After more than a year of hybrid and remote learning, students have experienced a new normal of staying home. School professionals are concerned that a wave of school refusal will hit us this fall. How can we prepare?
In this episode, Chris talks about strategies for school refusal intervention with Dr. Paul Barbato, Director of Special Services in Dumont, NJ Public Schools. Dr. Barbato is also an Adjunct Professor at three NJ colleges and holds leadership positions in several key NJ educational organizations.
- How to identify students at risk before the school refusal behavior becomes entrenched
- Who should be included on a multidisciplinary team to address school refusal
- Ideas for a three-tier intervention plan: school-level, targeted groups, and individual supports
- How to get started and where to focus your efforts first
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 episode in early June, COVID-19 vaccines are available for students as young as 12, and schools across the country are preparing to reopen fully for the 2021/22 school year. Most students and their parents are welcoming the return to full-time in-person learning.
However, for students who have struggled with school refusal before and during the pandemic, hybrid and remote learning may have provided a welcome respite from their difficulties with school attendance. For these students, the prospect of returning to school may seem overwhelming. There are a variety of causes of school avoidance. Some students are struggling with a mental health challenge, such as depression or an anxiety disorder. Some may be grappling with a complex family dynamic that presents a compelling reason to stay home. Some have difficulty coping in the school environment, perhaps due to bullying. Or an overall lack of success at school.
Other students, such as those with issues of conduct or oppositional defiance, aren’t struggling to attend school at all, but choose to stay out of school to pursue other activities. These are the students we have historically referred to as truant.
Whatever the cause, in the wake of over a year of hybrid and remote learning, students have experienced a new normal of staying home and school professionals are concerned that a wave of school refusal will hit us this fall. So how can we prepare?
My guest today is a recognized leader in New Jersey education. And as you will glean from his bio, an extremely busy professional. He will be offering his perspective as an experienced administrator on school refusal. Dr. Paul Barbato, is Director of Special Services in the Dumont public schools in New Jersey. He is an adjunct professor at three New Jersey colleges; Fairleigh Dickinson University, New Jersey City University, and Hudson County Community College. Dr. Barbato holds leadership positions in several key New Jersey educational organizations. He is chair of the New Jersey State Special Education Advisory Council, SSEAC. President of New Jersey Association of Pupil Services Administrators, otherwise known as NJAPSA, and executive board member of the New Jersey Special Education Administrators Association, as well as the Bergen County Special Services school district advisory committee.
In addition, Dr. Barbato is also an NJ leader-to-leader mentor and teaches within the NJXL and NJTLC program of NJAPSA. Dr. Barbato, I usually thank guests for taking time out of their busy schedules, but for you, I feel this is a huge understatement. I’m so honored that you set aside time to speak with me today. Welcome to the podcast.
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Thank you very much for the invitation.
It’s great to have you. I think we have a lot to talk about, so let’s jump right in.
People are really interested in what to do about school refusal. And to remediate it effectively, I think we have to start with a thorough assessment based on data. And ideally, we want to identify students at risk by catching early warning signs before the school refusal behavior becomes entrenched. Can you talk about some of the elements and data points that go into a thorough database assessment?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Sure. Chris, school refusal is a problem. It’s a problem across the board, across grade levels and in many different homes, in all of our schools. What we’ve done to address it on an individual basis has involved a lot of people. It’s not just an individual solution or one person helping the student or helping the family with the situation of school refusal. What’s worked is first to identify exactly what the triggers are, understanding the nature of what is reinforcing the student to remain home and not come to school. And typically what we’ve done is implement a school refusal assessment scale by [CUNY 00:05:09], and we’ve also taken some data using the childhood behavioral rating scale or checklist.
Certainly, if the teachers are aware of attendance concerns, we will have the teacher request assistance from the building level Intervention and Referral Services Committee, which will have meetings to discuss ways to support the teacher, support the staff working with the student and memorialize a plan moving forward. That plan will involve a review of attendance, any nurse visits, any work avoidance in the classroom, or any other observational data that teachers can provide that gives them more elements to the story that they get, if you will, of what that presenting difficulty is for the student. And as we gather data, if the student has an IEP or doesn’t have an IEP, it may involve working very closely with the case manager. And if the student doesn’t have an IEP, certainly the school counselor of the school working hand in hand with the building administrator, with the teachers on the grade level, and of course the parents.
But the first step is to really get a clear idea of what school refusal behavior looks like. Is it an avoidance? Is it access to something at home? Is it something related to some traumatic experience that recently occurred that we’re unaware of? And typically there could be some factors that we’re unfamiliar with that can be uncovered with this data collection. Oftentimes, agencies outside of the school can be involved. Some pediatric offices have implemented an adverse childhood experience rating scale to help link parents and families to services outside of the home based on the data collected from what’s called ACE scale.
So, if that’s available, that’s also rich data to see if there are any other confounding factors that may be contributing to why the student is not regularly attending school. And outside of our pandemic year, which is an anomaly, with the virtual or hybrid or full day or modified school day schedule, we will see variation of what school refusal looks like, what it looks like in detail.
I guess the first step to go through is really identifying what data do you have available, and if you’re finding yourself not in a position to have clear data, then implement some survey scales. Collect as much data as you can from the teachers and the parent, from the student if you can. This way, once you have that data collection, you have it all out in a meeting, talk about what you’ve collected and move forward with the solid plan.
That’s great. That’s really detailed suggestions on specific scales and data collection points that people can use. And it sounds like the biggest mistake people could make is just kind of take a one size fits all approach. Which I think historically was the approach to students missing school. Was either overlooked especially in the lower grades or just assumed to be truancy and kind of treated with one form of intervention. One of the things I’ve seen in the past is the importance of family involvement. Once we have that data, we want to use that data to formulate a plan for intervention, and then we want to engage in family outreach and engagement, this can yield multiple benefits. What are your thoughts about engaging the family?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Absolutely essential. A plan will not be helpful, successful, sustainable, manageable, without the direct involvement of the parent, or guardian, or adults in that child’s life. Whether it’s a situation where the child is living with grandparents, or an extended family member, if the child is displaced, if there’s some homeless situation that may contribute to the factors that relate to refusing to come to school. But absolutely essential for the family component to be involved.
The linkage that the school can provide to the family is of utmost importance, and the linkages outside of the school to such organizations like the county’s Care Management Organization. I know in our county, Bergen’s Promise is actively involved with a lot of our families in Dumont, as well as other towns in our county and over 70 school districts. Certainly, our county’s Division of Family Guidance, they have, I think 26 or 27 programs available for families providing after school direct support for students. And definitely the family support organization, which is a great organization provided by our county or in every county. It could be a good support for the parent, like a parent-to-parent mentoring, or peer mentoring, support and training.
So definitely, the first step in involving the family is to make sure the family is linked with appropriate referrals and services outside of the school that also work with the school. Certainly informing the parent of the option of performed care, giving them access information to call to secure additional services in the home. Which may range from counseling, which may range from parent training, which may range from other behavioral supports if needed. And practically speaking, that could be what a missing ingredient to an effective solution sounds like when referring to school refusal.
It also may identify some other risk factors or family constellation qualities that may be in the mix. Whether there’s a conflict in the home, or there’s an isolated incident that has provided some trauma. Or if there’s an enmeshment some parent parental role or parent training needed to kind of clarify expectations and reinforcement strategies in a way to reinforce the expected behaviors and so forth. Or even just building on relationships to strengthen the child’s own sense of safety within that home. So certainly linkages that the family can have outside the school district in conjunction with the school district is critical. And that family engagement is really the first key element of any intervention.
Yeah. It’s really another data point. Because there’s so much information that the family provides about how they operate, how they don’t operate, what are their priorities, what’s important to them? What are their stressors? This is all such important information.
I’m also thinking about one of the first things you said: that school refusal happens across grade levels and you need to involve a lot of people. It’s not something you take on by yourself. You need these county resources. All of these resources available and all of these organizations that can work with families and provide various supports that can really help a family move forward in a different way. That brings me to this whole idea of forming a team. You’ve addressed that to some extent so far, can you talk about what goes into forming a team for a particular student? What are the elements there?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Well, the elements hands-down need to involve the school administrator. Because when you think of attendance concerns, and perhaps a truancy referral to the county or involvement of the court, the building administrator has to be involved to oversee that all the supportive options available to the family and student are being exhausted. So typically, a best practice in my opinion, has been to memorialize the team’s role and the action steps of the team in what’s referred to as an Intervention and Referral Services committee plan.
By nature of this existing committee that is in every public school, you will have the parent involved, the teachers involved, the school counselor involved, perhaps the school nurse involved, the administrator. Any other members of the child study team, like our psychologist or social worker or learning consultant or behaviorist will certainly be included if relevantly able to provide support to this request or addressing school refusal. And it would be very important to clarify what the team’s role would be and what their responsibilities may sound like.
And Chris, that may sound like a schedule of when calls are made home. Just to verify that the student is signing on if the student is virtual currently, since that option exists now. Or if the student is not home. Maybe we have home visits. Or maybe counseling has provided in a neutral location, or maybe there’s a transition plan where the student is able to attend part of the school day at a time or during a class period, most comfortable as evidenced by the data collected, or maybe in a supportive environment where the student feels more connected with a certain staff member. We’ve done that to kind of transition slowly that student’s acclimation to a longer school day having a modified school day.
So, clarifying what that responsibility looks like. What locations are we talking about? Who is involved in the followup phone calls or presence at the home? And then also providing access to additional training whenever possible.
Our team member here had mentioned recently, “It would be great if we streamlined what we did to help a particular student to other buildings this way, we have the same procedure.” And at first I’m thinking, makes sense. It’s not rocket science. And so we’re making it a professional development goal next school year for all of our child study team members to work in conjunction with our building administrators. We’re going to streamline what I just described as a procedure and we’re going to implement it as a document that every school principal and vice principal is aware of and knows how to follow this way.
There’s no mystery. Because problems are not solved in isolation. Problems are solved when you work collaboratively with people, there is no I in the word team. And that certainly is true when taking a team approach with addressing school refusal. It sounds as if we’re able to isolate why is this student refusing to go to school? But it’s such a complicated question that the multiple perspectives that are involved are very helpful to reveal that.
Yes, absolutely. It is so complex. It’s so multi-casual. You can’t just say, “Well, it’s because of this.” Or, “It’s because of this thing over here.” It’s just because of the trauma. It’s just because of the enmeshment or whatever the cause may be.
I heard a couple of really valuable things there. You were talking about setting up a structure. It’s just like scheduling meetings. If you don’t schedule a time that you’re going to make a phone call, if you don’t have a set routine that you’re going to follow… That’s a parallel process for the student and the family who may need to develop some routines. So you have a team that has routines.
The second thing that stood out to me was relationships. Identifying those staff members who already have strong relationships with the student who can be key contact points for that student.
And then the third thing you talked about was the additional training and really generalizing procedures across buildings. Once you learn about how to handle a particular pattern, that gives you a generalizable set of steps that you can follow. Always with an eye on individualization, of course, but you can generalize based on working with an unmatched family or an isolated family, or where trauma is involved. There’re particular organizations you involve, particular steps you take, a particular order. Does that sound like what you were saying?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
It absolutely does, Chris. It also brings to light any areas of deficit that we have, that we need additional training in, which is never exhaustive nor is it ever refused. In fact, we will be having a distal training on school anxiety, school refusal for all of our CST members, our psychologists, social workers, learning consultants, speech and language specialists, as well as our school counselors in the fall, as we embark on a full school day.
In the summer, we have isolated students that are on the radar and have begun to isolate some transitional activities through counseling. We’re very fortunate to have a mental health agency associated and working within our district, and we have a full-time clinician. She provides targeted counseling groups to kids who may need additional support outside of school based counseling. What that affords to that student is not only access to her services in an individual or small group, but also the families to the mental health agency outside of the school day. Because there could be an opportunity for families to really partake in family structured groups that work on reinforcement strategies or building their own understanding of what mental illness looks like, or what it sounds like, or what they can do differently in terms of their own parenting style.
Or there could be targeted groups that deal with anxiety or deal with other at-risk factors, like drugs or alcohol or other components that may play a role in that refusal behavior, or just the anxiety about doing something that would have been routine in other situations. So you’re onto something.
I think that the more we talk about streamlined procedure, the more we find that there’s more to really uncover and receive training on. That’s what I love about our field: not only is each school different, but it’s also an opportunity to really expand and really evolve our own practices to really individualize what we’re not doing in an effort to make it better.
That’s a great point. I mean, we never do it perfectly. We’re never finished. Years ago I worked in a machine shop and at the end of the day I knew how many cylinder heads I had reconditioned and it was like, “Okay, I did 10 today. I did 20 today. Done. Go home. Wash my hands.” You don’t wash your hands and go home. There’s always more to do, always more to learn.
And we, as educators, have to constantly be learning ourselves in order to really be the most available and the best resources for our students and families. You really have included it in your professional learning community. It’s part and parcel of the learning and you’ve made it a priority above all. You have to be able to work with the anxiety, the depression, the school refusal, the other mental health issues, because if you don’t, the students are just not available for learning.
Dr. Paul Barbato:
So, up until now we’ve been talking about all of the practices, all the responses and preparation. But one of the things I think it’s important to touch on is prevention. And I know from previous discussions with you, that you do a lot in Dumont towards prevention. Early intervention and prevention is one of the best ways to reduce the amount of school refusal, to nip it in the bud quickly. It’s one of the very best forms of intervention. So I know that one of the things that you do in Dumont is you use a multi-tiered approach to prevention. Can you describe a little bit of what you do? I know it’s a whole lot.
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Thank you. Again, it’s not just one person. We have amazing principals. We have a superintendent who is extremely proactive and has his finger on the pulse of everything, and is very supportive along with a very supportive board of education that allows us to have these great programs.
When we meet as an administrative council and develop an understanding of what our district goals will be for the school year, and certainly isolate building level goals, we focus on areas that really promote this SEL approach. So, one area that we redesigned and re-examined is how we’re providing consequences to disciplinary infractions. We’ve implored a lot of support with a restorative practice model. So instead of an out-of-school suspension for something that may have been a classroom infraction or disciplinary related incident, we will provide a structured school day at a particular date that the parent is aware of. And we will isolate that structured day to involve a rotation of educational specialists, such as our psychologist, our social worker, our school counselor.
We’re very fortunate to have higher ed institution linkages with graduate internships. So we do have school psychology interns, and school social worker interns from Rutgers and FDU and NJCU. We had a couple of speech and language specialists from NYU and other places like Ramapo or social worker interns. Part of their training involves being involved in a school day and really learning from their CST mentor. So we’ve incorporated a lot of the interns in this restorative practice structured day program.
FDU has really guided us on certain materials that we’ve incorporated as school-based counseling materials. So we utilize that as a resource. I have to tell you, it’s made a big effect. Because the association with an out-of-school suspension (not that we were high, we weren’t high at all) but just looking at a different way of looking at not reinforcing the very behavior or hoping not to see again, right?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Whether it’s name-calling, whether it’s bullying. And certainly if there’s anything tied to some peer complex, developing an understanding of what to do differently through that one-on-one approach or small group approach of really demystifying what went wrong and what can we do differently? Really tease out an alternate action plan with the student. That’s been our Tier 1 sort of change, of how we looked at disciplinary and fractions and disciplinary consequences.
Another program that we identify as a Tier 2 involves our lower grades, our three and four and five grades. We isolate two grades per school year. We have four elementary buildings and we have the teachers identify, through almost like a request form, students that may benefit from additional peer support with tutoring, with instruction, with social emotional opportunities, to interact with other peers and who would benefit from having a mentor. And we select five students per building. So a max of 20 students per year, and we run a program after school. We run the program. Our board of education sponsors it and allows us to transport the students from each of their elementary buildings to our high school setting and our media center.
And so, the students who are in third grade, who may just know their own school building, now have doubled or tripled their number of potential friends in the other elementary buildings. But now they’re in a new setting. Now they have something to look forward to in high school. We have our school counselors and our supervisor of guidance has been extremely active in this program in identifying high school mentors. Whether they’re from the Tomorrow’s Teachers program, or whether they’re in the school play, or if they’re playing athletics, or if they’re in a school club, or if they just want to work with students.
And we have an application for them to complete that we provide training to them from our school psychologist and our school psychology interns. And they provide training on positive reinforcement strategies of how to reinforce appropriately with students. We hire a teacher, an instructional assistant in the program. It’s a gen ed and special ed program. So it’s a full inclusion model. We run it for 16 or so sessions, from 3:30 to 5:00, twice a week.
It really is a program that starts off with homework help. We provide a snack. The students have an opportunity to work on homework, which is often a bone of contention for parents. We provide a structured lesson from 4:00 to 4:30 that the teacher prepares after speaking with each of the teachers of those participants. So we have a semblance of some baseline information. Lessons are tailored towards areas of concern or kind of supplementing what is needed. Then from 4:30 to 5:00, the kids will explore some online options and educational websites and some education material, and the parents pick them up at 5:00.
But what’s great about this program is our field trip. This year, we provided at Bergen virtually, because we were still at risk with COVID. We did a virtual field trip this year to a lighthouse, and it was amazing. We had a presenter that was at the Lighthouse and took us all the way up the stairs and stopped at each landing and showed us what to see outside the window. And the kids got to learn something that they may not have been able to visit in person.
This program has been around for maybe 10 years or so. In years past, we’d gone to FDU, where the kids are going to college, and we’ve had FDU undergraduate students from athletics and different groups and psychology club talk about their experiences of what it’s like being in college. What to look forward to. So the kids who may have some apprehension about third grade, or fourth grade, or fifth grade, we house two grade levels each year. If they’re having any difficulties, the goal of that field trip is to really take them out of that current stress and say, “This is something to look forward to with the high school. Wow, they’re going to go to college if that’s one of their post-secondary goals and this is what it’s like.” And they get to see and hear and learn from students that are actually experiencing that.
The school psychology program at FDU has been instrumental in facilitating our mentors. We do have graduate mentors that work with our high school students. That has been an extremely successful program for our younger grades. We have an end of the year ceremony for the kids and they get to see each other, and the parents get intermingled, and we give a certificate of completion. And that really is our Tier 2 after,school program.
In addition to that, a Tier 1 program that we’ve implemented at the high school for many years, it started out as an idea from our special ed advisory committee. It’s what we call a Mental Health Awareness Day. We housed it at the program. It’s been an existence, perhaps maybe, I would say eight years or so. This year we also did it virtually. We have different agencies from outside of the building, whether it’s Division of Family Guidance, Mental Health Agencies that are nearby in our county, certainly any other the Stigma Free Committee in our town. We invite any other entity that provides support, information and helpful resources to students.
In addition to that, we have teachers, educational specialists, like our school counselors, psychologists, social workers, our student assistance counselor work together on providing tables and activities. So instead of going to visit class that day, they will rotate during their phys ed class at different stations. Learn all about mental health, and learn about the stigma associated with mental health. What resources are available to them. What free resources they can learn about. Different fields in psychology. Certainly ways to build resiliency, mindfulness, looking at a growth mindset with Carol Dweck’s work.
By the way, we incorporate Carol Dweck’s growth mindset work as a pre- and post- measure in our after,school program.
Dr. Paul Barbato:
Yes. It’s amazing. Because there’s a lot of research that ties growth mindset with reading skills in the lower grades. So that is just a side point.
But we incorporate a lot of areas that contribute toward maintaining positive mental health, but also allow students the opportunity to know that it’s not taboo. You can talk about mental health, you can talk about it if you’re anxious. These are some alternate ways to handle it. We have a holistic approach or school nurses involved in looking at healthy eating options, or phys ed teachers are involved in looking activities. Our school counselors one year had a mandala station where kids were coloring. Our art teacher had a graffiti wall where they had to write positive statements and put it on a tree that she made. Very creative ideas that we’ve implemented as a Tier 1.
We would like to bring that down to our middle school level to our sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to have a similar event. So that’s the Tier 1 program.
In addition to that, one of our principals had observed what’s called a crazy maze. Which is really just laminate pieces that are placed on the hallway floor. Opportunities for students to have brain breaks or stretch breaks, whether it’s like a bear crawl or something posted on the wall, where there is some physical activity.
So we were able to provide a crazy maze for each of five buildings and the principals had chosen where in the buildings that are strategic, where kids were able to kind of have a break, a mental health break, so to speak, or even just as they’re transitioning to classes. They can engage in some physical activity to kind of break up that feeling, whatever that feeling is. So that’s another thing that we’ve implemented as a Tier 1 option.
We also do have a very close relationship and rapport with our county’s Care Management Organization, Bergen’s Promise. They have been instrumental in providing Nurtured Heart training to all of our staff members last year. We had a professional development training where Bergen’s Promise facilitated for multiple trainers from around the state to really pilot this Nurtured Heart approach for school personnel. All school personnel including administrators.
This past year, we made it a goal to train our parents. We weren’t able to do that last year because the pandemic started in March. So we made it a district goal this year, and we were able to provide training for our parents. It was very helpful in looking at this nurtured heart approach.
But I mentioned that because the CMO is a great organization to work with from the school district’s perspective, because they are involved with the same families that we work with. So we have set up quarterly meetings where the CMOs supervisors and care managers come in and meet with our case managers, whether you’re a psychologist, social worker, learning consultant or school counselor. We will talk about the families that we share services with. There is a very short list and we try to maximize the amount of support each family receives.
If there’s information that the school can benefit from learning about, in terms of a supportive service that’s being provided by the CMO, the Care Management Organization, we can provide that as well. We’ll do that in the school day.
What’s interesting is that the CMO has their own structure of meetings called a child family team meeting, which involves the school district as well. They have a wrap around program model that involves the school district with the support personnel working with the family. And so it’s important information that the CMO and the child study team and school counselors are able to receive to kind of help families and maximize supports.
It really invests in a conversation that delves into what is working, what is not working, and what can we do differently? And that’s been something that we piloted a few years ago that we’ve maintained. Like you said earlier, having dates on the schedule is important. We have dates on the schedule, four times a school year and we block out hours or three hours so we can make sure that we have a detailed conversation. A lot of good work is done out of that.
There is one other approach that we’ve taken to address any hesitancy or any fear of what the future may hold with our high school students. We received training on implementing the New Jersey Career Assistance Navigator tool called Reality Check. And this is something that a school counselor, or our CST, or case manager, whether it’s a psychologist, social worker, learning consultant, can work one-on-one with the student. And the student is able to think about some post-secondary options that he or she is considering.
The Reality Check looks at exactly what those options are to get there. In terms of a salary, what salary do you want? What kind of position do you want to hold once you’re done with all your schooling? Or, what kind of schooling do you need to get to this certain career option? So that’s been eye-opening and we incorporate that data in IEP discussions onto the transition plan. How appropriate is this?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
The student is a part of the meeting, the parents are a part of the meeting, the parent may learn about an option that never was discussed at home, or perhaps wasn’t identified before this Reality Check or some other way of identifying post-secondary plans.
And it’s just a great way to build a roadmap to address any fears and that pretension with concrete plans to address it head on. Whether it’s within a school-based counseling session, or whether it’s in a health class, to look globally at what students can do to deal with uncertainty. Or to build resiliency, or looking at perspective taking to kind of build that ability to cope with the unknown. So that’s just a few examples.
Outside of that, we’ve had a lot of teachers be very creative within their own classrooms in dealing with students who are virtual, and students who are in person, and students who are kind of in between.
They have developed some activities like developing a class mural. Because we’ve had students that came to the building for the first time after being virtual for so long, and there needed to be some transitional activity. The teachers have been creative and they’ve really have been working incredibly hard with all the stressors and dealing with their own self-care, of managing their own emotions, and priorities, and time management, certainly the needs of all their students.
But we’ve seen class murals. We’ve seen activities that share ownership of something within the classrooms that the students feel invested in being there, because they’re contributing toward the safety and concern or sustainment of something of a class procedure or a class project. So that’s been something that we’ve implemented as well.
But, in terms of self care, our Director of Curriculum and Instruction, and our principals have been pivotal in identifying self-care options. We’d had the PSA, Principal Supervisor Association Consultants in to provide some self-care training for all of our staff and school personnel. That’s been helpful. A lot of staff members have commented on how crucial it is to allocate 10 minutes or to disconnect with technology for a certain part of the day.
And I think all of us got into that mind frame of responding to every email outside of work, because we want to make sure that we are reaching every student. But sometimes without having a clear set of a self-care procedure or go-to option, it can become very overwhelming very quickly. So that self care element is crucial in any tiered approach for the personnel that are involved in providing that direct support or indirect support for the student or certainly the whole class.
Absolutely. Absolutely. As Pat Hovey always says, “You have to put the oxygen mask on yourself first.” That self care element. Everybody always kind of puts that on the side, but it’s really where you have to begin. You have to be really able to breathe yourself, to be able to have that sense of spaciousness yourself because you’re dealing with all of these difficulties that the students are having and it can be wearing if we’re not taking care of ourselves.
You said you were just going to talk about a few things, but that is a really comprehensive and strategic approach to school refusal that you and your team are taking. So it’s quite impressive. And I could imagine that some of our listeners might be a little daunted, thinking, “Oh my gosh, look at all these things they have in place.”
So what about the school that is just starting on a plan to address school refusal? What could they realistically put in place by September, and where would you say they should focus their efforts now?
Dr. Paul Barbato:
I think an easy first step, Chris, would be to use your student database to identify the kids who are having difficulties with attendance. Isolate who the students are and meet with each grade level. Make it a point to structure a time as the building administrator with each grade level or department. And have the school counselors present and CSC members present and collectively meet to identify who the students are in their respective classes that have not handed in work. How we communicate that to parents. How we delineate exactly what needs to get completed for a grade. Have we communicated to the student that we are being supportive and that we want to make sure that they are supported? Are we linking the parent with the understanding that we are in that supportive role, and that we’d like to isolate time with them, to really prioritize what they’re seeing as any concerns at home?
I think once that list of students is identified, then you’re able to piecemeal what teams are needed to really address that student individually. It could involve, like last summer, for example, we took that approach and each department at the high school met with our child study team and our department supervisors. We created a list of students who were on the radar of missing assignments with attendance, any concerns with failing or any concern social-emotionally.
Now this is outside of our procedure where a student has a thought of self-harm or a thought of hurting someone else. We have those standard procedures where we involve an immediate-
Dr. Paul Barbato:
… or personnel to interact with the student, reach out to the parent, involve any other agencies, if we need to.
Parallel to that, identifying the students at risk is important. Because once you know who you’re working with, then you can tailor the plan. Is this student’s need best met through individualized counseling? Is this student’s need best met through a list on a Google Doc that’s shared with the parent and the student with a roadmap to follow to get to the finish line? Or is this a need that perhaps prompts an underlying disability that perhaps we need to investigate?Is an evaluation required to see if there’s a special ed concern?
Or certainly if the individualized need could be met with the linkage for the family. Whether it’s through performed care. Whether it’s with the existing mental health affiliation that we have with the agency that’s involved with our district care plus. Or certainly if it’s one of the county agencies, whether it’s DFG guidance, certainly linking the parents with the support organization. Without a doubt involving the Care Management Organization when appropriate, if needed, to really maximize and leverage support for the family during this time.
But getting started on a plan, the first step is to identify who to work with. And who to work with, I always feel that the teacher in the classroom is the first person to consult with because they have the most steady interaction with the pieces of data that may lead to a specific intervention. Whether it’s attendance, whether it’s work avoidance, whether it’s some social emotional concern, whether it’s pure conflict. You have to rule out bullying. You have to rule out a lot of other confounding factors here. But having the administrator involved in that every step of the way is pivotal.
You’re so right. That administrator involvement and using the teacher as a primary source of information and data who knows more about the students than the teacher. So easy to overlook, but so important to really go to first.
We’re about out of time, but Dr. Barbato, I want to thank you for sharing your insights and so very many best practices with us today. I can envision our listeners using the rewind feature and going back, and listening, and jotting things down because there are so many great gems, so many tips in here that people can use. So I really want to thank you. You and your team are working so hard. I wish you the very best for a successful end of the school year and I hope you’re able to get a little rest this summer.
Dr. Paul Barbato:
I will. Thank you so much.
Again, it’s a team approach. That’s what’s important to emphasize. Thank you very much.
Absolutely. Thank you. Conversations about Student Mental Health is brought to you by Thrive Alliance Group, partners in school-based mental wellness.