Mental health care begins at elementary school level

Watching out for student mental health isn’t just happening in the middle and high schools. It’s happening in the elementary grades too.

“Student mental health isn’t just a high school or middle school issue. It’s a K-12 issue,” said Dr. Richard Poole, Williamsport Area School District director of student services. “The district, over the last five to 10 years has taken many steps and resources to help students that are in distress or have mental health issues.”

He said at the elementary level, there are guidance counselors in every building and three social workers. They do a “second-step program” with the younger students.

“The second-step program is a comprehensive set of lessons, 24 lessons, that the teachers teach in every classroom every year. Those lessons teach problem solving, teach empathy, teach about relationships at a young age and teach coping strategies,” Poole said.

Bullying is also a topic of lessons, helping students recognize bad behavior and how to cope in those situations.

“Last year, we added the second step child protection unit, and that unit really focuses on signs of abuse. It teaches … that it’s inappropriate for an adult to put their hand on you or touch you anywhere,” Poole said.

The mindset that even elementary students need help to relieve stress, recognize problems and cope with emotional issues is now common in schools.

“We come from a preventative effort, and I think it starts at the younger ages,” said Emily Wagner, South Williamsport Area School District counselor.

Loyalsock Township School District has a therapy dog to help young student.

“Rudy, Donald E. Schick Elementary’s therapy dog, has provided many different opportunities for students and staff members to benefit from his calming effects while reducing their stress levels. The benefits of having a therapy dog on site include physical, social, cognitive, emotional and mental health benefits,” said Gerald L. McLaughlin, Loyalsock Township School District superintendent.

“A therapy dog can lift the moods with students who are struggling with emotional duress, invoking laughter and a purpose for moving forward. They develop friendships and bonds with the animals, promoting greater self-esteem and self-worth.”

Likewise, South Williamsport Area School District has a therapy dog. Students practice reading to the dog, talking to the dog and general happiness that comes from having a dog around.

“I say that dogs are a bridge. If kids have any hesitancy or discomfort about talking to a counselor, they love having the dog there,” said Pat Peltier, South Williamsport Area School District outreach counselor. “Sometimes kids are very cautious about who they talk to, but they’ll talk to a dog.”

Peltier said she often helps elementary children with life experiences that make it difficult for them to function in school.

“What I do, I call supportive counseling. This is not intensive therapy. This is counseling in an education setting where the idea is to raise self-esteem, provide support and provide comfort,” Peltier said. “I provide a little space to maybe sort some of the things that are going on.”

She said she’s well networked in the community so that she often works with therapists if children need to see a therapist outside of the school in certain cases.

“I can refer or I can be in touch with the therapist they’re seeing so there’s coordination,” she said.

School districts start opening up these issues at a young age to teach children that mental health is not something to be feared in hopes of healthy, well-balanced habits.

“If we could put supports in place when students are 5 to 10 years old, a lot of the issues that may raise up with peer relationships, working with family members or emotional support, if we can teach them those strategies and skills at a young age, they carry over,” Poole said.

He said that students have an emotional tool kit.

“They know how to deal with issues that arise. If you don’t educate them on that, they have no idea how to handle it. So how will they handle it? They’ll act out, whether it’s physically or mentally or acting out at home,” Poole said. “I’m a believer that the more resources we put in at a younger age, when they get to the middle school, high school and so on, we’ll have substantially less issues than we would see.”

Julie Caringi, Williamsport Area Middle School social worker, said that young children need to be taught how to cope with mental health issues.

“I think the earlier students are taught mental health skills, the better,” she said.