By Kaylor Miles, Special to the Outlook

Frederick Douglass said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”

As a Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified School Counselor, children’s mental health is of particular importance to me. I have observed throughout my career many children suffering with mental health disorders that are often not recognized, or diagnosed. Some children simply lack basic social skills. Schools have a unique opportunity to provide mental health services and social and emotional learning (SEL) using the school as a place to obtain these lifelong skills.

According to The American School Counselor Association (ASCA), School Counselors are to help students focus on academic, career, social and emotional development, so they achieve success in school and are prepared to lead fulfilling lives as responsible members of society. Unfortunately, as a former School Counselor, duties may not include working with students in small groups, or providing individual counseling sessions. I served in the following capacities:

  1. Testing Coordinator
  2. English Speaking Other Language (ESOL) Coordinator
  3. Response to Intervention (RTI) Coordinator
  4. Scheduling
  5. Academic Advisor
  6. Coordinating Parent and Teacher Conferences and
  7. Hall Duty

These duties and responsibilities don’t allow for opportunities to work with students who may be struggling with mental health or social and emotional issues. According to the American School Counseling Association (ASCA), during the 2014-2015 school year, the national average for student to School Counselor ratio was 482 to 1. In Florida, the ratio was 485 to 1. The (ASCA) recommends a 250 to 1 ratio. As an Elementary and Middle School Counselor, I was the only counselor assigned to that grade level with a student population of over 500 students. As a result, many students may never see their School Counselor.

Data suggests children who receive SEL perform better academically and demonstrate improved pro-social behaviors. This is not “rocket science.” I presented a proposal several years ago to then Leon County School Superintendent Bill Montford. During our meeting, I told him we expect children to pass a standardized test, but the night before they may have witnessed their mother being beaten or had to get their younger siblings fed and ready for school. You can’t expect them to pass that test. However, if you meet their emotional needs they will perform academically. He agreed, and allowed me the privilege to work with Title I schools as a mental health counselor. The work was challenging at times, but more than rewarding. I worked with students, who were referred by school administrators, teachers and parents, who had behavioral and academic issues. This was a tremendous opportunity for me because I reminded students I wasn’t going to teach them math or reading, but would teach them skills to help them navigate life, in addition to discussing their concerns for seeing me. Some of our group topics included: importance of making good choices, bully and self-esteem and why it was important to treat people the way you wanted to be treated. In one middle school case, a teacher reported, a student was being bullied for repeating outfits. I met with the student and she confided in me that both of her parents had recently lost their jobs and the family was struggling financially. I told her I would, with her permission, speak to the other students in her class about bullying her. I always give students the option of attending these meetings. She stated she wanted to meet with her classmates. During the meeting, she told her classmates about her parents losing their job and explained to them this was the reason she was repeating outfits. I asked the students, what would happen if their parents lost their jobs? One student said “I don’t live with my parents I live with my grandmother.” Another student said “I live with my aunt.” Then another student said “we wouldn’t be able to have the things we have if our parents didn’t work.”

Finally, one student said, “I’m sorry for making fun of your clothes.” Eventually, all of the girls apologized. I reminded students there are always three parties as it relates to bullying, the victim, the bully and the bystanders. I ask them who has the most power some said the bully, some said the victim. I told them the bystander has the most power simply because of their numbers. If you see someone being bullied, stand up and say that’s not right. Several weeks later, the teacher who initially alerted me to the bully issue reported a new male student had arrived and started to bully a student. She reported that the five girls who were initially bullying in class told the young man we don’t bully here and the bullying stopped. I was so proud of those students for using their empathy and the power of numbers as bystanders to stop bullying in their classroom.

This is only one of many examples where I was able to focus on the issue and address the problem using psycho-education. Not only did we end two bullying situations, which could have escalated, but students were taught a life skill, showing empathy for others and making good choices. I always reminded my students we are all leaders and you can lead people the right way or you can choose to lead the wrong way. Again, having mental health professionals in the schools to address mental health disorders, provide consultation to school administrators, teachers and staff and consultation for parents can only help our students. We still need to use School Counselors, however, for their intended purpose of developing their social and emotional skills. Schools provide access and, in many cases, a safe place for students to thrive and grow.

For many students this is an environment that may be more conducive to therapeutic interventions and psycho-education. Moreover, some children may never see a counselor unless it’s in school, due to the cost or transportation associated with seeing a therapist in private practice.

Let’s capitalize on this opportunity by using School Counselors to develop social and emotional skills and bringing in Mental Health Professionals to address disorders.

Kaylor Miles is the Executive Director of the Bethel Family Counseling Center and a Ph.D. Candidate in Educational Leadership at Florida A&M University.

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