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Students’ Anxiety Leads to Changes in Counseling

  • (Shawn Braley illustration)



Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, November 26, 2018

Growing up in the Northeast Kingdom, James Reinstein watched friends and neighbors resort to alcohol and drugs to soothe their anxieties because they didn’t have anywhere else to turn. Unable to help, he didn’t forget.

Last year, Reinstein co-founded We R H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People Everyday), a nonprofit organization that specializes in treating anxiety and that partners with area schools to help young people access the mental health resources they need. He’s now a familiar face around Windsor School, coaching students through the daily difficulties of school life as well as the thornier problems that can impede a student’s progress and lead to destructive behaviors.

“Our belief is that anxiety is the root of many behaviors,” said Reinstein, who currently works with about 10 students at the school, ranging from first to ninth grades. Rather than focusing on problematic behaviors, he and the other We R H.O.P.E. coaches stationed in each of the Windsor Southeast Supervisory Union’s four schools, try to peel back the layers and find the source. “What’s behind the behavior?” he said.

Reinstein’s presence represents a new approach to counseling services at the school: outsourcing with clinically trained providers to support the growing number of students dealing with anxiety-related problems.

“We’ve noticed a huge increase in students who were having challenges within the school day. Lots of anxiety. Lots of trauma,” said Tiffany Cassano, principal of the Windsor School, a K-12 school that serves Windsor students as well as tuition students from West Windsor, Weathersfield, Hartland and Cornish. “Students who are experiencing trauma, it impacts their ability to take in information and retain information ... we’re seeing less student engagement.”

The causes of such widespread and acute anxiety within the student population range from the negative influences of technology to increasingly demanding schedules to difficulties at home, Cassano said. Abuse of opioids and other drugs and alcohol by family members definitely rank among those difficulties, she said.

School administrators at first planned to hire a fourth full-time counselor to supplement Windsor School’s mental health staff, which also includes a behavior specialist and classroom-based social-emotional specialists. But ultimately, they decided they needed to take a more clinical approach to the more serious issues they were observing, Cassano said.

“We needed to try something a little more specific, a little more targeted toward the needs that we had,” she said.

Some school districts contract with local mental health service providers to augment their own services. For Windsor School, like many schools in rural communities, this wasn’t an option. “We just really don’t have a clinician in the area,” Cassano said. The supervisory union, which includes the K-6 Albert Bridge School in Brownsville, Hartland Elementary School and Weathersfield School, both K-8 schools, in addition to the Windsor School, does have a staff psychologist, but access can be a problem, she said.

The contract with We R H.O.P.E. is designed to fill those gaps.

Reinstein and co-founder Sean Perry, who both worked as program managers at a New Hampshire treatment center for teens prior to starting We R H.O.P.E., designed their program as a vehicle to bring not just their expertise but the concept of a residential counselor into public schools, where they could help more young people. The organization currently has contracts with eight area schools, including Rivendell Academy in Orford and Claremont Middle School. The Windsor School pays $8,400 per month for Reinstein’s services, or $35 per student per day.

“The big benefit of it is really meeting students where they’re at,” said Reinstein, who meets daily with the students assigned to him and makes himself available to them when specific needs arise.

When he first meets with a student, Reinstein puts the focus squarely on his or her goals. “It’s about validating their feelings and making them really feel heard … It’s not what the teachers want. It’s not what their parents want,” he said. More often than not, students want the same things their parents and teachers want for them, whether that be improved attendance or fewer disciplinary problems in class, Reinstein said, but the desire to change needs to come from within.

Students, especially younger ones, also need help locating the sources of their feelings and behaviors, Reinstein said. When a student comes to him exhibiting anxiety or some kind of distress — or has been involved in an incident that suggests she is under stress — Reinstein walks her back through the past day or days to help her determine what’s really bothering her. He then brainstorms viable solutions, keeping the student in the driver’s seat.

“I remind them, you can’t control someone else but you can control you,” he said. “We talk about how we can give them their power back.”

The method appears to be working. “I’m constantly hearing from counselors and teachers who say students are paying attention better, asking for help better,” Cassano said.

By taking anxiety seriously, the school hopes not just to improve academic performance and curb incidents that directly affect the classroom but to help prevent a range of high-risk behaviors.

For example, 14 percent of high school students reported using illicit drugs in 2017, and another 14 percent reported misusing prescription opioids, according to the Center for Disease Control’s latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Seventeen percent of high school students — and 22 percent of high school girls — said they’d seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

The 2018 report also emphasizes the role schools play in addressing these behaviors.

Many schools are dealing with an uptick in anxiety and trauma-related issues that fall outside the purview of a school counselor, said Bill Scarlett, school counselor at Central Elementary School in Bellows Falls, Vt., and a member of the Vermont board of Allied Mental Health Practitioners.

Along with contracting with local mental health providers to offer long-term therapy for kids with serious anxiety and trauma, schools are increasingly trying to equip young people to navigate the crises they encounter.

“We do a lot around mindfulness,” said Scarlett, who has offered presentations on counseling in rural settings at state and national conferences. “We try to provide kids with different skills to keep themselves calm and deal with stress.”

Naturally, providing a sufficiently robust mental health system within the school comes at a cost. One of the ways We R H.O.P.E. tries to make itself affordable to schools is by offering training to school faculty so they can employ effective methods for coaching young people through the anxieties that arise in the school day.

Partnering with schools is not without its challenges. In September, the New Hampshire Department of Education cut funding for the We R H.O.P.E. program at Claremont Middle School, which was funded by a federal grant, explaining that it could not support a program that was not “evidence based.” While the coaching methods We R H.O.P.E. uses are not strictly evidence-based, they are built on cognitive behavior therapy, a widely accepted and effective practice, Reinstein said.

After the community learned that the program had been cut, a local donor came forward and restored $10,000 of the original $45,000 contract. We R H.O.P.E. is trying to stretch the funds so they can complete the school year as planned. Co-founder Perry said he plans to meet with school administrators soon to determine how the relationship may proceed long-term. He hopes to court additional donors to fill in the gaps between what Claremont students need and what its school district can afford.

The Windsor Southeast Supervisory Unit, meanwhile, has embraced the We R H.O.P.E. model. The program isn’t a magic bullet, Cassano said, but it enhances the support system available to students. “It breaks down the barriers in terms of kids actually having access,” she said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at searle@vnews.com or 603-727-3268.