School counselors stay positive and proactive

School counselors stay positive and proactive to boost student mental health
Posted on 03/20/2023
This is the image for the news article titled School counselors stay positive and proactive to boost student mental healthIndividual and group counseling. Classroom and school-wide positive-behavior reinforcement programs. Or just a smiling face and positive thought to start the day.

These are just a few of the tactics used by the Piscataway Schools K-8 Counseling Department to help younger students cope with the increasing number of mental health challenges they face every day.

The department is made up of a psychologist/behaviorist at each elementary and intermediate school, and typically a team of three at each middle school consisting of a counselor, social worker, and psychologist. This team is headed up by Dr. Deborah Dawson, district supervisor of K-8 counseling and health services.

Dawson said her staff is a “close-knit group” of mental-health professionals who love their jobs.

“They’re really dedicated to the kids and advocating for the kids,” she said. “I really like to observe my staff.”

School counselor with students
Sara Haarburger, psychologist/behaviorist at Eisenhower Elementary School, at a pep rally for students of the month. Schools use positive-behavior reenforcement programs to encourage students to display positive traits. 

Superintendent Dr. Frank Ranelli said mental health services are critical to making sure students have the resources and support they need when they have an issue.

“It’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to ask for help,” he said. “Our students may be struggling with many life pressures and they need to know that it’s OK to let us know. They need to know that they are not alone.”

A lot of what the K-8 counseling team does is proactive to help students build social emotional skills that help them manage emotions and make good decisions. Giving students these tools can prevent a small issue from becoming a crisis.

Counselors work with teachers and administrators to implement a curriculum to teach students these skills. They also oversee positive behavior systems, such as awarding points that can be cashed in for rewards or naming students of the month for exhibiting traits such as kindness, responsibility, or bravery.

group of school counselors
Piscataway's K-8 Counseling Department. From left are Amy McLaughlin, Nick Kaiafas, Allie Minsinger, Andrew Billups, Cathy Sotolongo, Kelvin Rogers, Uma Patel, Nancy Arvizzigno, Sarah Aboudara, Sara Haarburger, Maria Balint, and Supervisor of K-8 Counseling and Health Services Dr. Deborah Dawson. Not pictured is Mawiyah Husbands.

“Many of the schools have a character trait for each month and the counseling lessons support that,” Dawson said. “When you have everybody in the school working on doing something for someone else, or being kind, or whatever the trait is, even those kids who maybe didn’t listen during the lesson are motivated because they can win their tickets by showing the trait and then trade them in for something.

“So everybody gets onboard and it can really change the climate in the school.”

Starting off the day on the right foot is also important, whether it’s a song during morning announcements or a fist bump as they walk in the door.

“Everywhere I go, the counselor or behaviorist is outside or in the hall greeting kids as they come in,” said Deidre Ortiz, the district’s director of pupil services. “And that is almost constant. Just from that they can get a read on how a student is doing. They know the kids well. Clearly they react, and all schools do that, but I think our guys are really top notch in having the pulse of the building.”

k-8 counseling supervisor
Dr. Deborah Dawson, district supervisor of K-8 counseling and health services.

A huge challenge that students and the counseling staff are continuing to overcome is the toll that the COVID-19 pandemic inflicted on mental health.

“There’s a big lapse in social emotional learning because of COVID, so a lot of kids are still catching up emotionally to their age,” Dawson said. “Last year, we had many more risk assessments. Students are struggling with emotional regulation. We are teaching them these skills, and also responding to support their needs.”

The counseling staff has focused on giving students simple tools to help them regulate their emotions and reactions. A small thing like a “pizza breath” – where a student does a breathing exercise of exhaling slowly like they are blowing on hot pizza – can help calm a student’s emotions.

“There are all sorts of techniques,” Dawson said. “Our counseling staff has taken what they are teaching kids and made it creative. Teach the skills first before things go wrong. Even young kids can learn techniques to do these things.”

school counselor with students
Allie Minsinger is a behaviorist at Quibbletown Middle School, where students can earn points in the areas of kindness, empathy, responsibility, and respect as part of the school's Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports program. 

Of course, if a problem does escalate, the team is ready for that, too. They can perform assessments or provide referrals for mental health services. They also have a strong relationship with The Haven, an outpatient mental health clinic residing in Piscataway High School, operated in conjunction with Rutgers University’s Center for Applied Psychology.

In addition to staying on top of students’ social emotional learning, positive behavior reinforcement, conflict resolution, crisis intervention, and risk assessments, the K-8 counseling staff also acts as liaison for homeless families, specialists for Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) cases, and coordinator of 504 Plans for students with disabilities. Some of the middle school counselors also work with students on class schedules.

“It’s more than just coming and talking with the kids,” Ortiz said. “They do so much more.”