Experts say the in-class integration of behavioral health specialists – rare in Connecticut schools — is helpful in identifying and averting potentially more serious anti-social behaviors.
In the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting, in which 20 children and six adults were killed, there has been much talk about the need for improved mental health services to identify and treat vulnerable children before it’s too late.
The classroom interventionist program at the Church Street School in Hamden is part of a larger pilot initiative called the Educational Care Collaborative, which aims to improve behavioral health services. Much as children with learning disabilities are given in-class aides, the program assigns interventionists to classrooms where children have mental health challenges.
The goal of the interventionist position, says Howard Hornreich, principal of the Church Street School, “is to increase time for teachers to provide direct instruction by supporting children’s social and emotional needs in the classroom setting. Interventionists guide the students in positive behavioral supports so they are successful and remain on task.”
Kathleen Schassler Photo
Susan Mello, Alyssa Ryan and Cody Rayher, grad student-interventionists, review the day’s plan with Joy Fopiano, a psychologist.
ECC’s aim is to provide continuity of care on emotional issues for children and families at home, in school, and within the community. Through at-home site visits, counseling, therapy, parenting classes and more, ECC offers families tools to manage the destabilizing forces that can lead to mental health problems. The use of classroom interventionists, which is now in place in three Church Street classrooms, is just one element of this program.
“I 100-percent believe in the [classroom interventionist] program. I think it should be universal,” said interventionist Galluzzo. Her enthusiasm is based partly on an experience she had with a third-grade girl.
One day, while observing the class, a student caught Galluzzo’s attention. The girl pulled Galluzzo’s hair and called her names. Then she got up and started dancing in the middle of class. She made sexual gestures and used a pencil to pantomime injecting drugs into her forearm.
“I saw a lot of things the teacher couldn’t because her back was turned,” Galluzzo says. After class, Galluzzo talked with the teacher about the student. They sought out the school psychologist, who ordered a psychological evaluation of the child; serious emotional disturbances were identified. Now the student is receiving mental health services in school, and her mother has requested that her daughter be seen by a doctor so she can receive additional services outside of school.
“No matter how you cut it, the teacher’s primary goal is teaching and learning in the classroom. There’s no way she or he can reach all those kids. Even a psychologist or a social worker is only there once a week. I just think it’s incredibly valuable,” Galluzzo says.
Church Street kindergarten teacher Andrea Livolsi says the change was immediate when an interventionist came to her classroom. “We team teach. She handles the behaviors while I teach. She works one-on-one with the children so I can focus on the whole group,” she said.
ECC, funded by the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven with a multi-year $225,ooo grant, was launched in 2008 by Dr. Eric Arzubi, a child and adolescent psychiatry fellow at the Yale Child Study Center, and Joy Fopiano, a school psychologist and associate professor of school psychology and counseling at Southern Connecticut State University.
Fopiano says she felt a new treatment model was needed because the mental health needs she was seeing in her students were so acute. “I see the whole gamut,” she says. “A lot of anxiety, attentional difficulties, depression, severe acting-out behaviors, aggression, learning disabilities, cognitive struggles, you name it.”
Fopiano says it’s unusual for psychiatrists and school psychologists to collaborate, “but when Eric and I had a conversation, we realized this was a partnership that could be very beneficial to children.” The aim was to create a program that would offer one-stop services for parents, rather than shunting them from office to office, depending on the service they sought.
A critical aspect of the program, according to Fopiano, is that these services be available at school rather than at a hospital or a mental health facility. “For many people to admit that they struggle with emotional issues is difficult,” she says, “For parents, there can be a real stigma attached to reaching out for help, but through the vehicle of a school, which is such a safe, welcoming place, parents are a lot more comfortable to approach you.”
Church Street, a small, low-income, racially diverse school, was chosen for the pilot program because it was the Hamden school with the highest needs. Fopiano and Arzubi surveyed faculty and held focus group meetings with staff, parents, teachers and administrators to learn whether the children had emotional issues that affected learning, what their emotional issues were, whether they were receiving treatment and how classroom management was being affected. That process was followed by conversations with teachers about what would be most helpful to them.
“They were clear and specific about their desires: help in the classroom.” Fopiano says. As a result, school psychology trainees from Fairfield University and SCSU were recruited, and the “classroom interventionist” was born.
Arzubi says that given data collection challenges, it’s been difficult to get an objective assessment of the program so far, but anecdotally, he says, the reaction has been positive.
“It’s another tool in the tool box to provide integrated care,” he says. “All of our data shows that we are successful, but we’re looking to gather more,” adds Fopiano.
Moving forward, Arzubi and Fopiano hope to expand the school-based health clinic at Church Street and to introduce ECC into two more Hamden schools by next year’s spring semester.
Speaking to the larger issue of mental health awareness and services, Hornreich recalls a health summit that was held at Church Street awhile ago. “We anticipated 30 people, but 185 people showed up, and this was prior to Newtown,” he says. “The need is there.”
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