Therapy in the classroom? One school district says it works.
*Student names and details have been changed to protect privacy
On a chilly fall morning, students in the River community at Karner Blue Education Center enter their classrooms with a hot breakfast of french toast and milk in hand. They sit down in their seats and chat with each other about Minecraft strategies, their weekend plans, and their favorite Taco Bell menu items. At first glance, it looks like any other elementary classroom.
Upon closer observation, one might notice a teacher turning the already dim lights a little lower, and setting up a projector to display calm nature scenes and soothing music. An education assistant moves from student to student, helping them progress on their coursework. A therapist floats around as well, making sure students are starting the day out on the right foot. All in all, there are four adults in the classroom tending to five students.
Everything in the Educational Mental Health Classrooms (EMHCs), from the tone of the lights to the type of schoolwork students do in the mornings, has been designed to meet the needs of students whose mental illnesses regularly interfere with their classroom learning. It is the result of a unique partnership between Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District and Canvas Health that is aimed at helping students manage their mental health symptoms so they can regulate their behavior and engage in learning. “Students with untreated mental health needs are not able to learn to their full potential,” said Rachel Goossens, Canvas Health supervisor. “We’re here to change their trajectory.”
The most common mental illnesses they see in students this young are anxiety and depression. Children identified for the EMHC experience symptoms that are so intense that they may be unable to function in the classroom. One student, Jenessa*, used to go into crisis for hours at a time, often missing the opportunity to eat lunch with her friends, participate in a classroom play or read her favorite book with her teacher. Now in the EMHC, Jenessa still experiences anxiety, but she is able to calm herself down with the help if her therapists in an hour or less. Not only that, but she has developed healthy habits like proactively asking her teacher to take a break before a crisis occurs. “The most incredible part of it all is that it isn’t just the adults that are noticing her progress,” said Tiffany Kelly, an education assistant in Jenessa’s classroom. “She sees it in herself, and it is really improving her confidence.”
Many of the students in these classrooms have been hospitalized in the past for their mental illnesses, but were told that their symptoms were too severe to be treated in local facilities. Unlike hospitals, schools are required by law to serve every single student, regardless of the severity of their needs.
EMHCs are also different from day treatment programs, where students receive outpatient therapy services and education services in separate timeblocks at a non-school facility. Students may learn coping skills in a therapy environment, but struggle to apply those same strategies in a school environment. In an EMHC, therapists and educators work side-by-side, creating a seamless experience for the student and a collaborative partnership where education and mental health staff learn from each other. Students learn how to cope with mental health symptoms and participate in school at the same time, increasing their ability to sustain learned skills over time and engage with their communities. “Students in these classrooms see it as a positive experience because it feels like their regular school,” said Naomi Lepore, assistant principal at the school. “They are still connected to their friends, their favorite staff members, and a school building where they feel safe.”
With the school year just beginning, the data is very preliminary. Some data is showing the students have behavior challenges more frequently, but experts say that makes sense as students are getting used to a new classroom and new routine. Other data suggests that students are able to work through triggers and challenges that in the past would have posed significant barriers to learning. “Students seem to be growing in the ability to show empathy and engage in the learning process,” school staff wrote on their accountability report.
School isn’t the only place where the therapists offer support and partnership. Brandon, a student in one of the EMHCs, struggles the most in school on Mondays, because his family situation makes weekends difficult. He has started asking his therapists and teachers for help “repairing” the situation at home. Brandon is able to take a break from school to call home and talk to a parent about it, putting his mind at ease so he can continue to focus on academics.
Family therapy follows the student from school to home during the day or evening hours in order to ensure the skills students learn at school can help them in any situation. The mental health and education team also assists families in navigating the sometimes confusing array of school and community-based services, offering referrals as needed. Anecdotally, families report improved relationships and behavior at home, and that their students are able to participate in activities that once seemed impossible - like attending a friend’s birthday party or going to a movie in a theater. “Parents are not only impressed with the classrooms, but also with the support that they are receiving and the changes that they are seeing at home,” said Rebecca Zabinski, one of the classroom therapists.
The EMHCs are one of the innovation grant projects that are being implemented and partially funded through a grant that intermediate school districts received in 2016. There are currently two EMHCs, serving five students each. They hope to expand to seven students soon, and eventually add two additional classrooms at Pankalo Education Center.