Solana Beach schools building up support for students’ social, emotional needs

The Solana Beach School District’s comprehensive social and emotional continuum.

The Solana Beach School District is taking steps toward implementing a comprehensive and innovative social and emotional learning program in the coming school year that supports all students.

The continuum of services aims to provide all students with relationship skills, connections to a trusted adult and self-awareness; to help some students with additional services to develop healthy self-perceptions, respect for individual differences and social skills; and provide more intensive services for the few to address issues like anxiety, defiance, bullying and aggressive behavior.

At the Feb. 13 meeting, the board approved Superintendent Jodee Brentlinger’s recommendation to provide certificated counselors and guidance assistants at each district school —each school will have both, however, not necessarily each position at each site every day. The recommendation supports a team approach to social emotional learning with a school psychologist, guidance staff, speech pathologists and the district’s mental health services provider.

“We need our children today to be able to navigate their life,” Brentlinger said of the district’s goals to promote sixth grade students who are equipped with the tools to successfully respond to the challenges they will face in middle school, high school and beyond.

Currently, services and supports differ at all schools and some on the guidance team split their time between two sites and others only work part time. The district will seek input on what the allocation of services should look like at each site through parent outreach in April.

“This is a journey and will continue to be a journey,” said Sabrina Lee, assistant superintendent of instructional services. “We are all committed to the success of all of our kiddos and we know that the recommendations made tonight will require a shift in how we look at support for students in social emotional learning.”

The board also approved the recommendations of implementing a universal screener to help identify kids who might otherwise fall through the cracks, piloting the Sanford Harmony professional development program for staff and developing metrics to evaluate the social emotional learning program moving forward.

Student well-being has been a board priority, as the board designated $350,000 in the 2018-19 budget toward developing a health and guidance program.

“We really want to help these kids come to the classroom every day and be ready to learn and hopefully launch themselves into high school and adulthood being able to manage all these stressors that are going to be in front of them,” said Clerk Debra Schade, who pushed for the priority on mental health in the district during her term as the board president.

“All districts are struggling with this,” Schade said. “The reason I started this is I believed that based on the expertise within our district, the resources available, the leadership we have in place, that we could put together a model program that would be a model for the rest of California. And I still believe that. And if we fall short I’m going to feel like we didn’t do our due diligence because we really can do this. If we show that it can be done and it can be managed and if we make a difference, you’re going to see this move the needle in California and then move the needle in the United States.”

The district formed a social emotional learning committee last year that worked toward creating a research-based recommendation for the district’s services. The committee’s goals were that all students feel connected to a trusted adult on campus and that students experience social emotional learning throughout the school day—the aim is to ensure that everyone on campus, including the custodial and secretarial staff, is trained and a part of the program to create a culture where all students feel safe valued and appreciated. “This is all hands on deck,” Lee said. “We’re wrapping ourselves around our kiddos.”

Of the approximately 3,100 students in the district, 547 received guidance services in 2017-18 and 207 received individual counseling. Based on feedback from district staff, students in the district have a variety of needs surrounding family hardships, emotional dysregulation, anxiety, lack of empathy, eating disorders, grief and loss, and divorce. Suicide ideation can become a result of some of those needs.

During the workshops last year, it was revealed that school psychologists are seeing an increase in mental health diagnosis and medication as early as kindergarten and, in many cases, the school is providing the only type of counseling, mental health or social emotional service that children get.

Elizabeth Schlicher, guidance counselor at Solana Vista, spoke about the importance of having consistent guidance staffing at each school site.

“In my opinion an effective school counseling program is more than just having counseling services available, it needs to be much more than someone bouncing from site to site seeing students for 30 minutes. While this might work with older students, our younger population needs daily, potentially unscheduled interactions with our counselors,” Schlicher said.

Schlicher said when counselors are on campus full time they are able to form relationships with the entire school population not just those needing services which helps decrease the stigma of going to see the counselor.

“Eliminating this stigma at a young age, for a lack of a better phrase, is a big deal,” said Schlicher, who added that she makes herself a well-known, friendly and trusted face on campus through not just running counseling sessions but lunch clubs, student council and greeting families in the morning. “I fear that this would go away if counselors are split between sites.”

Susanna Romero-Reiss, a guidance assistant at Solana Highlands School, said that through forming relationships at school, she has seen students advocate for themselves, reaching out when they need help.

“I love my job. Helping students with social emotional learning is so rewarding,” Romero-Reiss said. “After seven years in this position, I’ve seen the power of connection and relationships and I know how long that can take to build. I believe our students both need and deserve social emotional support on a full-time basis.”

Schade said when the district makes staff allocations she would like to see a school counselor at every site and if the school has a larger enrollment, they might need more than one.

“I have been able to witness what the staff is doing with these kids and I’ve seen what a full-time counselor can do at a site in a very short period of time. I’m hoping that’s the direction we’re moving,” Schade said. “It can’t be a financial decision, it has to be a decision that puts the kids first. And I think any other decision that doesn’t staff appropriately at these sites is doing a disservice to these kids.

The mental health challenges that these kids are facing and the lives that they’re living, if we don’t do it when they’re in our hands at K-6, we’re missing the boat.”

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