2014-01-24 / Health & Wellness

Schools address kids’ emotional health

Counselors, psychologists offer help
By Stephanie Sumell

School is more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

Most students will spend more waking hours in their classroom than at home, which is why educators spend so much time helping students cope with the gamut of complex educational, social and emotional issues children and teens face every day.

To meet the specific needs of the hundreds of students who pass through her door in a given year, Linda Rice, a school psychologist for the Moorpark Unifi ed School District since 1992, said she has learned that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to helping kids find their way.

“Variability and change are the constants in my day-to-day job,” Rice said. “What I have planned or am required to do can change in an instant.”

That was the case last month when the psychologist visited the Moorpark High School campus to help students cope with the death of one of their fellow students.

A 16- year- old sophomore took his own life after leaving what authorities had described as a threatening note in the school’s front office.

The event spurred a campuswide lockdown and hour-long search for the boy by police.

The next day, school psychologists and school counselors met with students individually and in groups to address the initial mental and emotional impacts of the incident—the beginning of a long and painful process.

“The entire school and district staff came together to support the students,” Rice said. “It brought to light the fact that Moorpark is still a small community where people pull together when tragedy occurs.”

Although school psychologists’ and school counselors’ duties can overlap—especially in the instance of a schoolwide tragedy—their jobs are not the same.

School counselor

Alfonso Ruiz, one of four fulltime school counselors at Moorpark High School, said he works somewhat “behind-the-scenes” to address students’ social, emotional and academic needs.

“My job is to support the students,” Ruiz said. “In addition to meeting with students, (I) collaborate with teachers, meet with parents, facilitate parent-teacher conferences, create and present classroom presentations and participate in all Individualized Education Program (meetings).”

Unlike Rice, who may travel to multiple schools in a single day, Ruiz spends the bulk of his time on the high school campus.

At the beginning of each of semester, he meets individually with the 550 students to which he is assigned to discuss their transcripts, schedules and specific questions and concerns.

“It’s an opportunity to connect with all of our students,” said the counselor, who earned a master’s degree in educational counseling and pupil personnel services credential from the University of La Verne. “They are assigned to their counselor by alphabet.”

Ruiz helps students prepare for life after high school by making sure they have access to graduation requirements, helping them explore postsecondary options and facilitating in the college application process.

“Every student is different,” he said. “If their goal is to go to college, we’re there to help guide them. If there’s a specific career their interested in, we’re there to help them find the path to get there.”

But Ruiz said his job goes beyond smoothing scheduling conflicts and helping students select a college or career path.

He often meets with at-risk students individually or in groups to help them address social or emotional issues that may be hindering their ability to succeed.

“A major misconception is that all we do is academic counseling and scheduling,” he said. “In reality, the position encompasses so much more.”

School psychologist

Rice is one six school psychologists in the MUSD.

She assesses children for learning, emotional and behavioral issues to ensure they have the appropriate resources and support.

“We are the ones who evaluate children to determine if they are eligible for an Individualized Education Program,” Rice said. “We assess them to determine if there are any medical issues, learning disabilities or emotional disturbances impacting their educational or social functioning at school.”

Rice said she sees an average of two children a day.

“Much of what we do takes many hours of time,” said the psychologist, who earned a master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in school psychology from Cal State Northridge.

Rice said her expertise is farreaching.

“I don’t feel that school staff and parents understand the breadth and depth of school psychologist’s training,” said the psychologist, who earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from the Chicago School of Professional Psychology. “Often, we can be limited to the role of ‘assessor for special education’ only.”

Like Ruiz, Rice helps children cope with social and emotional roadblocks.

The psychologist said she has seen a “significant” increase in anxiety, depression and other mental health issues in children as young as 8.

“(Mental health issues) can have serious, lifelong impacts if left undiagnosed or untreated,” Rice said. “Misdiagnosis is also problematic for these children.”

She said enjoys “ providing parents with answers and guidance to help their children socially, emotionally and educationally.”

“We’re here to help,” she said.

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