelings to understand what’s going on in a dynamic with a family maybe, or with a student. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Well, I was actually listening to a podcast a while ago, and they used the term “projective identification” as a superpower, which I thought was brilliant. And basically, to not get too in the weeds on this, sometimes what happens in a room is projection. A projection is when a person has certain feelings that they don’t want to own and they attribute it to something else. So if someone can be very angry, but they don’t want to own the anger so they attribute it to, “Oh, you’re angry at me.” And the other person on the other side will go, “I’m not angry, I think that this person is angry.”
Projective identification is a little trickier and a little deeper, a little more unconscious. A person can have a feeling and be unaware of it, but they literally put it into the other person. It could be anger, it could be any feeling. So the other person, the professional, the teacher, the administrator, the therapist, actually can feel that feeling. So it could be anger, it could be feelings of incompetence, feeling scared. That’s a super power.
Here’s a little bit of a hack for this one. How you feel before you go into a room with someone and how you feel after you’re in a room with someone is your own feelings. What goes on that’s out of the ordinary in your feeling state inside that room, may have something to do with how that other person is feeling.
For instance, I had a patient in my office talking about something and was very, very flat about it and just going on. But I kept having this feeling of being scared. And I’m like, “What is going on here?” So I actually realized eventually that verbally, she’s not talking about anything fearful, she’s not acting fearful, but there’s a fearful feeling in the room. So I said to her something to the effect of, “While you’re talking about this and that,” I said, “It seems like what you’re not talking about is some aspect of being scared.”
And she looked at me like I had some superpower at that moment. She goes, “Oh my God.” She is a very frightened person, but underneath it all, she’s this confident, good looking, kicking ass-and-taking-names kind of person. You’d never think this person was scared underneath at all, but I’d often feel this feeling of fear with her. So that’s an example of projective identification. She put it into me, and I was able to use that. That kind of stuff goes on all the time between teachers and students, teachers and teachers, parents and teachers where a teacher may feel something with a certain kid, but not know what to do with it, not know what’s coming from the kid, or a parent that can come in and make people feel scared.
Everyone’s had those parents that come in with their guns blazing, and they actually feel frightened by that aggression, but most of the time we’re safe and not under any threat. But sometimes people come in really, really angry or really, really scared underneath it all. Parents who are coming in and say, “You’re incompetent, my kid is failing, it’s your fault” are really in some way, especially their own sense of feeling like failures, or feeling scared about their kid’s future. So when we can understand some of these things that get brought into the room and we don’t get defensive to them and reactive to them, but can listen to them in a different way, it can really change the tone of so many things that really escalate and lead to lawsuits inside a district, lead to student- teacher conflict, lead to parent-administrator conflict.
Not all, but a lot of stuff, if handled in a different way, can really get everyone on the same page.
We’ve touched on a few things today, we’ve touched on developing a sense of community, we’ve talked about developing empathy, we’ve talked about learning to use yourself, and learning to use the induced feelings that you feel. We’ve talked about the ability of that staff to engage in a sustained, job-embedded experience, and then turnkey that effectively to colleagues, which further enhances that sense of community.
I want to say something else: everybody in the school has a chance to have a therapeutic function with the students. Not everyone’s a therapist, but everyone has a chance to have a therapeutic function. When more people understand some of the tendencies that we touched on today, sometimes the custodian in the school can have a special relationship with the kids, sometimes the art teacher. There’s all sorts of professionals, it’s not just a therapist, or the counselor, or the parent that can have that function. I remember my own upbringing, I had some teachers that had made a big impact on me to today.
They just had a sense of empathy and listening and holding me accountable to something that at the moment I was angry at, but helped change my learning and my perspective on things. Some teachers had said something to me that I didn’t want to hear at the moment, but because I knew it came from a stance of care and compassion, I couldn’t dismiss it, I had to take it in. So we all have that ability and we all have the chance to make a difference in kids’ lives. And the less scared we are of them… one of the things that happens with mental health issues is people are afraid of saying the wrong thing, or if I bring up something, if someone’s depressed, it’s going to make them more depressed, or if we talk about suicide, it’s going to make them kill themselves.
No, a lot of times, people need to talk about this stuff. And again, I’m a therapist, so I have a comfort level with this and I know a lot of people don’t have comfort level with this, but if you bring that up, you’re not putting the idea in someone’s head. If the idea is in someone’s head, sometimes he needs someone to say, “Wow, it sounds like you’re going through a really tough time and it feels pretty hopeless.” It’s not like they weren’t feeling hopeless before and they go, “Oh, I didn’t think about that, I’m going to be hopeless.” No, they could feel understood at that moment. And it doesn’t mean that math teacher or social studies teacher needs to be a therapist at that point, but he can say, “Hey, have you thought about talking to someone about that? Would you like me to get you some help or can we talk?”
Sometimes the teacher or the administrator can be the identifier of a need, and then that person can be the facilitator to get some help, talk to the guidance counselor, talk to someone, reach out to a parent. So there’s a lot of things we can do. And those are some of the things, again, that we also talk about in the coaching sessions, “Here’s a scenario that’s coming up, what might be the best way to approach it to get this kid help?”
I’d like to talk about a particular situation to wrap things up, but before we get to that, I just want to say, I guess if there’s one takeaway that we want people to have about coaching today, it’s really that it raises the capacity of everyone.
Absolutely. Absolutely. A rising tide lifts all boats. So we want to lift everyone up to this awareness of this, and again, not everyone’s going to be doing the deep dig on everything, but we can be aware, not be scared of it. Emotional problems have been around as long as there’s been people and everyone’s got a neurotic life. There are certain levels of anxiety some of us have… Everyone has experienced some anxiety and depression in their life. Some people have it to a real problematic degree. If someone’s got poor judgment, impulsivity, that really gets in the way of functioning.
So we just need to be aware of all these issues that go on, because if you ignore them, the kids will not function well socially or academically. And I really think that as school professionals, kids are still developing, the kids are still developing. I always said to my therapists at Sage Day school, we deal with kids from fourth grade until 12th grade, we have an opportunity to change someone’s life here right now. It’s not like the 30 or 40 years old way where they’ve had a whole life of living a certain way, and the die has been cast to some extent, and it’s a lot of work to undo things. We’re getting kids right now that are in development, that are in this process.
And if we can intervene in this way, it could really change, it can get them back on a good track for development. So that’s some of what we like to believe and the hopefulness of what we’re doing here.
Absolutely. Absolutely. To just to wrap up, I loved your story about your patient with the fear and that induced feeling and how you were able to use that. So can you share another story about how coaching helped a team of one of your cohorts really apply a different approach and work through a situation successfully?
I think two stories come to mind, I’ll be very quick about them, but hopefully I’ll give you the flavor of what happened.
One involved the teacher and another one involved a counselor/administrator. The teacher is in one of the cohorts and she’s seen as a lead teacher by a lot of people in her district. And she also happens to be an ESL person. So she does all the translations, things like that. We’re going through COVID right now and their district is starting to bring people back into district again, different comfort level with all of that stuff. But let’s own this idea that it’s a big deal right now for people to be coming back into the school.
So she was talking about her frustration with this one teacher who had a student, this girl who just started in the school, and this girl came up from Latin America. She hadn’t been with her mother in a year and she didn’t speak any English. And she’s now in this classroom with this teacher. Well, this teacher is very frustrated with her, no empathy, no compassion. And it’s easy to beat up on this teacher like, “Oh, come on.” But I said, “Our job right now is to help that teacher function better with this student, and let’s put ourselves in this teacher’s situation. She’s coming back into a very, very difficult situation under normal circumstances, and now she has this new student with high needs basically dumped on her. So is she excited about this? No.”
She’s not ready to do that. No.
No. So we have to have some empathy for this teacher that it is a hard situation she’s put into. And it clicked in this other teacher’s mind about what had to happen. And I said, “Why don’t we really think about helping this teacher understand what you can expect out of this kid.” Because how do teachers measure their success? The kids are doing the curriculum, they’re doing well, they’re progressing. This girl likely is not going to progress like another kid would be. And why would that be? She doesn’t speak the language, she just went through, from what I hear those treks from Latin America up to here, you’re not flying in first class into Newark Airport and having lunch on the plane. It’s usually a traumatic trek, and that’s what happened with this girl.
So whatever trauma there was back at home and then she had to make that trek, now she’s back up here with her mom who she hadn’t seen in a year, and she doesn’t speak English. And now she’s been put in this whole new school district. So the idea that this girl is going to do math, science, English, or history anytime soon would be incomprehensible. So helping this teacher have some empathy for this child’s current situation. We sometimes have to let people in on the story so the teacher can have some empathy. And once this happened, the teacher felt understood by this lead teacher and she was able to reframe what success would be for herself as a teacher.
So I thought it was a really nice way of our team intervening in that situation, because it wasn’t just the kid that needs to be empathized with, but this teacher has to be empathized with. What a hard spot to be in… I got this kid that I have to teach. And the teacher doesn’t even speak Spanish, I think she’s a special ed teacher. So the language barrier, a depressed kid, a traumatized kid who you now have to teach, that’s a pretty tough situation. So that’s one of the things that come to mind.
The other story that I wanted to talk about was an administrative/counselor who would come to our cohorts looking just beaten down because she was dealing with these very, very hostile, difficult parents, really, really bad.
And this counselor couldn’t be more caring and empathic and everything you’d want from someone, but these people were hostile to her. And she was starting to doubt her own competence and confidence and everything. So we were able to really support her in how difficult it was, and help her develop some strategies for when she did go into the room with these parents. She was able to ground herself, stay neutral, and face what was going to come her way, which was a lot of hostility, a lot of blaming, a lot of finger pointing, a lot of accusing her of not caring about the daughter. We were able to help her understand that some of what she was getting was really how the parents were feeling about themselves.
And she used some of the techniques that we were talking about before to really bring it down. What really needed to happen with this situation was that she needed to see this student more. This girl needed some counseling, but she didn’t want to deal with this because who wants to get more involved in a situation like that because there’s so much hostility? And what happened was we were able to talk with her about this and she was able to see this girl more often and turn the parents around. And the kid’s doing very, very well in school now and this counselor feels great. But boy, these parents were the kind that would make you want to leave the field to go and open up a bagel store because they were really just so difficult to work with.
And this was a really talented therapist. The stuff that we deal with as administrators, teachers and counselors can be very, very challenging, but this is what we’re paid for. And we need to think about how we can best deal with these difficult situations rather than just say, “It’s not my job,” or, “It’s someone else’s job,” or, “It will get better.”
The work isn’t getting easier and the work isn’t going away.
And if we keep on trying to go at some of these issues with the same old tools, we’re going to be at a loss.
What a great way to empower people. John, I really want to thank you for joining me today and sharing this. I feel as if we’ve just scratched the surface on all of the benefits of coaching, but I think you did really provide us with an excellent overview.
Yeah. And I hope it resonates with people because anyone listening to this has an interest in mental health issues and wants to grow and learn. Hopefully, this resonated with some people and they have a little more curiosity about how to go deeper with people and how to be better trained for these situations. And we’d love to help. It’s fun, it’s also very, very meaningful.
Any time that you can develop a set of skills that help you do your job better, the more rewarding your job gets. And like you said, Chris, it’s not getting easier out there, so just be prepared for that. We all want to stay involved with kids and help kids grow and develop.
As therapists, educators and administrators, we’re lifelong learners, so this is one area where everyone really needs to really grow and learn.
We really do need to demystify mental health. As you said, it needs to be something that is not just somebody else’s job, it needs to be all of our jobs. And when we demystify it, and when we acquire some of these skills and superpowers, if you will, people find that, “Oh, I can do this. I can be helpful.” So thank you again. That’s the end of this episode, folks. Thank you for joining us. Conversations About Student Mental Health is brought to you by Thrive Alliance Group, partners in School-Based Mental Wellness.
To learn more about mental health coaching and training for school staff, as well as other mental health support services for schools, visit our website at thrivealliancegroup.com. Take care everyone, and we’ll see you on the next episode.