In this episode, Chris Leonard talks with Dr. Mary Rose Scalo, a former Director of Special Services in Wayne and in Parsippany. Chris and Mary Rose discuss strategies for dealing with the heightened stress experienced by students, families, and staff during the holiday season and when transitioning back to school after the break.
- How to identify struggling students who may be falling through the cracks
- Tips for preventing a spike in school refusal following the break
- Why the holiday season is particularly difficult for special services staff members
- What makes it impossible for school staff to provide help to students over holiday breaks
- Recommendations for how to provide school-based services that meet the individual needs of each student AND take the pressure off school staff
Chris: Welcome to our podcast: Conversations About Student Mental Health.
I’m Chris Leonard, Clinical Social Worker working with adolescents for over 25 years. In this podcast, I talk with school administrators, educators, clinicians, and parents to open a dialogue that will help the growing number of students struggling with mental illness.
As we record today’s episode, we’re preparing for the school holiday break. The holidays are an exciting and meaningful time for many people. At the same time, the holiday season is laden with childhood memories, happy and sad, and often with idealized expectations of comfort, joy, warmth, and togetherness.
The holidays can be particularly stressful for students struggling with mental health issues and their families. This can also present challenges for school staff who may be dealing with their own complex experiences of the holiday season. It’s important to remember that students, staff and families can experience stress not only leading up to and during the holidays, but during the time transitioning back from a long break.
A school break gives us all a lot of unstructured time, and for many people the break brings unpredictability. This can make it difficult to readjust to the structure of the school routine.
To explore some helpful strategies to assist students, families and staff with coping, I’m pleased today to welcome to the podcast Dr. Mary Rose Scalo, who has served as Director of Special Services in Wayne and in Parsippany. Welcome Mary Rose.
Mary Rose: Thank you for having me.
Chris: Oh, it’s a pleasure. Really looking forward to our discussion, so let’s jump right in. What would you say are some of the outward signs that students exhibit when experiencing increased stress before the holidays?
Mary Rose: I think what’s most interesting is that there are signs that you expect. There could be some somatic symptoms. There could be some expressions of suicide ideations. There could be some self-harm. These are the things that we typically look for.
I think what is challenging is that students can express their emotional difficulties in a wide range of manners. Sometimes what looks like just acting out is really a call for help. We know certain students that we’re looking out for, but during these times it’s important to recognize that there may be students that we have not been working with that are going through difficult times, that have not come to our attention. There are students that sometimes fall between the cracks. So what we can do is look out for what’s expected and be on the alert for the unexpected.
Chris: So if you’re seeing something unexpected, a change in behavior, something that’s outside the norm for a particular student, that could be one of those signs, right?
Mary Rose: Exactly.
Chris: Yeah. That’s one challenge for staff. What would be some of the other challenges that teachers, administrators and child study team personnel might experience before and after a break?
Mary Rose: You know it’s really funny. I’m having these conversations with directors all the time. This time of year schools schedule holiday parties and celebrations with their students and with other staff members, and it can be a very happy time of year. But it rarely is for special education staff.
For special education staff, two times of year that are not easy to celebrate would be Christmas and graduation time. These are the times when we are often called into crisis situations. I cannot recall a special services holiday party where there were all members present. Someone is always called out to deal with a crisis situation, and that has an impact on the entire staff: teachers, child study team members, and administrators. It can be a very stressful time.
When other people are relaxing, we are on high alert, and that carries over through the holiday break. You cannot deal with a crisis on a Friday before a holiday break and not take that home with you through the weekend and through the holidays. And I think what is most stressful in the public school is to know that this is it. You’re closed. There are no services offered during those holiday breaks and typically no services offered over the summer break.
Chris: And the students are just as aware of that as we are, so in some ways these things that we see around the break, these are cries for help. These are calls for attention. This is please, let me get this in now, right?
Mary Rose: Right. And we’re providing a band-aid. We’re basically saying to families and students in need that this is all we can do. We can do something for you today and we can put you in touch with someone else. And this is where it becomes critical to partner with a therapeutic service. That partnership allows for support during those times when schools are not open and contractually your school staff cannot offer services.
Chris: Okay, we’re putting on a band-aid most of the time, right? We’re just trying to get through the day. Why can’t the staff member who’s on the team, why can’t your school counselor be the person who really gets in there with whatever is going on with that?
Mary Rose: Digs in deep.
Mary Rose: Well, the biggest reason is because special education services are very clearly defined and somewhat inflexible. Special education teachers, just like general education teachers, need to follow a curriculum. They can spend some time on social-emotional learning, but they cannot spend a great deal of time on that. They really need to be keeping students get on track so that hopefully those students can return to a general education setting. That’s our goal. We’re always working on that.
So now you look at child study team members; they’re the ones who may have a little more flexibility in their schedules. However, they are stuck in the inflexible special education code rules and regulations that really do not allow for much time to do any kind of intervention. They are doing IEP meetings. They are doing testing. They are doing interventions. They are doing consultations. Their timelines are very strict, 30 days, 60 days, 90 days, and so when you’re under the gun like that you do not have the time to dig in deep and provide services like individual counseling, group counseling, and family therapy.
These kinds of services, that type of therapy needs to be ongoing and systematic and flexible. I think the most important thing is, you need to be able to provide these services outside of school hours, sometimes before, sometimes after school hours, sometimes during the weekends, sometimes during holiday breaks, as we’re talking about right now.
Employees of public schools are limited by what their contract allows them to do and they really are not able to offer services in times like a holiday break unless that is part of their job description, and that typically is not a job description of a public employee.
Chris: No, that would be highly unusual.
Mary Rose: Very unusual.
Chris: If it exists at all.
Mary Rose: And I don’t know… I have never seen it.
Chris: Okay. So yes, when you contract for therapeutic services, you bring somebody in and they bring this flexibility, they bring this ability to intervene in much more flexible ways, and they actually have the time to do it. They are not constrained by their day-to-day duties, which are intensive, and I’m sure our listeners who serve on child study teams are keenly aware of how demanding their jobs are.
Mary Rose: Oh, absolutely. And you know what? Most of them come to these jobs with the idea that they’ll be able to do that. That is their passion. They would love to do nothing more than work with students. In fact, I just met with a social worker today who was telling me how upsetting it is that she cannot spend the time she would like to spend in therapy with students. She is really tied up with a lot of paperwork. That’s the nature of the job. The paperwork is very important. From a director’s point of view it’s critically important.
However, it is not the end all and be all. If we’re going to support students with social and emotional needs in a public school setting, we need to look at a more systematic approach, something that can speak to the individualized needs of the student.
Chris: That makes it a lot of sense. And you know, I’m thinking back to earlier… You were talking about the two times that are so tough being the time around the holidays and the time around graduation, which are really times of transition.
Mary Rose: Correct.
Chris: And the time after the holidays, that’s another period of transition. That can really be a tough time in and of itself, where students are trying to re-acclimate themselves to school. So when the district takes that step of contracting for clinical services with an outside provider, they’re usually providing a clinician or maybe a group of clinicians who are solely dedicated to providing direct counseling, right?
Mary Rose: Right.
Chris: So how can that dedicated clinician or team of clinicians support students in transitioning back to school after a break?
Mary Rose: Well, as I mentioned earlier, the group therapy, the individualized therapy for students, and the consultation with staff, so that staff is aware of what’s going on with the students and with their families. Providing that kind of a liaison between the students and special education and general education staff can be so helpful.
In addition, the fact that you have someone taking on this role just takes a burden off the special education teaching staff as well as the child study team teaching staff, and so what you get is a two-fold benefit. One, and most importantly, you get the benefit to the student and their families. Those students and families in crisis are now getting a much more intensive service, an ongoing service.
On the other hand, now your special education staff can do what they need to do more efficiently and more effectively. That’s important. And, you also take a psychological burden off of that special education staff as well. There’s a guilt, you know: “I would love to be able to do this. I would love to be able to help, yet I can’t.”
Chris: And that’s a burden.
Mary Rose: That’s tough.
Chris: And it’s kind of like that player on the team that makes everybody around them better. You know, the whole team gets stronger and better when you add that one person who can take care of this one burden, ease everybody else’s load.
Mary Rose: Right. People who go into special education want to help. People who go into special education go in with their heart, and when they can’t do things like this it takes a toll. So knowing that you have staff that can assist them and take on that role, you really can’t measure that benefit.
Chris: I know a lot of people are wondering, what are some things you found over the years to be helpful to students coping during the break? Any suggestions for getting themselves through? You know, I remember a book I used to read the kids when I was teaching, “It’s Not Always Happy At My House,” because we all have those expectations. This is a tough question, but is there something that people can take with them?
Mary Rose: You know, it’s tough because you have boundaries, right?
Chris: Right. Right.
Mary Rose: You don’t really want to share too much about your personal life and how people will view you as having this perfect life, and you don’t want to share your personal experiences just to make somebody else feel better. You can’t do that.
Chris: Right. Right.
Mary Rose: But I think what helps more than anything is for students to know that there’s someone there who will authentically listen to them. I’m here for you now. If you’ve contracted with clinical services that can be provided through a holiday break, you know that that person will be there for them during break time in case situations get worse.
But you know when you return that there will be someone there for you who really cares about you. There is no substitute for sincerity. When you are really sincere with a student and they know you care about them and you communicate the same thing to a family, there is no time limit on that. People sense that.
Chris: You can almost see yourself planting seeds before the break if you can give students something to look forward to. “Hey, when we get back you and I are going to do this, or we’re going to work on this project together, or our class is doing this. I’m really looking forward to your contribution.” So really giving them some connection to the return and some relevance.
Mary Rose: Exactly. Exactly.
Chris: Yeah. Okay. That’s good.
Mary Rose: Some personal touch.
Chris: That was not an easy question, but that’s a great idea.
Mary Rose: Well thank you.
Chris: So I imagine the thing about coming back for students is they’re really full of anxiety. And then, oh my gosh, now I have to get up in the morning. You kind of get into a whole different lifestyle during the breaks and now you have to adjust. And what we see after breaks is often kids who struggle with school avoidance.
Mary Rose: Right. That’s the biggest problem.
Chris: So how does the clinician help those kids in particular?
Mary Rose: Well, one thing a clinician can do is actually go to the home. Again, schools don’t have the time, staff, or ability to make those kinds of connections. Even just a phone call to the home sometimes is enough to get a conversation going. Most often I feel that it’s the parents who need some guidance, some suggestions, what to say, how to get that student out of the house.
Chris: Good point. They have no idea what to say.
Mary Rose: No. They’re overwhelmed.
Chris: Right. They’re just thinking, “I’m trying to get to work, or I’m trying to get my day started, or I’ve got this… My boss is… I’m going to be late again, right?”
Mary Rose: You burn something on the stove and you lose your temper with your family. When you’re in a situation like this you’ll often say the wrong thing, and it’s not because you’re a bad person. It’s because you’re stressed and you need support as well.
So I think the clinician really can provide direct support to the student in getting that student back. If that means going to the home, if that means a phone call, if that just means saying, “When you come in I’m going to be here for you and I’m going to meet you at the door,” or, “I’ll meet you at your car in the parking lot,” whatever that student needs. I have found often that working through the parent is helpful. One thing that can be very helpful is a phone call the day before school starts.
Chris: Right. Laying the ground again, right? Creating an expectation before that it’s okay, we can do this tomorrow?
Mary Rose: Right. And rehearsing with the parents. So if your son or daughter says this, this is what you can say.
Chris: Because so, so often the parent is in that situation where they’re thinking, “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” right?
Mary Rose: Right.
Chris: You’re having such a hard time believing it you don’t know how to act, right?
Mary Rose: Most of us are hardwired to not expect the worst of our next morning. Most of us wake up with the thought that things are going to be okay. And so it’s typical to expect that you’re going to wake up and your child is going to be fine and going to go off to school.
But if a clinician can reach out and say, “You know, coming back to school after a break, particularly when your child is in this state of mind or going through whatever they are going through, can be difficult. Let’s just rehearse what might happen and what you could say and how you can best handle it,” that is so valuable.
Chris: Definitely. And having that person whose job really is to focus on that is… what you’re saying is, it’s really a must have for the specialty education team.
Mary Rose: 100%, because here’s your option. You can do that and retain students in public school programs. That is not only a very important benefit to the student, but it’s a benefit to the entire school organization. What you really want to do whenever possible is retain your students in the least restrictive environment.
Chris: Makes perfect sense. So this is really helpful information Mary Rose. I want to thank you for sharing these insights with us. We’re about out of time, so thanks very much for joining us.
Mary Rose: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Chris: So listeners, I’d like to wish all of you a healthy and joyful holiday season with time for whatever you need to restore yourself and prepare for a new year. Thank you for listening today, and please do join us for future conversations about student mental health.
Conversations About Student Mental Health is brought to you by Sage Thrive, partners in school-based mental wellness.
You can find the show notes on our website at www.sagethrivetoday.com. You can also suggest topics for upcoming episodes of the podcast; we’d love to know what issues related to student mental health you want to hear more about.
Christopher J. Leonard, MSW, LCSW, M.ED.
Chris Leonard is Director of Operations for Sage Thrive and the Sage Day Schools. He is an experienced teacher, school administrator, social worker and psychotherapist with over 30 years of experience working with children, adolescents, and families. Mr. Leonard is married with two daughters and enjoys distance running, mountain and road biking, hiking, and the outdoors.