Bullies, Divorce and Self-Esteem: Teaching Kids How to Cope

Eye on LSSI, Winter 2012 (Download PDF Download PDF of entire publication)

At the Homework Club, offered by Teen Turf, an after-school program in Amboy, kids like Kaitlyn Stevens, a fifth grader, have a safe place to socialize and do homework. LSSI’s School-Based Services counselor Heidi Oltmanns assists at the center. Credit: Alex PaschalOne boy, a first-grader, is so anxious about school that he gets sick every night — and at school. And a girl has separation anxiety so severe that it prevents her from going to school.

Today, kids bring more to school than just their backpacks. Some have parents with substance abuse issues; others are the targets of bullies; and still others are dealing with anger, grief and a lot of other emotions. And dealing with these life issues is as essential to a child’s success in school as learning multiplication tables.

“Kids need to learn how to cope with the issues that come up in their lives,” says Kris Nielson, supervisor of the School-Based Services program that Lutheran Social Services of Illinois (LSSI) offers at schools in Dixon, Polo and Rock Falls. The program, which is based in Sterling, includes individual and group counseling, crisis intervention, classroom presentations and faculty/staff education.

“We work with kids who are dealing with a wide variety of issues — divorce, stepparents, [the need for] social skills, death and grief. But the underlying thing [that is needed] is coping skills,” she says.

Nielsen says she and the program’s other three counselors do a lot of problem-solving. They help the kids find out what their strengths are and how they can use them to get through difficult situations. “We also identify the child’s support system,” she adds. “We have them list the people in their lives, so that they will think of more than one person to go to if they need help.”

Providing support and teaching skills

The kids come for counseling for a huge array of reasons, says Cynthia Stringer, an LSSI counselor who works with students at four elementary schools in Rock Falls. Some are grieving; some are living with grandparents or other family members; others need to learn social skills, anger management and how to deal with bullies.

The kids are referred by parents, teachers, other counselors or themselves. When a counselor hears about a child who may need help, she visits with the teacher or person who is making the referral to find out why. If the child is under 12 years of age, she will then talk to the parent. If the child is more than 12 years old, the counselor can provide a couple of sessions before calling the parent. “If the parent doesn’t want counseling, we try to link the person or child with outside resources and/or talk with the person who referred the child,” explains Nielsen.

She adds, “The parents are happy this service is provided at the schools, so they don’t have to take the child anywhere else for counseling. And, of course, it’s free to them.”

“The teachers are very appreciative,” Stringer says. “I know they wish they could have [us at the schools more often] but because of money, that’s not feasible.”

Nina Setchell, counselor at Centennial Elementary School in Polo, says she’s surprised at some of the issues she sees in elementary school — stress and anxiety, a lack of social skills and bullying. But, she says, “It’s a lot easier to catch these problems when the children are younger.”

Amy Meridian, secretary at Centennial Elementary, knows the value of the program. Her son, now in second grade, has been seeing Setchell since last year. “He has anxiety issues,” Amy explains. “He was throwing up before and during school, even at night at home. Now that he’s been in the program for two years, he is doing much better. He’s not getting sick, and he is learning to express his emotions properly.”

“Nina [teaches] him — and the other children she works with — coping skills,” says Keri Heeren, principal at Centennial Elementary. “And without those skills, it is hard for those kids to have a lot of academic success.”

“I can’t teach a kid until he or she is socially and behaviorally ready [to learn],” says Jenni Yingling, fifth grade teacher at Centennial. For example, last year she had one student who was missing school because of separation anxiety. After counseling, the girl “became surer of herself and started blossoming.”

“We would be lost without the services” LSSI provides, says Heeren. “They are critical. If the kids don’t have the skills they need, they are not going to be productive members of society.”

Classroom presentations, groups help kids learn

In addition to counseling, the program also provides classroom presentations and offers groups for the kids.
Nielsen, who works with a group at the middle school in Rock Falls, says that today a lot of the kids don’t have the opportunities for interactions with people — playing outside, going to Sunday school, etc. — that used to be common. Often, many kids stay home, watching TV and videos rather than playing with other kids.

To help kids develop needed social skills, Nielsen has a “Second Step” group that discusses such things as managing emotions, what to do about bullying and who a child can go to for help. “We work to identify what the kids can do in different situations,” Nielsen says, “and to practice skills to handle those situations.”

Generally, the groups meet once a week from 30 to 50 minutes, depending on the kids’ ages. Nielsen has 13 kids in her group, which meets for 50 minutes once a week, while Stringer has five kids in a K-2 group at Dillon School who meet for 30 minutes once a week to work on social skills. Most of these students will stay in the group for a semester — or maybe even the entire school year — depending on what they need. Nielsen’s Second Step group has a 15-week curriculum, so after it’s over, another group starts.

During a weekly social skills group at Centennial School in Polo, LSSI counselor Nina Setchell (left) works with fifth-grader Ericka on an art project focusing on self-esteem. At the beginning of the project, the students said they didn't have positives about themselves to share, but by the time the project was over, they were able to express positives that make them who they are, says Setchell. Credit: Alex Paschal“The nice thing about our program is that what we do depends on what is needed at a particular school,” Nielsen says.

At Dixon High School, a boys group and a girls group are overseen by LSSI counselor Heidi Oltmanns. The focus is learning about healthy relationships. “The group provides a safe place to discuss those issues,” Nielsen says. A counselor from the local YWCA, which has a domestic violence program, and Oltmanns work together with the groups.

The program also offers classroom presentations. For example, Setchell does presentations on school expectations, manners, how to get along and other relevant topics for elementary school students.

Teen Turf focuses on homework

Oltmanns also works at Teen Turf, an after-school program in Amboy that offers a place for children in the third to eighth grades to do homework, as well as to play and have a snack. The “Homework Club” runs from 3:50 to 4:35 p.m. Monday through Thursday.

“The kids are in a nice, safe environment here,” says Oltmanns, adding that everyone — staff and any volunteers — helps the kids with their homework. And both the kids — and their parents — like that.

“I like coming here because there are friendly people,” says eight-year-old Dashad. “I like how I play with my friends and do my homework. Most of all, it is the best place in the whole entire world.”

“I can get my homework done, so I can do whatever I want at home,” says nine-year-old Riley, who has five siblings and parents who are sometimes hard-pressed to help him with his homework. “It is really fun,” he adds.

“It’s a great program,” says Brenda Shaw, a mom. “The kids get their homework done and get to socialize with other students. And I think [my son’s] grades are better when he comes here.”

Funding always an issue

While the need for these programs continues to be great, the funding for them is decreasing.

“We started the program because the schools couldn’t afford social workers,” says Kevin Bercaw, associate executive director of LSSI’s Behavioral Health Services. “At times, we have been able to obtain grants that fund our services, but the number of schools that we work with has dwindled over the last few years. For instance, three years ago the Sterling schools had to make significant cutbacks, and we lost the contract [to provide the services] after 14 years of working with them.”

United Way funding from Lee, Whiteside and Ogle counties helps, too. For example, a grant from United Way pays part of Oltmanns’ salary at Teen Turf, as well as that at Dixon High School.

Overall, Nielsen says, the program provides a much-needed service, but “we keep growing smaller and smaller because of funding cuts and the problems keep growing and getting worse. I would hate to see this program be cut because of funding, because it fills a need for the kids and parents.”

For more information on School-Based Services, call Kris Nielsen at 815/535-7232.