Counsellor connections key to addressing student challenges

By: Catherine Whitnall, Courtesy of My, published April 5, 2019

TLDSB’s Student Services Attendance Counsellors provide assistance and advocacy for children, youth and families

Quite often, when a young person has a problem, they believe that no one will understand, help or even listen. 

Members of the Trillium Lakelands District School Board’s Student Services Attendance Counsellors (SSAC) are, however, helping to change this perception. 

Recently, Michelle Spry and Sarah Burgess, two of the board’s 14 SSACs — seven of them work at City of Kawartha Lakes schools — shared how their efforts are playing an integral role in supporting schools to help students reach achievement goals.

These counsellors come from a variety of backgrounds, from corrections and mental health to addictions and social work, to meet a wide range of personal needs of elementary and secondary school students as well as their families. 

“Through their work around attendance support, addiction counselling, mental health supports, and helping with social-emotional challenges, they help to guide students who need help to be better able to interact and become a part of their regular school community,” explained Dave Golden, superintendent of learning. “The SSACs also play a pivotal role whenever there is a crisis event at a school. This could be the death of a student, a staff member, or a parent; a community crisis; or even a world event.”

The SSACs also engage with families, to help navigate access to support from community partners. 

“We don’t work in silos,” said Spry. “We work with all of the community resources available, so students and families have access to the widest range of services possible.”

Currently, there are 500 open and active support counselling services taking place at area schools. Each student undergoes a complete assessment to ensure that connections with community agencies are the best fit possible; this can include anything from addiction treatment provider FourCast to connecting them with community housing supports. 

The SSACs are also responsible for tracking all attendance — a counsellor becomes involved when a student misses 10 consecutive days or has displayed a pattern of absences. There are presently 336 open and active referrals. 

“Quite often it’s not as simple as ‘I don’t like school,’” said Burgess.

When it comes to high school, sometimes the “greater freedom” of being a teenager is a contributing factor. There could also be a mental health issue, such as anxiety, or — in the case of Grade 9 students — the intimidating aspect of being a ‘small fish in a big pond.’ Four 70-minute learning blocks can be overwhelming, especially for those who are having difficulty focusing or have behavioural issues. The higher grades also obviously more academically challenging, but the pressure can be debilitating for those with learning disabilities. 

“Often, there is something going on at home,” continued Burgess. “So we do home visits: meet them on their turf and listen to their story.”

There are a variety of options available to address these issues. For example, there are currently 45 students enrolled in a supervised alternative studies program. 

Being on the ‘front lines’ in schools has enabled the SSACs to also identify and address issues broadly. For example, said Spry, the team noticed that there was an increase in self-harm incidents. So in February, a number of students were given training to address this behaviour. 

The SSACs are also developing a three-year mental health strategic plan they hope to start rolling out this year, along with an attendance campaign and strategy that will kick off in September. 

Four members have also been trained to facilitate the Roots of Empathy program; the international, evidence-based classroom program has shown a significant effect in reducing levels of aggression among schoolchildren aged five to 13 by raising social/emotional competence and increasing empathy. 

Five SSACs have been trained as a Young Warrior sensei — the cutting-edge, evidence-informed therapeutic training program for children with learning disabilities and mental health issues was piloted at the local board by Integra in 2016. A dozen elementary schools now offer the program, with 122 students participating.  Team members also facilitate mental wellness programs in schools including Mental Health First Aid and SafeTALK.