Schools throughout the area serve as cornerstones of structure for District children. As the school year gears up, it is important to understand the practices behind supporting students’ mental and emotional well-being.
Richard Wright Public Charter School (PCS) is a District school serving eighth through 12th grade students, providing nurturing and a variety of services and programs to instill stellar structure in their students.
Shara Cyrus, LICSW, LCSW-C, spoke with The Washington Informer to discuss the nuances behind addressing behavioral and mental health with District youth:
Lindiwe Vilakazi: It is so good to sit with you Shara, as we know the great value in nurturing the mental and emotional health needs of our youth in D.C. With all that students are going through from the circumstances in their homes and communities, to in-school challenges, how do school social workers and clinicians approach mental and emotional health concerns with the students? What is the process to address a child and their parents about their behavior or academic concerns in school?
Shara Cyrus: So, I work with the Department of Behavioral Health School-based Behavioral Health Program. We do prevention, early intervention, and we [handle] tier three, which is caseload. So I carry kids as individual clients.
I do groups for targeted things; anger management, coping skills, grief, loss, whatever is needed based on school needs, or conflict resolution, which has been big. We also have our overall suicide prevention, the big topics that we [cover] in classrooms are suicide prevention, healthy relationships, even down to the younger kids.
We have parents who call, and so one of the biggest things that we do as counselors is we have our parent nation meetings and back-to-school nights and things like that. We go to those to make sure that we introduce ourselves to the parents, let them know that we are a resource through that they can call our parent teacher liaison, they can call anyone in the school and let them know that they’re concerned about their student.
They will then reach out to me or reach out to my colleague and we’ll reach out to the student. And that is whether or not the student is on board or not, to be honest. The student doesn’t have to be on board with a referral. And we say that because if a parent is concerned, then that’s something that we’re going to address.
And most of the time they know that their parents are concerned. And we just handle it delicately in those situations. So it’s not like we come and say, OK, well, you have an issue because your parents said you have an issue.
So what I’ll do is I’ll continue to keep them on my radar and I’ll just check in with them and let them know I am a resource so that they understand I’m there. And usually if there’s someone who has a genuine concern, they also are at a place where they just didn’t know how to reach out for help.”
LV: What type of behavioral patterns are you seeing in students over the course of this last school year, especially coming back from virtual learning during the pandemic?
SC: I saw children trying to find their footing again in school. They knew how to socialize, and a big part of that is social media. I think with the pandemic, social media of course skyrocketed. Teenagers are naturally on social media, but there was no other way to communicate or connect then social media. The good part about that is they stayed connected. The negative side of that is they stayed a little too connected. So we saw conflicts never end. So, normally if you leave school you just don’t talk to that person anymore. But now, nope, you’ve got this friend, and that friend, and this person said this [and so on]. And so we had a lot of people just trying to find their footing in that way.
I [also] saw that our students craved structure even though they fight against it. They craved the fact that they knew that they can come to this place and know that [a certain] student is there. They know that this teacher is here for this. They know that if I need this, I can come to this teacher. The good, bad or indifferent, no matter how many relationships that they say they can’t stand in the waxing and waning of relationships. The fact that we’re here every day and the fact that the teachers and the staff are here, that the deans will greet them at the door no matter what, they understand that this is the structure and they fall in line to the structure very quickly.
I don’t care how many ways they say they don’t. Students like structure and they like rules because rules give them consistency and an expectation to follow. So the fact that we had that, that was what I saw. I saw them being able to kind of get back to [realizing], “I don’t run whatever and do whatever I want,” because a lot of times they were able to do whatever they want or had less structure now that they’re back.
LV: What are some of the student’s major concerns, and do they feel comfortable sharing what they are going through?
SC: For a significant amount of the student body, having a tumultuous home life is a significant issue. I just had this happen within the past year where I had a student who was reluctant to therapy, but ended up working with me because their parents referred them.
The first thing I always address is, what is their view of therapy? Because if I say I’m a therapist and people are [thinking], well, “I’m not crazy,” I don’t think you are. That’s the reason why I normalize mental health. It could be that you just want to talk. And when it comes to some home life situations, which is a very big piece of our students’ concerns, I always let them know that I’m your therapist because I do work with the student.
I can work with the family because I am able to provide family counseling if wanted or needed. However, [the students are] my first concern. I’m not here as a spy. I’m not here as the person who’s going to turn around and tell the teacher or someone everything that you say. Now I will discuss with them, what is it that you might want me to share? I ask them. I want [them] to be a collaborative part of the process.
LV: What is the position or response of parents with students displaying behavioral or academic issues? How do you manage the aspect of parents who are not involved with their child’s development or success?
SC: I would say it’s a very Good mix. I believe that the majority of our parents are very much involved and Invested in the success of their children. The way that I’ve been able to handle or incorporate the fact that some parents aren’t is I have to take it to my larger area of [understanding that] they don’t have the resources, and they didn’t have me [beforehand]. [Perhaps], if they had someone like myself, maybe they would know to recognize their own [issues] that they’re now projecting. I’ve actually had students who have been in therapy and their parents can’t stand therapists, but they’re okay with me. But what I have recognized and let them know is, I’m here for all of you.
I’ve had wonderful relationships with parents. I’ve had relationships with parents where they were tumultuous at one point and then they were looking for support. They’ll call me and say, hey, “This situation has happened and I don’t know how to react.
LV: How well does the school administration address these issues to help alleviate the stressors, and support the staff who work with the student body and parents?
SC: We are all supportive. As a matter of fact, that’s why I say the majority of my referrals, or the majority of the students of concern don’t come from me walking around [and finding them]. It comes from them getting in trouble with the Dean, or them having an interaction, or the parent talking to them and them coming to us [explaining that] their student has been getting into it more lately, and this is what’s going on. So, it’s a delicate balance. I believe that we do it very well here. I have yet to have a student feel like their business is being told, and they also understand that they can come to us to talk about their concerns.