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Supporting Mental Health: Breaking the Stigma, Lifting Up Students and Families.

This piece was featured in our Spring 2020 Newark edition of TEAM and Family magazine

Social worker Keneisha Newland knew the student—a fourth grader at KIPP SPARK Academy—was struggling. Teachers had reported three back-to-back conflicts involving disagreements with other girls in her grade that left her upset and frustrated.

Newland, a consistent observer in the school’s classrooms, sensed the student could use additional support and reached out to her family to kickstart the process of having her join counseling sessions. “Sometimes, families are hesitant to have their child receive services,” said Newland. “They fear their child being labeled a certain way and they don’t want them to be removed from the classroom frequently. But I tell them that counseling services aren’t what they used to be when we were in school. Our goal is to provide targeted support that allows the child to develop and practice skills they can use independently in the future,” she explained.

With the parents engaged in the process, Newland began working with the student on concrete strategies she could apply inside and outside of school. Over the course of six weeks, she helped her arrive at the root of some of the problems she was experiencing and taught her ways she could stand up for herself, recognize the signs of a healthy versus unhealthy friendship, and understand right from wrong. “I still touch base with her informally if she wants to talk. She doesn’t need to come see me as regularly—but we have a relationship,” said Newland.

Newland’s story highlights KIPP New Jersey’s whole-team, strategic approach to supporting social emotional health in our schools. Newland trains teachers to identify students who may need additional counseling support—and reach out to her and the schools’ social work team when appropriate. Counseling is provided based on clinical assessments of students–and can be provided to students with or without an Individualized Education Plan.

KIPP Newark’s Director of Social Work Sheyla Riaz states that while programming varies by school, all students have access to individual or group counseling, which can be prompted through a teacher or parent referral. “We work with families,” said Riaz. “We always reach out to families to get a history and that informs the goals of the services,” she added. At the middle school and high school level, Riaz explained, services are often initiated by the students themselves.

In Newark, there are also programs designed to support students and families. For example, the Good Grief program—which launched last spring—helps families who have experienced a loss. The program brings together parents and children (from KIPP Newark and also other schools in the community) who are grieving. It offers them a chance to learn skills that can help them cope with loss while also providing time to socialize over dinner and engage in activities together.

Director of Clinical Services Liz Callahan spearheaded the program, housed at KIPP Rise Academy and KIPP Upper Roseville Academy. “We saw huge progress for our participants at the end of last session. Families developed relationships, implemented coping strategies, and were sad to leave each other—they concluded the program planning neighborhood barbecues together to stay in touch!” said Callahan.

Many schools also offer drop in office hours with social workers, in addition to wellness clubs or gender-specific groups where students can come together and talk about what’s going on in their lives.

KIPP Newark Collegiate Academy social worker Courtney Mick runs lunch workshops for about 20 high schoolers who gather weekly to discuss a wide range of topics in a safe space. “It’s a different space that’s not the same as counseling. They’re thirsty for information. We started in September with Suicide Prevention Week, and we’ve gone on to explore topics like self-awareness and sexual health and education,” said Mick, who added that students often lead the sessions and bring their own topics of discussion.

Mick knows not every student is comfortable opening up, but she’s seen incredible growth in the students who attend her lunch workshops. “As a black mental health professional, I’m aware that there’s a stigma in our community against seeking help—part of my job is to help normalize the awareness of mental health in our communities  to increase access and usage of supports,” said Mick.

At KIPP TEAM Academy, school social worker Christina Broderick leads a Wellness Group that meets two days a week and helps students with physical, emotional (and even environmental) wellness. The group organizes events and school wide initiatives like celebrating self-love on Valentine’s Day and facilitating morning mindfulness sessions.

Wellness Club students reported that the group helps them develop a more positive self-image, while giving back to the school community.  “We have to make sure everyone feels needed in life because they are. Everyone is special in a way no one understands,” said seventh grader Najae Baxter.

Broderick says the skills students gain in the club are not just to help them in middle school. “We welcome and embrace the challenges of developing and maintaining student’s physical, mental, and social needs in life. This is a space for them to grow, learn and develop their wellness practices that will last them into their adult lives,” said Broderick.

Never has the support our social workers provide for students been more crucial than during the outbreak of Coronavirus (COVID-19). While students are not in the classroom, social work teams provide social-emotional coaching to staff on how to navigate check-in calls and texts, scheduling and facilitating individual counseling sessions via phone and video calls, as well as connecting families to necessary community resources.

Social workers are assisting teachers in providing some guidelines for the check-ins that will elicit responses relative to students’ social-emotional status. According to Mick, “Our schools are working really hard to ensure that our team and family is covered during this unprecedented time.”

Type of Support We Offer

  • Group/individual counseling: Students who join group or individual counseling do so with parent consent or as part of their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) which can include a behavioral intervention plan. These counseling sessions offer students opportunities for reflection and the chance to acquire skills and strategies that will help them develop socially and academically.
  • Crisis Intervention support: When families or students report experiencing a crisis, our social workers partner with families to find solutions that support student well-being and kickstart the services they need to succeed through school-based services and community linkages.
  • Referrals to community services: To ensure all needs are being met, KIPP Newark includes wrap-around services and will connect families to community supports when needed.
  • Programs that promote positive school culture: Many schools offer programming that includes wellness days, social emotional learning curriculum, and clubs or groups that provide students with a safe space to speak with their peers about their challenges and celebrate successes.
  • Parent engagement and staff development: KIPP Newark teachers receive training from school social workers on incorporating social and emotional learning, identifying worrisome behaviors and implementing strategies to support student learning in the classroom. 

Did You Know?

  • 20% of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health condition
  • 8% of youth have an anxiety disorder 
  • 50% of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24
  • The average delay between onset of symptoms and intervention is 8-10 years

If you recognize any of these behaviors in your child, you may want to have a conversation with your schools’ social worker.

  • Excessive worrying or fear
  • Feeling excessively sad or low
  • Extreme mood changes, including uncontrollable “highs” or feelings of euphoria
  • Avoiding friends and social activities
  • Changes in sleeping habits or feeling tired and low energy
  • Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite
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