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“It’s the most wonderful time of the year....” or so the song goes. Festive decorations, yummy treats, stores bustling with shoppers and uplifting melodies all set the tone for what is considered the merriest of holidays.
But, for thousands of people, this time of year is a true struggle. Depression and loneliness are common during any holiday season, especially Christmas. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), approximately 24% of people diagnosed with mental illness admit that the holidays actually worsen their condition.
When you couple these already staggering statistics with a pandemic that has plagued our world for the past 10 months, the numbers only get worse.
No one knows and watches these numbers more than those who work in the mental health field. Ashley Ward, LPC and Coordinator of Counseling for Mabank ISD, knows first-hand how difficult helping people navigate through the holidays can be. Even more difficult this year is helping students and their parents get through the holidays amid a COVID pandemic. Students and parents have struggled for months with the stress of extended school closures, the difficulties of navigating virtual learning, and the fear of contracting the virus. The stress that holidays can bring is just another plate on top of a stack that is already teetering.
Ward said she has known for years that working with students and supporting their mental health is her passion. She has shared her vision for Mabank ISD with many of the community groups in the area, including the Cedar Creek Lake Rotary Club, the Kiwanis Club, the MISD School Board and, most recently, the MISD District Educational Improvement Committee.
“It was during my first teaching assignment in the Spring of 1999,” Ward recalls. “I remember standing in front of my classroom teaching the planets to a group of kids about five years younger than me. About half way through the lesson, while they were doing whatever it is they do when it looks like their big sister is leading the class, I was struck.”
Ward said she remembers looking out at her class and being overwhelmed by the realization of what she saw… “that kiddo only eats at school, that one gets beat at home, this guy gets locked in his locker between lunch and the next class period every day, and that one has no friends.”
“At that moment, I realized that until some basic needs were met no one would ever care how many planets there were. It was a real learning experience for me,” Ward said.
It was that experience and realizing that helping students meant building relationships in order to become a difference maker that led her to become a counselor.
Ward began working on her master’s degree in counseling while teaching in Mesquite ISD. After graduation, she landed her first job as a counselor at one of the most “at risk” schools in Mesquite.
“On the first day, I had a suicidal outcry and by day four I had an officer restraining a student in my office,” Ward recalled. “This was my introduction to counseling, a so-called trial by fire. It drove home for me the seriousness of the task that I had taken on as a school counselor.”
It was during her time on this campus that Ward realized she had a calling, or aptitude, for crisis counseling and how important crisis counseling can be in a school setting. She went on to get her LPC and become a crisis counselor in Mesquite ISD.
“Studies show that trauma changes the brain,” Ward explained. “When students experience trauma, they are impacted in a way that changes learning, behavior, and life expectancy.”
Ward cited the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACES) which looked at traumatic childhood experiences (divorce, addiction, abuse, neglect). In this study, researchers gathered data on 17,000 people, over a span of 20 years and discovered that 67% of the American population has experienced at least one traumatic experience in their childhood and that 1 in 8 has experienced 4 or more.
“The study shows that 4 or more traumatic experiences in childhood shortens life expectancy by 20 years, increases the risk of disease and increases the potential for risky behaviors,” Ward explained. “This study forced me to look at what we, as educators, can do on the educational and mental health forefront to change this trajectory.”
It is Ward’s experiences, as well as thousands of other educators, that is spearheading the somewhat new movement for social and emotional learning (SEL) in schools.
Years before there was a pandemic, there were social and emotional discrepancies in learning (socio-economic backgrounds, diverse cultures, abuse, neglect, etc). Educators and mental health workers have been pushing for the need for SEL in schools and touting its benefits: academic achievement, self-regulation, social awareness, building relationships and decision-making to name a few.
“Statistics show that 50% of mental health issues show up by junior high and 75% show up by age 24,” Ward explained. “The problem is that there is an 8-10 year delay in onset of symptoms and formal diagnosis. As school counselors, we want to help shrink that time delay.”
Ward explained that oftentimes the school counselor, while not a therapist, is the only help some students get.
“As counselors it is imperative that we try and shrink that delay from onset to diagnosis,” Ward said. “So, as we begin to see behaviors, or deal with outcries, we need to make connections with the families of our students and help provide them with resources in our area to shorten the time span and help them become healthier, more productive adults.”
School counselors shoulder a myriad of responsibilities: 504 cases, special education referrals, homelessness issues, master scheduling, class scheduling, graduation requirements, college preparation, classroom guidance and testing to name a few. In addition, they provide individual and group counseling.
So, naturally, before implementing any new programs, Ward is ensuring each of the eight counselors in Mabank ISD have plenty of support on their campuses for their already busy schedules.
Ward meets with district counselors monthly for training and to discuss their needs on each campus. She visits campuses regularly to meet with students, advises campuses on frequent consults, and responds whenever a crisis occurs on campus.
“Mrs. Ward has made a positive impact at the high school level,” counselor Kathy Norman said. “Her role allows counselors to come together as a district team and invest in the mental health of our students and staff. She was able to build on some of the responsive services and system supports we had in place and has been extremely supportive and understands the needs of this district.”
In a presentation to the MISD Board of Trustees, Ward addressed the district’s suicide prevention efforts and the district’s suicide protocol.
“Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people ages 10-24, second only to car accidents. Every year 1 in 6 students seriously consider suicide and 1 in 12 attempt,” Ward shared. “Every expert in the field tells us we should only expect those numbers to climb due to COVID.”
Mabank ISD has a protocol in place for when a student makes a suicidal outcry and all staff members are trained in suicide prevention. Campus counselors will ensure that the student, as well as their family, is provided with local mental health resources to ensure their safety.
Mental health resources are just one piece of information available on the new Mabank ISD Counseling Website (https://www.mabankisd.net/page/counseling) that Ward created once she joined the district. In addition to the resource rich web page, Ward also created a new counseling newsletter that goes out quarterly.
“We are fortunate to have Mrs. Ward as a new member of our Mabank ISD team,” Superintendent Brad Koskelin said. “The social and emotional well-being of our students is of the utmost importance. Her knowledge and expertise in this field has added great value to our counseling program and enhanced our ability to address the varied needs of our students.”
Earlier this month, Ward outlined her implementation of the ChangeMaker curriculum with the MISD District Education Improvement Committee (DEIC).
This evidence-based program, from Momentous Institute, aligns with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards and is a Best Practice Model by the Texas Education Agency. The program will be rolled out in grades Kindergarten through 4th in January, 2021.
“This program is designed to help students understand their brain, cope with difficulty, and empower them,” Ward explained. “Basically, it helps create new and healthier neural pathways.”
The ChangeMakers Model addresses five different steps including (1) Safe Relationships, (2) Self-Regulation: brain, breath, body, feelings and impulse control; (3) Awareness of Self: gratitude, optimism, grit, resilience; (4) Understanding Others: perspective taking, empathy; and (5) ChangeMaker: kindness, compassion and hope.
The plan is to start this curriculum on the three elementary campuses after the holidays and roll it up to the Intermediate campus in the 2021-2022 school year. From there, the program will be integrated into a SEL-rich secondary advisory curriculum.
“Rebecca Stephens, MISD Chief Academic Officer, has been instrumental in making student mental health a priority, and paving the way for strengthening our counseling program. She has been incredibly supportive through our SEL curriculum selection process, and in connecting me with district and community leaders to work together for the benefit of our students and their families. I can’t thank her enough,” Ward stated.
One of the most unique pieces of the curriculum is the universal language of the “Flip Your Lid” brain basics.
In the flip your lid training, students learn how the brain works and how behavior is affected in the midst of crisis. Using their own hands, four fingers (prefrontal cortex) folded over their thumb (amygdala), students can learn how the brain works and how to communicate their feelings. This model helps students identify emotions, learn self-awareness, self-regulate, learn about what they are feeling, the levels of their emotions and a variety of coping mechanisms.
Counselors provide age-appropriate classroom advisory activities, one-on-one counseling sessions, future planning and goal setting, and small group sessions or mediations to implement the program on their campuses.
Ward will ensure that counselors receive ongoing staff development to ensure continuity and fidelity for the program. She will also create a district-wide language for self-regulation and care for self and others, along with providing tools for self-regulation and self-care.
“I knew right away that Mabank ISD was a special place. It’s easy to see that our leaders, community, and stakeholders truly care about the well-being of our students, both physical and mental. As counselors, social-emotional health and mental wellness are at the forefront of our minds, and we are committed to equipping, supporting, and empowering our students to overcome the obstacles in their lives, and achieve their personal and academic goals.” Ward said. “I am so thankful to be part of a district and community that supports that vision and the students we are blessed to serve.”
By Tonya Chapman
MISD Communications Liaison
Mabank ISD strives for excellence through trust, integrity, hard work, and proactive communication while providing a safe learning environment.
310 E. Market St. | Mabank, Texas 75147
Phone: 903.880.1300 | Fax: 903.880.1303
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