Mental health supports for students are one of the most commonly requested services in our schools, and more schools are increasing the number of mental health providers. For some communities, however, mental health continues to have a stigma associated with it.
Meredith Fatseas, who manages DPS’ team of school psychologists and social workers, believes that collaboration and communication is the key to removing that stigma. “We have families who automatically think ‘mental health’ means something negative. But mental health is just as important as physical health.”
DPS schools continue to work to provide strong mental health supports for our students, especially when serving students from cultures where discussions of mental health may be considered taboo. School psychologists and social workers from three schools – Goldrick Elementary, Swansea Elementary and and John. F. Kennedy High School – shared their lessons learned when supporting diverse populations with mental health strategies.
Alicia Davidson, school psychologist and Maria Huber, social worker
Goldrick Elementary has a diverse population with strong traditions and a vibrant culture. Goldrick staff has spent the last few years refining what mental health supports look like. A universal approach to student supports and defined tiered intervention have made a significant difference for our student body. Twice a year, we screen all students on their social and emotional performance, which allows us to make decisions about how to support students in a really personalized and data-driven way.
All classroom teachers use the Zones of Regulation curriculum school-wide to teach emotional identification and regulation during the designated social and emotional block in the day. This gives everyone a common language to talk about our thoughts and feelings. These efforts result in students feeling empowered to talk about and manage their emotions. Because we teach and support all students’ social and emotional needs, the topic of mental health has become normalized in our community. We have students who have experienced significant trauma, but because talking about mental health is normalized, these students don’t feel singled out. Instead, they feel part of a supportive community that helps them feel safe. We are also intentional about challenging gender norms and building students’ early understanding and acceptance of personal differences.
We work closely with our families by providing trainings so they can communicate with their students in the same way. When we share the research that social-emotional skills help students succeed academically, we see more families excited and encouraged by this work. Parents, mental health staff, and teachers work in partnership to create and maintain systems that lead to equitable and justice oriented supports that help unlock the potential of all of our students.
Flor Suarez, school psychologist
We serve students who are mostly Hispanic, but they come from very different backgrounds when it comes to their families’ socioeconomic status, education or immigration status. Our students come from across Mexico and Central America, which means we may have families with very different perspectives on mental health. We make sure to ask ourselves how a student’s background and experiences might contribute to his or her perspective.
We had a student with significant behavior issues and focused on a collaborative approach. I worked with the classroom teacher, restorative justice coordinator and special education teacher to provide the student with a safe space. We focused on making sure her human needs were addressed and that she has a place to calm down with people who care about her. I adapted the Zones of Regulation curriculum for the student (who was in a younger grade) with videos and pictures to teach her regulation strategies. We also developed a connection with her family, which made a huge difference. Now, her behavioral issues have decreased and she’s doing so much better.
Our students often come from challenging situations, and they can’t focus on their education if their mental health is getting in the way. They might be stressed, scared or dealing with trauma, but when we provide connection and safety, the students can start to relax a little and focus on their education. When students feel safe, they can really thrive.
John. F. Kennedy High School
Richard Knight, school psychologist and Anne Walden-Newman, social worker
Our counseling program has been recognized as a Model Program by the American School Counseling Association since 2009, and it’s the only DPS high school that’s a three-time winner. Collaboration is one of our core values. We have a list of all staff members who can do a threat assessment or suicide risk review, so students can get the support they need as soon as possible. We have an eight-member DPS mental health team (counselors, nurse, social workers and school psychologist) and a partnership with Mental Health Center of Denver as well as a Denver Health School-Based Clinic (including a sexual health counselor and STEP drug counselor). We have a lot of students involved in the juvenile justice system and find that having these mental health supports are integral to addressing the school-to-prison pipeline. We’re working with them to learn how to use their academic and leadership skills for good.
One of our greatest success stories has been the JFK Resource Room, which has free supplies for school, snacks, water and more for students. They show up to get a bottle of water, but stay and talk about their lives. This starts building the relationships and the idea that they have a safe place to talk about anything. We do a lot of education around marijuana and get a lot of questions, but nothing fazes us!
One of the best ways to support mental health in a diverse community is to connect with your families. We’re patient and build those relationships and have a personal connection, which helps families develop the trust needed to help students. You can’t make people seek out mental health services, but once you have that trust and relationship, you can start removing that stigma. Students may not always remember the history or math lesson, but they will remember the relationships they create and the people who believe in them.
Superintendent Susana Cordova’s streamlined focus on Equity, Instructional Excellence and Collaborative Teamwork includes reaffirming our commitment to using Trauma-Informed Practices in all of our schools. Learn more at superintendent.dpsk12.org.