District 194 teachers cry for help

Mental health concerns cited

A parade of Lakeville Area School District 194 teachers told School Board members April 25 that increasing numbers of young students have mental health challenges and they feel unprepared to help them.

Several broke into tears during a Meet and Confer meeting as they shared examples of how the loss of full-time in-school counselors have affected their classrooms, citing concern over the increasingly significant mental health challenges they say they are encountering daily.

Lakeview Elementary third-grade teacher Mary Ann Laubach said prior to the 2012 budget cuts, all District 194 elementary schools had a full-time guidance counselor who also taught guidance curriculum K-5 that covered topics including anti-bullying strategies, making and keeping friends, communication skills, honesty and being self-disciplined.

She said the curriculum also included topics on drug and alcohol abuse prevention, identifying sexual abuse, coping with divorce, dealing with grief and embracing diversity.

With the funding cuts, those lessons became the responsibility of teachers, but they were provided no additional training or guidance to teach it, Laubach said.

“We suddenly became the social-emotional experts for our students,” Laubach said.

Now sharing a guidance counselor among schools, Laubach said teachers seek advice from their counselor as much as they can, but there is not enough time for much discussion.

“It was usually on the fly and hopefully enough to help us make sense of our new role,” Laubach said.

Breaking into tears, she said several times in the past five years, situations and topics have come up with her third-graders that she had no idea how to approach, including terrorism, school shootings, the increase in suicides in Lakeville, the Boston Marathon bombing and the tragic deaths of Lakeville South High School students Johnny Price and Jake Flynn.

“Believe it or not, the recent presidential election caused anxiety for many of my 8-year-olds,” Laubach said.

She said she had been advised to avoid such subjects or tell the children to talk to their parents about it, but if they did attempt to talk with them to “be really, really careful.”

“That’s really scary as a teacher,” Laubach said. “We just wish it was that easy, just to avoid and ignore all that scary stuff, but children need to desperately talk about these scary events with their teacher and each other.”

She said children need guidance processing difficult topics and called it “unfair” for teachers to “discount and ignore their fears,” but said she did not know how to guide those conversations.

“So many times, I’ve crossed my fingers, said a couple ‘Hail Marys’ and prayed that I will carry this conversation carefully and gently as to not scar their psyche, scare them even more, or heaven help me, upset their parents, because their child is an emotional wreck due to my poor intervention skills,” Laubach said through tears.

Third-grade teacher Mindy Thomas said the need for guidance counselors has increased in the last few years.

She said students are disrupting learning and suffering inward emotional distress while the part-time counselors only have time to respond to issues when they have reached the crisis level.

“We are responding to the behaviors or the trauma that we see children carrying with them, instead of responding to the relationship and the child themselves,” Thomas said.

Jamie Kiecker, a fourth-grade teacher at Cherry View Elementary, advocated for a full-time counselor at every elementary school, which she described as a “crucial need.”

She said student behavior issues in the classroom are at an all-time high and growing.

Kiecker said students used to receive instruction and there were groups that met to help with issues like divorce, but that support no longer exists because there is no time.

Genesis in preschool

Teachers also emphasized the need for mental health support at the preschool and kindergarten levels.

Infant and toddler teacher Melissa Mills said she is part of a home-visiting team, and families are demonstrating higher mental health needs than ever before.

Issues include depression, infant and toddler abuse, neglect, childhood trauma and other mental health challenges, Mills said.

She said they work to address children’s development needs and try to work with the caregivers, but in their depressive state, many are unable to play with their babies, work on expressive language or even form emotional bonds with their children.

Mills described the adults as unable to seek resources on their own and “operating in survival mode.”

Robyn Ostgaard, teaches an intensive intervention classroom in District 194 for children ages 3-5 years.

She said the number of preschoolers with mental health diagnosis has dramatically increased in the past few years.

Ostgaard said the youngsters are typically referred to the district’s early childhood special education classes, but the staff working with them do not have mental health licenses or expertise to address all the areas of need.

She said there are limited resources available to the families because they are so young.

“For the first time ever, we have two students that are in early childhood special ed, that are also attending day treatment program,” Ostgaard said. “We had a third (child) but he moved out of the district.”

She said these children are dealing with trauma and “very severe mental health issues,” and next school year, they are sending 11 preschoolers to kindergarten with “pretty significant” special needs.

School Board Chair Michelle Volk said the issue is nationwide.

“As a human being, I can’t figure out why this is happening to our young folks,” Volk said. “It’s sad to know they don’t have the kind of childhood that I did.”

Volk said the issue is bigger than school board level and probably needs to be addressed at the state and federal level.

Tallie Berkvam, Lakeview Elementary kindergarten teacher and 2010 District 194 graduate shared detailed memories of her first guidance counselor growing up in Lakeville schools.

She said she dreams of a similar environment for her students, but counselors are not usually available when there is an emergency or a “meltdown.”

“I have empathy and skills to deal with my students,” she said, “But I am no where near as effective in dealing with my students at that level that our trained counselors would be able to do.”

Through tears, Berkvam cited concerns about large class sizes and described constantly feeling stretched with 19 students and no classroom aide.

“There are days that it is really hard for me to feel good about what I have done,” Berkvam said. “Because I can guarantee you that there is one child that I did not do a good enough job of connecting with that day or I did not address a question appropriately because I only had a few moments before another question was being asked.”

She struggled through sobs to finish her sentences, prompting another teacher to stand beside her and hold her arm and asked for more counselors to help.

“They are the unspoken heroes in our schools,” she said.