It's Back to School Week and we are all settled in our new routines. Right after dinner last night, I hear my little girl out of her bedroom. "Mom, can you come here? I need you." I've been around the house a few times to know that this kind of application can be heading south pretty quickly. As I walk in her door, I wonder if we will have a long chat about her new program and have no friends at lunch time. Or maybe she wants me to bring her a La Croix. It could be anything. From her door, I can't tell if she's under the covers already or sitting in her office. Myself.
She turns out to be sitting comfortably in her office, making folders and shuffling papers. "Mom, sign this. They want to make sure you know I'm playing with fire in the classroom." Exactly, just playing with the fire. I am happy to sign on the line with a magic marker. That's legal, right? Then there is a behavioral agreement, a participation policy, and some other form of order than the class that is illuminated.
That's wonderful. She didn't even look me in the eye, and she finished with me. I know, most moms would feel frustrated or hurt. Right now, I'm not. I'm on my way to the kitchen to put something away, so this stop was a kind of detour. But I'm a mom, so I do.
I also know that in less than an hour, I could be called back to discuss a real problem and this visit will take much longer. You see, as a social worker passion for socio-emotional learning at school and at home, it's often an open season at our home on any subject. My daughters father is also a huge reason for this. Dinner topics will vary from gender, boundaries, attachment theory, global warming, immigration, rocket propulsion or Futurama. After much training, it even took me to watch the Netflix series Big mouth with our children. There is not much left to talk about here.
Except that's the point. Not all families are ours, and ours is not this open 100% of the time. Regardless of how accessible and vulnerable parents want to be with their children, not every family relationship is sincere. The journey of childhood and adolescence that our children are traveling through as we journey through a parallel journey of adult life through motherhood will collapse and flow with levels of engagement and communication. We all know that there will be times when we will be closer and more aligned with certain people in our lives. This is also true for our children.
I recently spoke with a friend who had just flown her daughter 2000 miles from their home in Oregon to start school in Michigan. We made her way through the city after a busy but tiring weekend. A new empty star, I could see her anxious with separation and worry about how her younger sister would deal with college stress.
My first question to her was, "Does anyone have a talk or go to campus when they need help? Does she know where the school health center is if she needs it?"
My friend's response was the usual. Yes, her daughter knows where she is and if she gets sick, she knows where to go.
This was not an answer to my real question. I didn't ask if he knew where to go when it got cold. I am more worried about where she will go when the lessons are too much and her anxiety levels become more intense. Does she know to seek a counselor or therapist when she feels overwhelmed?
Some children are sensitized enough to recognize that they struggle with stress at times. However, this describes only part of the students. Even with socio-emotional learning prioritized in schools, not all these children are aware of this.
The answer to my real question was no; my girlfriend didn't think her daughter would know who she was going to get to. There was a family member in a nearby town who could help. And the daughter said she would call home all the time.
Yes, these can be useful strategies, but in my view, it's more of a help zone approach.
I thought about when my daughters entered high school. As an overly involved parent, I already had an affair with my high school counselor and loved her. We were fortunate enough to be in an area that not only had social workers handle students with 504 and IEPs, but also a school counselor to help the rest of the population. Not every school has such resources, and I understand that. But I knew our consultant, and I wanted my girls to know it, just in case.
Get to know the helpers when everyone is in a good place so that children can learn to feel comfortable asking for help. So day by day, I made sure that both of my girls met face-to-face with the school counselor and knew where her office was before the year even started. We talked about stopping by her office if they had a bad day or felt sad or just wanted someone to speak at noon. Annoying as it was, we each got our offer at least once in the three years of high school. I also remember that my daughters mentioned it to some friends and encouraged them to look for it.
It was a simple tactic, but I wanted my daughters to know that they didn't have to keep things to themselves all day long and there was someone in the building who cared about how they felt. (Yes, teachers are certainly interested in their emotions, but not all mathematics teachers have time to hear about noon or cupboard drama.)
Since then, I have encouraged all my friends and clients to do their school admissions. Get to know the helpers when everyone is in a good place so that children can learn to feel comfortable asking for help. Yes, you want them to come to you, but they may not be available right after Chemistry.
This brings me back to the agreements I just signed. These forms let the school know that my children and I are communicating about their education and that I know what is happening in the classroom. I would be interested in converting it and getting a form or concession sheet stating that my child met with the mental health educator, knows where his office is located and learned how to make an appointment if necessary. And, as if you were justified in the gym, if you play sports, the child could be justified by this activity if he or she already sees a therapist outside of school.
Let's normalize these relationships with mentors. Let's help schools feel more welcoming for students to talk about their mental health as they would reach a teacher for extra help at work. Together we can make a difference.
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