Schools try early intervention, so troubled kids become healthy teens

'Peer relationships' top mental health concerns among kids

Increased attention to mental health among elementary students will pay dividends when students are older, providing coping skills when problems arise, says the director of a local counseling organization.

Liz Schoeben, executive director of CASSY (Counseling and Support Services for Youth), said her agency's presence in six Palo Alto elementary schools is an outgrowth of such an effort by the Palo Alto school district.

"We'd been reacting and reacting to the high school kids, so they (the district) decided to take a step back and see how we could help these families prior to that 14-year-old."

Early counseling, she said, arms kids with coping skills and also teaches them how to ask for help if they need it.

Schoeben's three-year-old agency, which emphasizes on-campus presence by licensed or post-graduate therapists, works not only in Palo Alto elementary schools but also with K-12 students in Los Gatos, K-8 students in East Palo Alto and high school students in Milpitas.

Part of CASSY's budget was provided through a $15,000 grant from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund.

Peer relationships, including bullying, topped the list of concerns among students who saw on-campus mental health counselors at six Palo Alto elementary schools during the 2011-12 school year.

Other concerns for K-5 Palo Alto students, in descending order, were social skills, anxiety, anger and impulse control and parent divorce, according to CASSY records.

School-based programs are particularly effective because counselors easily can observe children on the playground or in the classroom, said Schoeben, a therapist who has worked in Los Angeles and Seattle as well as at Menlo-Atherton High School.

"There's no fee, and we have a team -- we know the teachers, the parents. We see the kids in their natural, day-to-day environments.

"That's different than if I see a kid in private practice at 4 p.m., and I don't know what they look like at school."

Students can be referred for counseling by anyone, but it's typically teachers, principals or school psychologists. Parental permission is required.

"Most of the kids we see are not having a good time. Something is not working in elementary school. We start with observations in class and on the playground," she said.

"If you don't involve the parents you're not going to get anywhere. We provide individual and group counseling to the kids but also support for the parents."

CASSY currently works in 16 Bay Area schools, but that number will rise to 24 in January due to a new contract that will expand services in Milpitas.

Most of CASSY's annual budget, which Schoeben said will approach $1 million due to the new contract, is paid for by school districts.

"If districts value it, they'll fund it, and we want to be just as important and valued as special education, guidance counselors and everything else," she said.

Services at Costano Elementary/Forty-Niner Academy in East Palo Alto are covered by a government grant, and Palo Alto's $170,000 program comes from a combination of school district and site funds, she said.

"I make up the differences with grants like the one from the Palo Alto Weekly Holiday Fund -- without that grant we wouldn't be able to be in all the schools we're in," she said.

In six Palo Alto elementary schools during the 2011-12 school year, CASSY assessed 160 students, provided 1,461 "therapeutic sessions," 866 staff consultations, 545 parent consultations, five student presentations and six staff presentations, according to a year-end report.

Fifty-four percent of the students served were girls. Forty-eight percent were Caucasian; followed by 21 percent who were Latino; 15 percent who were Asian and 10 percent who were African American, the report said.

This year CASSY therapists in Palo Alto are working at Duveneck, Escondido, Juana Briones, Nixon, Ohlone and Walter Hays.

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Like this comment
Posted by One parent's perspective
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2012 at 11:24 am

This sounds very well intentioned (as it is), and indeed quality early intervention is critical to the mental health of our children. This also is the report of one perceptive.

Do the parents with children receiving services feel they are making a beneficial impact? What is the dropout rate from the CASSEY services and for what reasons? Have principals received formal complaints?

How is CASSEY partnering with Project Cornerstone and/or Project Safety Net, and pulling together as a community?

Quality of efforts are important, not just the quantity of cases. Our children today have more academic, social, extracurricular and familial pressures on them from an early age than we have ever seen before. There is another perspective to this story that was left unturned, that of the parent and child.

Like this comment
Posted by Another parent's perspective
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Nov 24, 2012 at 11:35 am

To read a few quotes from parent and student surveys, you can check out the Palo Alto page on CASSY's web site.

Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by seasoned parent
a resident of Community Center
on Nov 24, 2012 at 1:15 pm

One Parent's questions seem important. I went to the website as suggested by Another Parent, but the quotes look like marketing materials. Does anyone know the answer to One Parent's questions?

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 24, 2012 at 3:40 pm

CASSY - please hook up with Barron Park Elementary School.

Like this comment
Posted by infighting
a resident of Adobe-Meadow
on Nov 24, 2012 at 6:37 pm

CASSY has made the terrible mistake of existing which has put it into direct competition with ACS. ACS is seen as a "partner" with PAUSD, and the wagons have been circled against CASSY, who are supposedly outsiders. CASSY has a slightly different model, that involves using therapists with more training than ACS counselors, who have not even graduated from college. That's supposed to be CASSY's value added. I have no idea which is better -- they are probably both about the same. But the attacks on CASSY coming from the PSN leadership indicate that they have buddies in ACS and are not interested in whether or not CASSY might or might not be better -- they just want the contract for their "partner" to be renewed indefinitely. Maybe ACS is better, maybe CASSY is-- probably neither is as good as an actual commitment to youth well-being coming from the schools themselves. But we should be worried about having the best services not about whether someone will be upset about being criticized or having their friends get or not get a contract. We should investigate what is best and do that. I don't know which organization is better but that is the one I want. Please find out and make a contract with whomever is more effective. This isn't about "partners" and "friends" it's about helping kids.

Like this comment
Posted by more the merrier
a resident of Crescent Park
on Nov 24, 2012 at 10:57 pm

I'm tired of all the focus on the secondary schools. Very few recent reviews, if any have been done for elementary schools and I welcome this initiative.
The elementary school teachers are very pro-active in recommending students for counselling and, in some cases, overly cautious. Nothing necessarily wrong with that since it's better to err on that side.
I haven't seen any "circling of wagons" and most elementary school parents and teachers recognize the value add. I'd like to see more of the district's funds directed to elementary schools in this area.

Like this comment
Posted by more please
a resident of Esther Clark Park
on Nov 25, 2012 at 9:11 am

A lot of mental problems in children do not show up until adolescence, which is why there is all the focus there.

However, we personally found ACS to be rather superficial in their counseling, making them basically useless. CASSY sounds like it is more in-depth, and therefore more effective.

For any mental evaluaton, or intervention, the earlier the better, for optimum results.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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