Colorado’s Children Deserve Better Social Emotional Support

“Sam, what is wrong?” I ask as my six-year-old student hangs his head during writing, tears streaming down his face.  It’s the morning after the midterms. Sam’s got his hands covering his face and he’s barely nodding to communicate.

Sam has a history of emotional trauma.  His biological mother abandoned him and he has ADHD. He goes from manic moments of bouncing off the walls to quiet moments like this where he can’t articulate what he’s feeling.  His day is a constant battle between attempting to control his emotions and understanding what those emotions are or why he feels them.

He is not the only one in the classroom struggling, either.

Children today are walking roads that some adults struggle to walk straight. They’ve got emotions to sift through, social situations to navigate, and academic standards to keep up with. In short, kids―and I’m talking even the youngest of children―have the weight of the world on their shoulders and they don’t know how to cope.

As I reflect on the opponents arguments regarding the failed Amendment 73 in Colorado make claims that we shouldn’t write blank checks to school districts without education reform that promises growth and achievement, all I can do is sigh. As a teacher, I know that education reform does not need to look like more standards, tests, and measurements. Instead, education reform requires the social emotional supports to help children reach their greatest potential in all areas of their lives. Educators in Colorado are advocating for more than blank checks. We need funding to provide foundational supports to children like Sam so they are ready to learn. Since 2008, Colorado has spent $60 million in grants, from the Colorado School Counselor Corps, to hire 270 counselors and provide professional development at 365 low-income middle and high schools. And still, many schools don’t have access to a single school counselor. And a single counselor is not even sufficient. Schools need multiple counselors or a full-time licensed therapist on staff to help students manage the issues they are facing.

Do we want students to rise and be able to understand, access, and achieve rigorous content? Absolutely. If that’s the case, we need to increase our funding to schools to provide those supports and work with other state agencies to collaborate on providing and finding those specialists. In San Luis Valley, for example, there has been an exemplary effort of collaboration in order to provide resources across agencies to meet the needs of students and communities. The Southeast Health Group as well as the local Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) have teamed up to create a liaison position between families, schools and mental health resources. Using the Whole School, Whole Child, Whole Community model, they have worked to provide resources in a more cohesive way.

Funding is unfortunately a very real and present issue. However, with innovation, collaboration and creativity like these agencies have achieved, we could make an impact in a student’s emotional well-being and set them up to achieve at high levels.

There are several ways we could work toward better supporting our students’ social emotional needs. Creating stronger partnerships between community health agencies and school districts is a crucial next step in this process. This would allow trained mental health professionals to have access to students whose families may not have the means to get them the help they need. Another solution would be expanding our state’s School-Based Mental Health Professional Grant program. Growth of this program would give districts a means to hire a professionally-trained mental health specialist to be in the building. The final way I believe we can better support students, is through implementing and then following recommendations from the ASCA (American School Counselor Association) which calls for a counselor to student ratio of 1:250.

I know how even just one of these added supports can help struggling students, because I’ve seen the impact on students like Sam.

That morning as we sat down to write, Sam struggled to regulate his emotions. It was clear that he wasn’t going to be able to complete any assignment at the moment. Fortunately for him, our district implemented a health initiative and was able to, for the first time, splurge for a school counselor. After seeing the counselor, Sam spent time collecting himself and sorting through his emotions. Later that morning, he was able to return to class ready to learn. Since making use of this school counselor position, I have been able to focus more on teaching academics while letting a professional help struggling students learn to be successful. My hope is that all schools and districts would be able to support students in this way.

Paige Dulaney teaches 1st grade in a single track school in rural Northeast Colorado.  She is a 2018-19 Teach Plus Colorado Teaching Policy Fellow.

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