Meeting life’s toughest challenges with a network of support

Elise Bradley at Shaw Elementary School

In the high-poverty communities we serve, many of our students experience challenges and traumas, which is why our support of their healthy development takes many forms.

It’s a joint effort that unites school staff, City Connects coordinators, families, and community partners, so that every child gets a network of support tailored to meet their needs.

Part of the role of our coordinators is to use their training as social workers or school counselors to discern who could benefit from more opportunities to build social-emotional skills and relationships to better manage their emotions, and who could benefit from more intensive mental health services to help them be ready to learn.

Once coordinators make this determination, they spring into action. They do regular check-ins with students and families going through tough times. They find community partners who can provide mental health services, including one-on-one counseling. They run social skills groups. And they support teachers and other school staff find productive ways to talk about and address students’ struggles.

“Sometimes kids come to school angry,” Elise Bradley says. She is the coordinator at the P.A. Shaw Elementary School in Boston’s Dorchester community. And she’s seen that anger in students who are upset because they are homeless, hungry, or missing absent parents.

“There was a lot of need for helping kids understand their emotions and find the language to express those feelings,” Bradley says of her early days at Shaw. Her goal was to bring in partners who could provide free or low-cost services. So she found programs that are paid by children’s health insurance providers.

Today, South Bay Community Services provides counseling for individual students. And an organization called Wediko provides group counseling to any child dealing with grief or loss. This covers children who have moved from school to school and lost connections with old friends and teachers. It also includes children whose parents have been incarcerated or who have parents or other relatives who have died.

“The group gives these kids an opportunity to realize that they’re not the only kid going through these difficulties. And it helps them with setting up a network of support,” Bradley says.

Bradley also brought Doc Wayne into her school, a provider that “connects with youth through sports, utilizing our sports-based therapeutic curriculum,” the organization’s website says. At Shaw, Doc Wayne serves boys in first, second, and third grade. These students play soccer, basketball, and the recess game fish and minnows. It’s a fun, physically active way to learn about team building, conflict resolution, building confidence, and developing self-regulation. 

“It encourages creativity and helps these kids be kids,” Bradley says, which is especially important for kids who are dealing with adult-sized problems.

“We work so hard in public schools in Boston — and across the state and across the country, especially in low-income communities — to provide a safe place for these kids to have breakfast and to check in with a trusted adult to help, hopefully, decrease some of those insecurities about life outside of school.”

In Dayton, Ohio, City Connects Coordinator Adairia Kelly has also helped boost resources for addressing some of life’s challenges at her K-4 elementary school, DECA (Dayton Early College Academy).

“Our students struggled with impulse control and being able to pull out their toolbox of coping skills,” Kelly says of what she saw when she became a coordinator in 2014. She realized they didn’t have those skills. “And a lot of our students come to us having trauma at home. Some of them have lost parents and siblings.”

Helping students “starts with breaking down that wall of trauma and talking about what’s going on at home,” Kelly says. Build relationships first, then figure out “who students are and what they’re bringing to school with them every day.”

In heartbreaking cases, Kelly also knows the power of showing up, of attending a funeral for a parent and making eye contact with a student so that the student can literally see Kelly’s support.

If students don’t feel supported, Kelly says, they hold a lot inside. “So while you think I’m being disrespectful to you,” Kelly says of how a student may feel, “I’m just upset that I didn’t eat dinner last night and I’m hungry and I don’t know how to tell you that because you’re not pulling that out of me.”

Kelly brought two mental health providers into her school. Eastway Behavioral Healthcare provides individual counseling; and Samaritan Behavioral Health runs small social skills groups that build on peer-to-peer relationships.

“The one thing that I love,” Kelly says of the skills groups, “is that they are learning from students who look like them and are their age.”

Students learn how to listen and share and how to communicate effectively with adults even when the student is upset or disagrees with the adult.

“In one of the sessions that I sat in on, they were making slime. In your mind, you can ask, ‘how is this building social skills?’” The answer: while students are busy having fun with slime, they are also learning to say, “can you please pass me…” or “Miss, Sir, can I do this?”

The impact of building a tailored network of support for every child? Students are able to de-escalate their own behavior, they learn to be resilient, and, best of all, they build relationships and social-emotional skills that help them learn and grow.

“In our experience,” explains City Connects Executive Director Mary Walsh, “there is no silver bullet that will work for every child. Mental health resources, social-emotional skill building, positive relationship development, and trauma-sensitive learning environments can all play important roles. The key is to know students well enough to understand why they may be acting out or struggling in some way.” Coordinators then work to identify the right mixture of supports for every child, and to help the school and the community respond.”

At DECA, Kelly explains, students know: “Someone is there to listen to me. And once I tell my story someone is going to do something about it.”

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