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Teachers at high-poverty schools often struggle with behavior problems caused by students’ mental health issues. One solution is to provide mental health services in schools, as a company formed by two clinical psychologists is now doing in DC.

Education reformers have tended to focus on what goes on inside classrooms, saying that poverty is no excuse for low expectations. Others have countered that teachers can’t be held responsible for solving social ills that inevitably spill over into schools. Some schools, including the KIPP DC charter network, are trying to find a middle ground.

Poor families tend to experience more than their share of violence, mental illness, addiction, housing insecurity, and other challenges. That leads to a high degree of stress, which in turn can cause a host of behavioral and cognitive problems in children. While not all students in high-poverty schools have suffered trauma, the outbursts of a few can disrupt learning for all.

At one KIPP DC elementary school in Ward 7, Quest Academy, some kids “have experienced more trauma by age nine than some of us experience over a lifetime,” according to the school’s founding principal, Cherese Brauer. The Quest community has an even higher rate of poverty-related ills like substance abuse and violence than the school she previously worked at in Anacostia, she said.

While many schools have social workers and even psychologists on staff, they’re often occupied with testing and compliance with special education requirements. They may have neither the time nor the training to deal with traumatized kids. Teachers usually don’t have that kind of training either.

Recently, though, schools across the country have started to adopt a trauma-informed approach to discipline that seeks to reduce suspensions and expulsions. Locally, DC Councilmember David Grosso, chair of the council’s education committee, is convening a public roundtable on trauma-informed schools and support services on June 23.

Psychologists provide therapy and training in schools

Two years ago, realizing their schools needed help with mental health challenges, KIPP DC administrators contracted with a new company called InSite Solutions. The founders, Aaron Rakow and Megan McCormick King, are pediatric clinical psychologists who met while working at Children’s National Medical Center.

Both Rakow and King felt a mission to serve disadvantaged kids and wanted to remove the barriers that kept many poor families from getting help at Children’s. Those included transportation, difficulty following through on a recommended plan of action, and— most fundamentally—the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental health problems. Their goal was, in essence, to build mental health clinics inside schools.

At KIPP DC campuses, Rakow and King train teachers and principals in techniques designed to prevent behavioral problems from arising. They also teach them how to recognize the root causes of problematic behavior and respond appropriately.

Teachers may not understand, for example, “what anxiety looks like in a six-year-old,” says Brauer, whose school worked with InSite Solutions this past year. “He’s not just going to say, ‘I’m anxious.’”

In addition, Rakow and King train school social workers to work with at-risk kids in group settings. For students with the greatest needs, they provide psychotherapy at the school. A psychiatrist visits each school once a week to provide and oversee medication, if needed. Schools can also use the services of an autism specialist.

Involving and educating parents

InSite Solutions also works closely with parents, involving them in decisions about how to respond to their children’s behavior. Many parents also come to weekly drop-in hours to get advice on how to manage things like bedtimes and struggles over eating.

“They’ll say, ‘the school thinks I’m a bad parent, but I just don’t know what to do,’” says King. In many cases, they’re simply replicating the same approach to parenting their own parents used.

King and Rakow say the fact that they’re providing services in schools has been enormously helpful in removing the stigma associated with seeking treatment for mental and behavioral problems. “It just became a normal part of the day,” says King.

Engaging parents has been particularly important at the Quest campus, which until this school year housed a different charter school, Arts and Technology Academy. Faced with closure for underperformance, ATA chose to have KIPP DC take over the school. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with many parents.

“There was no welcoming committee here,” says Brauer. “They were grieving the loss of the school.”

Brauer says she and her staff also had to transform the school culture into one of high expectations. There were disciplinary issues galore: kids walking out of the building or even trying to jump out a window, and one kid who called 911 after he had punched someone else in the face.

Now, at the end of the school year, Brauer credits InSite Solutions for a marked improvement. “We’ve gone from two to three disciplinary incidents a day to maybe two to three a month, and I’m probably overestimating that,” she says.

Not only are children less stressed, teachers no longer feel they have to shoulder these problems alone, without adequate training.

“I am undergoing an education myself,” Brauer says. “Everyone is getting an education.”

Families pay nothing for the services they receive at the schools, and InSite Solutions charges KIPP DC a surprisingly modest fee: $270,000 a year for all 16 campuses, or under $17,000 per campus. King and Rakow say they keep costs low by employing five senior graduate students in clinical psychology, who receive a small stipend but gain valuable experience and training.

Still, King and Rakow are each personally following about 350 students spread across the KIPP DC network. It sounds like a lot to handle, but they’re eager to take on more schools and reach more kids.

And there’s certainly no shortage of kids, families, and teachers in DC who need their help.

Cross-posted at DC Eduphile.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.