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.