July 1st, 2013

Program targets children’s needs

A program to address emotional and behavioral issues in children has met with success in three Church Street School classrooms.

The interventionist initiative in Hamden, Conn. places behavioral health specialists in classrooms to help students who exhibit mental health problems to focus and allow teachers to instruct without distractions. The program is part of the Educational Care Collaborative, whose goal is to provide continuity of care on emotional issues for children and families at home, in school and within the community.

Funded by the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven and other smaller grants, ECC was founded by Joy Fopiano, Ph.D., a school psychologist and associate professor of school psychology and counseling at Southern Connecticut State University and Eric Arzubi, M.D. a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at Yale Child Study Center.

Fopiano, the project’s director, explains that children with mental health issues create a great challenge for teachers. School administrators, teachers, staff and parents participated in a comprehensive needs assessment prior to the program’s launch. The purpose was to gain perspective about the needs not being met by existing services.

Fopiano emphasizes that a school psychologist and social worker on staff indicate the district’s commitment to children but it wanted to do more. “They had courage. Not all districts throw their arms open to new programs but they wanted to know how to do even better to ensure children can be successful.”

She says the study determined that some children, especially in grades K-2, didn’t possess skills it is assumed they would have – such as turn taking, sharing, problem solving and collaborating.

“Teachers said they needed help loud and clear, but not in the traditional sense of teacher aides. They wanted trained people to meet the frustrating levels of children’s emotional needs so instructors can instruct,” Fopiano says.

Interventionists, full-time students in school psychology at Fairfield University and Southern CT State University, have been working at Church Street School since 2010.

Fopiano says children come to school with issues that aren’t unique and can be found in classrooms nation-wide. Anxiety, depression, attention challenges, socially inappropriate behavior and bullying are examples. Difficulty expressing themselves and self-regulating their behavior is common.

Susana Mello is pursuing a master’s degree in school psychology at Fairfield with an expected 2015 graduation date. She worked in a second grade classroom for 20 hours per week and embraced the opportunity to work with children and use the knowledge she acquired from her undergraduate degree program in psychology.

“I hadn’t been in a class before so I got to see what works and doesn’t work in that setting. I learned a lot of interventions for classroom management,” Mello says. “I saw how second graders behave and the frustrations they face. Their behavioral, emotional and academic needs are all interrelated.”

Mello, who works closely with the school psychologist and social worker, notes that a child still reeling from problems at home may get up and walk around and talk when he should be paying attention. Or, a child displays frustration and inappropriate behavior because she can’t understand a math lesson. Mello’s role is to provide encouragement, help and positive reinforcement, she says.

Mello has assisted children in expressing their feelings through drawing, talking and other means. “I help them deal with what’s bothering them so they can accomplish their schoolwork and believe that they can do it…and that improves their behavior.”

Mello hopes to return to the school in September. She adds, “Early childhood is the best time to catch kids so when they get older, the problems don’t turn into something larger.”

The future school psychologists gain a great deal too. “You read something in a textbook and think, `I can do this,’ but in real life, it’s not so easy, not as black and white,” she says.

Fopiano says she would like to introduce ECC into two more Hamden schools next spring and expand the school-based clinic at Church Street.

Principal Howard Hornreich says that teachers have told him that interventionists provide invaluable help that also means more individualized attention for students and more time on task. He’s also garnered positive feedback from families. “Parents have tended to see the interventionist as part of the classroom and someone who has their child’s best interests at heart. This facilitates conversation between home and school.”

Hornreich adds that he would also love to have interventionists work with intermediate grade students and teachers.

By Susan Gonsalves

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