The Other 60 Percent

Animal therapists provide solace, training

Amy Pickett and Basil operate as a team. Photo by John Johnston, courtesy of the Colorado Health Foundation

The little girl had lost a parent to cancer, and the pain was so great she could not speak of it. Not to anyone – except Basil.

Slowly, over several sessions, the story of the girl’s crushing loss was whispered into Basil’s soft ear. And Basil, a 6-year-old golden retriever, never failed to be a good listener.

“Basil hears many different types of stories,” said Amy Pickett, a mental health therapist at Sheridan Health Services, the school-based health clinic at Sheridan Middle School in the Sheridan school district.

She’s also Basil’s owner and co-worker.

“He gets lots of kids that have experienced a lot of trauma,” she said. “They’re more comfortable talking with him.”

Animals provide physical, mental health therapy

Basil is part of a growing cadre of animals who are using their unique skills to provide both physical and mental health therapy to children. Animal-assisted therapy began to emerge in the 1990s, and today is a widely-recognized specialty. The University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, for example, home of the Institute for Human-Animal Connection, now offers a certificate program in animal-assisted therapy.

Pickett believes Basil – who was trained through the Delta Society – is the only credentialed therapy animal actually working in a school-based health clinic in Colorado. But across the state, many school therapists do connect children to off-campus animal-assisted therapeutic programs whenever possible.

Horses for Change brings youngsters to the Gunnison rodeo grounds to work with horses to help build a variety of skills.

“Whether it’s dogs or horses or rabbits, there is something about animals that brings out for most people – especially children – their softer side. They open up our hearts,” said Amanda Graham, program supervisor of the Gunnison office of the Midwestern Colorado Center for Mental Health, which provides mental health services in a six-county area of southwest Colorado.

Graham, a Licensed Professional Counselor, also works with Horses for Change, a Gunnison-based horse therapy program that specializes in trauma, anxiety, grief and loss in children as well as adults.

In the past year, Horses for Change worked with 45 to 50 local children at the Gunnison rodeo grounds, most of the youngsters having been referred by school professionals. Horses for Change is one of at least 15 programs in Colorado affiliated with the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

“For a child whose heart may have been broken, having that unconditional love, that interaction with a creature that’s not judging them is so powerful,” Graham said. “Animals give complete, instant feedback. They don’t mince words. They don’t lie. Most children don’t either. They operate on levels that are very much alike.”

More than a warm hug

Beyond simply being a furry friend to hug, therapy animals are often used to teach socially awkward children desired behaviors. Graham, for example, has a whole series of on-the-ground horse-related activities – none of which involve actually riding an animal – that she uses with young clients.

The whole idea is to set up activities such as catching and haltering a horse that reflect the challenges children meet in their day-to-day lives, she said.

“Many people liken this to a ropes course, where you learn cooperation and to face your fears. It’s the same with horses,” she said. “Horses pick up our non-verbal language. If we’re being disruptive or not paying attention, horses will react to that. They reflect our own behavior to us. So if a boy is standing there in tears because the horse keeps walking away, that gives us the opportunity to say ‘What could you do differently? What’s working and what’s not?’ ”

Basil does the same thing with students in Sheridan. He’s especially good at teaching disruptive children about boundaries, Pickett said.

“I’ll ask a kid to teach Basil to sit,” she said. “They’ll work with him teaching him tricks, which Basil of course already knows. But if they try to crowd Basil, he won’t do what they ask. And that parallels their everyday life.”

Pickett said Basil is also good at working with children’s parents.

“When parents come in, and they’re experiencing stress, they’ll pet Basil and they’ll feel much more comfortable and at ease talking to me.”

And, at luck would have it, Basil’s “office” is right across the hall from the clinic treatment room where children go to get immunization shots. The dog also helps out there a lot too.

“If a kid is screaming, I’ll come in there with him, and they hug him and pet him. It helps them be less traumatized by the shots,” Pickett said.

Potential downsides: allergies, liability issues

Certainly not all school-based health clinics are likely to get animals like Basil. Allergies may be an issue in some schools, as is liability insurance. Pickett has been able to successfully negotiate both those potential challenges for Basil.

“In the three years I’ve been doing this, I can only think of two students who couldn’t see Basil because of allergies,” she said. “And I had one boy who had an allergy but his parents were so supportive of this that he took Benadryl before seeing Basil.”

Pickett also will not allow children with a history of abusing animals to be around Basil.

She likes to encourage pet-less families to think about adopting an animal if they can afford it.

“Pets, in general, can just help so many kids,” she said. “A lot of time, a pet is the one secure being in a child’s life that they can relate to and trust. Having a pet is a healthy, helpful thing in a child’s life.”

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.