Return to School:  Strategies for Supporting Students. By Hugh Davis, Executive Director, Wisconsin Family Ties

Return to School:  Strategies for Supporting Students

By Hugh Davis, Executive Director, Wisconsin Family Ties

 

With the rapidly-changing COVID situation, school districts are making decisions about mask requirements, as parents are weighing the possible risks of in-person learning against the social, emotional, and educational benefits it can offer.

Despite the precautions and protocols being put in place to protect students’ physical health, we must also be mindful of the pandemic’s impact on our children and the need to protect their mental health. One of the best ways to support youth is to engage with and support their parents. With that in mind, here are a few ways schools can support students’ mental health, regardless of their mode of learning, this fall.

1. Build connections. Learning is enhanced when students have trusting relationships with their teachers and other school staff. Although there are many ways to build relationships with students, one of the most effective is respecting and validating their feelings, no matter how they are expressed. For example, the student who raises their hand in math class and the one who throws the math book across the room are really saying the same thing: “I need help.” Responding to and meeting that need helps build trust between the student and school staff.
It’s also vital for students’ well-being to build connections with their parents. Research has repeatedly shown that involving parents in their students’ education results in better attendance, better grades, better social skills, and higher graduation rates. Providing a welcoming and inviting atmosphere, virtually or in person, can be a great way to begin to engage parents in partnering with you to support their students and their students’ educational experiences.
2. Affirm students and parents. It has always amazed me that we place expectations on kids that we often don’t have for adults, even ourselves. If we’re honest, there are times that we cannot manage our emotions as effectively as we’d like. These moments provide us with great opportunities to model strategies, such as taking a break, that can help reduce the intensity of our feelings. When students have similar challenges, you may want to check in with them after they’re calm, collaboratively discuss ideas that might help them manage their feelings, and encourage them to use those strategies when needed.
In addition to checking in with students, don’t forget that parents are the experts on their kids. When you’re supporting a student with mental health needs, their parents likely have some tips and tricks that can help you develop and maintain a connection with their child. Let them know that you recognize and value their expertise and want to partner with them.
3. Stay engaged. Build time into your schedule for extra interaction with those students who have more intense needs. Building personal relationships with your students will help you to recognize which students may need that additional support. It’s not always the student who acts out who requires more attention. Remember there is a fine line between being reassuring (“I see that you’re unsure about this. Why don’t you give it a try yourself first, and I’ll help you if you need it?”) and being dismissive (“You’ll be fine, don’t worry about it.”).
Include parents as collaborators as you help students work through challenging issues. Ask for their help, reiterating how helpful their experience and expertise will be to you as their child’s teacher. Be sure to check in to see if parents need any additional support as well.
4. Encourage self-advocacy. All of us should encourage students to speak up about what’s important to them, about things bothering them, or share their opinions. The days of “children should be seen and not heard” are (thankfully!) long gone. It can be difficult for students to be assertive with peers and adults, so validate their feelings and commend their efforts, even if they’re awkward. Self-advocacy is a skill, and like other skills, it only improves with repeated practice.

Working together, parents and schools can help students to navigate the upcoming school year successfully – both physically and mentally.
Wisconsin Family Ties is a statewide, parent-run organization that supports families that include children or adolescents with social, emotional, behavioral, or mental health challenges. To learn more about Wisconsin Family Ties and the services they provide, visit www.wifamilyties.org.

 

Enough Already!  Stop Raising Awareness and Do Something

Enough Already!  Stop Raising Awareness and Do Something

     by Hugh Davis, executive director of Wisconsin FamilyTies

This past week was designated Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, as have all first full weeks in May for more than two decades.  Across the nation, there were articles, proclamations, promotions, and events.  Thousands upon thousands of person-hours were spent in planning for these activities.  Is it worth it?

The “awareness” phenomenon is not unique to mental health:  The US Department of Health and Human Services lists 225 national health observances on its website[1].  Over the past decade, however, more people have come to question the benefit of awareness days.  “Days, weeks, months are dedicated to the awareness of different health conditions, often without a clear definition of what ‘awareness’ means, or what, exactly, is supposed to come of it.”[2]

Some researchers are finding that awareness days are not only ineffective, they may also be harmful.  “If left unchecked, health awareness days may do little more than reinforce ideologies of individual responsibility and the false notion that adverse health outcomes are simply the product of misinformed behaviors.”[3]  People who have experienced mental health challenges concur.  Poet and activist Faith Boersma states that awareness-raising without consciousness-raising is “a cementing of the very systems of oppression that have been dehumanizing those of us with labels of ‘mentally ill’ for centuries.”[4]

Over the past twenty years, Wisconsin Family Ties has helped perpetuate this myth of awareness-raising.  We played the game with politicians, policymakers, and providers.  We planned and participated in events, and we received numerous gubernatorial proclamations declaring Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.

No longer.

Despite decades of awareness-raising in our state, Wisconsin still has one of the worst children’s mental health systems in the nation.  Data from SAMHSA’s (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) Uniform Reporting System indicate that Wisconsin’s children’s mental health system ranks 48th among all states.[5]

If improvement doesn’t follow awareness, then what do we do?  “To move the needle on the issues we care about the most, research and experience both show that we must define actionable and achievable calls to action that will lead a specific group of people to do something they haven’t done before.”[6]

Let’s change the game.

We believe it’s time to reimagine human services.  We envision a children’s mental health system that provides services and supports of sufficient duration and intensity to alter the trajectory of Wisconsin’s most at-risk youth permanently.  We see a system aligned with research on the “social determinants of health”[7] instead of the “medical model,”[8] which has failed to produce promised outcomes.

We want to ensure that we never forget the “human” part of human services.  We want a children’s mental health system built on a deeper understanding of children and families and less judgment, a system that views “relationship” as a primary intervention.

From this day forward, we dedicate ourselves to making this vision a reality.  We will no longer participate in awareness days – just meaningful, focused, intense action to transform our children’s mental health system.

If you’re interested in that same vision for Wisconsin’s children, we invite you to join us.  Drop an email to Joe Oswald, Wisconsin Family Ties’ communications and policy director, at [email protected], and let’s get going.

[1] National Health Observances | health.gov. (2021). US Dept. of Health and Human Services. https://health.gov/news/category/national-health-observances

[2] Beck, J. (2015). What good is “raising awareness?” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2015/04/what-good-is-raising-awareness/391002/

[3] Purtle, J., & Roman, L. A. (2015). Health awareness days: Sufficient evidence to support the craze? American Journal of Public Health, 105, 1061–1065. https://doi.org/10.2015/ajph.2015.302621

[4] Boersma, F. (2021). Mental Health Awareness Month:  A dissent.  http://www.mhawisconsin.org/faith-boersma

[5] Ranking based on nine indicators; four on service rates to children with SED and five from consumer (i.e., parent) surveys.  SED stands for “serious emotional disturbance” (a phrase the author detests) and is defined as “the presence of a diagnosable mental, behavioral, or emotional disorder that results in functional impairment which substantially interferes or limits the child’s role in family, school, or community activities.”  States are required to submit annual data through SAMHSA’s Uniform Reporting System.  Though not perfect, the Uniform Reporting System represents the best data available:  There is no other surveillance system regularly collecting similar data from all states.

[6] Christiano, A., & Niemand, A. (2017). Stop raising awareness already. Stanford Social Innovation Review. https://ssir.org/articles/entry/stop_raising_awareness_already

[7] Social determinants of health are the non-medical factors that influence health outcomes.  Research has shown that these social, economic, and environmental factors have roughly twice the influence on overall health outcomes as clinical services.

[8] The medical model is a school of thought that mental illness derives from biological factors rather than a complex set of biological, psychological, social, behavioral, and environmental factors.  The medical model led to the belief that medication is primary intervention for mental health issues.

WFT Testimony in Favor of SB 527

WFT Testimony in Favor of SB 527

Testimony in support of SB-527, Improvements to the Restraint & Seclusion Law
Hugh Davis, Executive Director Wisconsin Family Ties

Senate Bill 527 is the culmination of dozens of hours of constructive meetings between education stakeholders, including families, advocates, the Wisconsin Council of Administrators of Special Services (WCASS), the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), the Wisconsin School Administrators Alliance (SAA), and the Department of Public Instruction.

The bill before you today primarily consists of technical changes based on data collected since the current state law on the use of restraint and/or seclusion in public schools went into effect in 2012. SB-527 provides much-needed clarity on what does and does not constitute an incident of restraint or seclusion, when such incidents need to be reported, how they need to be reported, and to whom reports should be sent.

The bill also requires that principals and staff involved in such incidents meet for debriefing. The research on restraint is clear: The moment these techniques are used, the likelihood of injuries to staff and children rises significantly. Debriefing is recognized as an effective tool to prevent future incidents of restraint and/or seclusion.

Finally, SB-527 increases the emphasis of training requirements on de-escalation. The data collected and analyzed by Wisconsin Family Ties and Disability Rights Wisconsin show that the number of incidents of restraint or seclusion remained static over a three year period, at approximately 20,000 per year, and were disproportionately applied to elementary students with disabilities. All of the aforementioned stakeholders were unified in their belief that we can and should find and adopt better ways to meet the behavioral needs of these vulnerable students. The clarifying changes in SB-527 will help school staff, administrators, and educational stakeholders do just that.

Wisconsin Family Ties strongly supports SB-527, and urges its passage in this committee and the full Senate.

WFT Testimony On SB527 Restraint & Seclusion 2019 11 19 (PDF)

We Need to Do Better on Seclusion and Restraint in Our Schools: Why I Support SB 527

We Need to Do Better on Seclusion and Restraint in Our Schools: Why I Support SB 527

Everyone in Wisconsin wants our children to be happy, healthy, and successful. To get there, we need to do better when it comes to seclusion and restraint in our schools. SB 527, a new bill introduced at the Capitol in Madison on October 25, will help us reach that goal.  (See the text of the bill here, and more information from Wisconsin Family Ties here.)

It’s so crucial for parents to share the stories of their children when they are not able to share for themselves, either because of disability or age. I share my son’s story in the hopes that this will help change happen for him and the other children that experience seclusion and restraint.

My son is in third grade and has ADHD, autism, sensory processing disorder, and vestibular issues. He has an IEP, and there are many things about school that are challenging for him.

My son’s experience with seclusion and restraint began in kindergarten, and continued in first and second grade. He has already been secluded over 20 times and restrained over 27 times by the end of 2nd grade.

I didn’t learn till my son was in 2nd grade that schools were supposed to keep incident reports of each seclusion or restraint.  I only found out when I asked due to injuries my son had sustained during restraint!  They were supposed to tell me that a report was available, but they never did.  Unfortunately, now that I ask for the forms every time (and went back and did an open records request to get all the ones I didn’t have), I’ve found restraints happening repeatedly on and off for an hour!

My son has been restrained and secluded for incidents that did not come close to meeting the standard in Wisconsin law of “clear, present, and imminent risk” to physical safety. These incidents included things like running around the room, kicking off shoes, throwing crayons, tearing up papers, and using inappropriate language.  Why would we hold a child down for having a sensory episode?

I keep advocating for my son when it comes to restraint and seclusion because I worry about what this is doing to him in the long term.  I used to manage multiple group homes, and I could tell when a resident had been secluded or restrained. I noticed a pattern with the clients that sought out negative attention by hitting, spitting, biting, punching, and kicking that they had been restrained throughout their lives prior to coming to the group home.

SB 527 would make a lot of improvements to our state’s law on seclusion and restraint in school.  And by improving the law, it would help improve the lives of many children with disabilities and their families, since most of the seclusions and restraints involve students with IEPs. I want to talk about two of the improvements in particular.

One thing the bill would do is to require districts to report seclusion and restraint data to DPI, rather than just to the school boards.  Parents need to know what is going on in their district.  And DPI needs to know about the data from each district because they could provide critical support to districts where the numbers seem high or have jumped up.  Data helps track the trends and can show if training and support is needed.

Another helpful change is that schools would have to automatically send the incident reports to the families, rather than just having to tell them it exists (which is a step that gets lost too often). Parents need to see the report and details to determine how best to support our children in order to be equal participants. These reports are also critical to have in the event of injury such as scratches, bruises, cuts, etc., which has happened too many times to my child.

I believe that everyone’s goal is to do what’s best for our children as they grow.  This bill will help us get to that goal, and I hope you’ll join me in letting your legislators know to support it!

—  Amber McGinley

26 Years Later, Behavior-Chart Memories Still Sting

26 Years Later, Behavior-Chart Memories Still Sting

Submitted by a follower of the WFT Facebook page who prefers to remain anonymous.

I was scrolling through social media one day when I came across a Facebook post by Wisconsin Family Ties about the effects of behavioral charts on students. I’ve subscribed to Wisconsin Family Ties’ Facebook page for years but let me clarify that I am not a parent, I’m not an educator…in fact I’m just an average childless adult in her 30’s. I have yet to experience all the ups and downs of parenthood or live through the struggles that involve navigating complex health, education and social systems. So why would a post about behavioral charts resonate with me?

The fact is that I was that student. Growing up in the early 90’s, I was subjected to many behavior modification methods from grade school well into high school. It’s been 26 years since I stepped out of my first grade classroom but I’m still triggered by the memory. My teacher had implemented a “Three Ribbon System.” The concept was simple: everyone started the week fresh with three bright red ribbons hung beneath our names at the front of the classroom. Bad behavior resulted in the humiliating act of going up in front of your peers and removing one of those precious ribbons. Students who made it to the end of the week and still had all three ribbons were rewarded by picking out a prize from the school bookstore.

As the week progressed, we all tried to be on our best behavior. It was supposed to be easy: pay attention when the teacher was talking, raise your hands, sit still, walk in a straight line in the hallway and avoid talking to your neighbor. But if it was such a fool-proof and equal system, why was it always the same students who reached their goal by the time the school bell rang on Friday afternoon? The answer was that it was not an equitable system. Not all students were given the tools or resources needed to be successful in keeping their three ribbons, which meant we didn’t start on such an equal playing field after all.

In first grade, i was confident, outgoing, silly and sometimes loud… qualities that weren’t necessarily seen as ideal by my teachers. Despite my best efforts, I always seemed to be slipping up and losing yet another ribbon. I just didn’t understand my quiet, well-mannered peers who made “perfect behavior” look so effortless.

I accepted early on that I might never achieve this impossible goal. The “fresh start” that came each Monday morning was not a motivating factor. In fact, it had the opposite effect. Decades later, I still feel that little girl inside me. I felt hurt, shame, jealousy, embarrassment and resentment for both my teacher and my peers. My six year old under-developed brain very much saw the world through a black and white lens. There were good kids and bad kids. I would cry in bed at night because I felt like my teacher and my parents hated me. Why was my “best” never good enough? And if one couldn’t ever measure up, what was the point of trying? I put ribbons and prizes out of my mind very quickly and that’s when my behavior got worse.

The first parent-teacher conference my mother ever attended resulted in a trip to the pediatrician. I didn’t know why I was there or why they were talking past me but I caught on pretty quickly that it was a result of my bad behavior. There must be something wrong with me after all. My mom left the doctor’s office with a prescription of Ritalin, the go-to ADHD medication of the early 90s. I don’t recall if there was ever any follow-up care or changes made in the classroom but this magic pill helped me zone out and stare at the blackboard, which was good enough to keep all three ribbons I suppose. It did more than help me zone out though. It soon gave me a series of side effects that concerned my mother even more. I “ticked” constantly by blinking my eyes as tight and as often as I could. I gasped for air because I felt I couldn’t breathe. I licked my lips until they were cracked and bloody. 

Dumbfounded at what to do and receiving little help from my teacher or doctor, my mom turned to other parents in my class. One phone call at a time, she slowly learned that almost 2/3 of the class had been prescribed Ritalin at the advice of our teacher at parent-teacher conferences. Could it be that this problem was really this severe or did the issue lie elsewhere? My mom took me off the medication and put a pointed call in to my principal. To this day she feels shame and anger at the situation. She wishes she had known better but admits that the trust she put in our education system meant that “teachers know best.” Besides, as a first-time parent, she had no prior experience with this or reason to question. 

I wish I could finish this story by saying how relieved I am that these faulty behavior modification methods are no longer practiced. Sadly, that’s not the case. Thousands of children are subjected to methods that might mean well but research has shown they have the opposite effect on the health and behavior of children and their developing brains. I’m a case example…one of many. Now it’s my turn to be an advocate. I wish someone would have taken the time to explore with me what unmet need in the classroom was causing me to act out. Would my teacher have been more understanding and empathetic of me instead of deeming me “the naughty one” week after week? As an adult, my confidence, sense of humor and voice (which is sometimes still very loud) are qualities I like in myself. I was never silenced but I came very close. We owe it to the next generation to give students every individualized tool and resource necessary to thrive.