TULSA, Okla. — As Tulsa-area parents take their kids back to school this week, Family & Children’s Services is expanding its much-needed school-based counselor program, adding two schools to its now 35-school operation.
The new schools, Broken Arrow’s Oliver Middle School and Tulsa’s McLain Seventh Grade Academy, respectively, join others in the Tulsa, Jenks, Broken Arrow and Union school districts this fall semester. F&CS also has counselors at 13 Head Start programs in the area.
The counselors, provided at no cost to taxpayers or school districts since 1999, help children with everything from academic-related anxiety to more serious issues, such as depression, trauma and suicide.
Whitney Downie, chief program officer with F&CS’ Child and Family Services division, said F&CS is growing the program because demand has grown. The number of kids in the U.S. being treated for mental, emotional and behavioral health issues has grown by 50 percent over the last 20 years, a study in the New England Journal of Medicine reported in May, and the Tulsa area hasn’t been immune to the trend, either, Downie said.
“I think our kids live in more difficult situations today than they used to,” Downie said.
Further complicating that is increasing poverty: 1 in 4 Tulsa children are in poverty, a state which is known to harm their mental health. Downie said when she started at F&CS 16 years ago, Tulsa Public Schools had about 44,000 students within about 65-70 percent of the federal poverty line. F&CS provided counselors for just one school. Today, that’s closer to about 40,000 students at 80 percent.
To help families, teachers and school administrators, F&CS counselors assist students with everything from anxiety issues to bipolar disorder and depression while listening to their troubles, providing coping mechanisms, and working with their family and teachers to ensure their success. F&CS’ status as a community behavioral health center means the children also have access to psychiatric services, among other amenities, without the need for insurance.
A day in the life of an F&CS school-based counselor
She always arrives 15 to 20 minutes before students. It makes for an early morning, but it’s the best way to be a part of her kids’ routine, especially at schools where students and staff greet the kids as they enter. It’s also a good time to connect with teachers or meet with students’ parents before the school and work day starts.
“You see kids back to back throughout the school day,” Crittenden said. “You’re even eating lunch with the kids. Because some schools prefer you to pull kids at certain times, you just have to get creative in how you’re going to structure your schedule.”
What she sees the most is child victims of trauma, something that has illustrated for her in stark terms that trauma “doesn’t discriminate.”
“We know one in four girls is sexually abused, and one in seven boys,” Crittenden said. “So if you take that stat alone, and you have a classroom of 25, then you’re talking about multiple children in your classroom dealing in sexual abuse.”
Treating trauma takes no small amount of empathy, in addition to training. Crittenden must avoid taking things at face value.
“You really have to take it kind of kid by kid. If they’re used to shootings happening in their neighborhood, they consider that normal. That’s not something I encounter every day, so I would consider that traumatic. That’s their everyday life. Often, what we have to do instead is teach these kids that school is a safe place and help them realize some of those behaviors they come in with they don’t need here in school.”
Regardless of the trauma’s source, if a student is suffering from it, it usually isn’t obvious, she said. It’ll manifest in ways that might confuse a therapist or a teacher.
Traumatized students often appear to be distracted in class, disengaged, fidgety and withdrawn. To most teachers, that student understandably appears to have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
But “you may have a kid whose parents beat each other up the night before. That kid then comes to school, and is expected to attend to what three plus three is. But they’re looking out the window and fidgeting. They get pegged as ADHD. But what’s happening is that kid is thinking about and ruminating on what happened the night before, wondering, ‘What am I going to walk into today when I get home from school?’”
After learning kids’ backstories, she’ll take what she knows (keeping secret any details that must be private) to their teachers.
“I’ll sit down with them and talk about strategies, tips or tricks to manage problematic behavior,” said Crittenden, who has a similar conversation with children’s parents or guardians.
“That way, we’re all on the same page and talking about things the same way with this kid, because we know hearing this same intervention over and over and over will really help integrate it into their daily coping practices.”
Teachers are expected to do much beyond teaching, she said. School-based clinicians like Crittenden help them manage kids whom they’re struggling to reach, while also not excusing from a discipline standpoint “everything the student does.
“It’s just a way we can look at approaching the child differently than other kids whose story is different.”
About Family & Children’s Services
For 90 years, Family & Children’s Services has been the place to turn for help with problems that seem overwhelming and too difficult to handle alone. The agency restores children’s well-being, heals victims of abuse, strengthens individuals and families, and provides hope and recovery for adults suffering from mental illness and addictions. Today, its life-changing services help one in six Tulsans.
Family & Children’s Services is a partner agency of the Tulsa Area United Way. F&CS is also a member of the following national organizations: Mental Health Corporations of America and the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. F&CS is certified with distinction as a community mental health center by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. F&CS is also certified with distinction as a Community Mental Health Center by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Additionally, F&CS is certified by the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services as an Outpatient Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program and certified with distinction as a Gambling Treatment Program.
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