Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Partnerships Strengthen Community: Focusing on Social and Emotional Learning in Local Schools

With their hands resting on the piece of paper in front of them, everyone closed their eyes and awaited instructions. Tara Lawyer, a School-Based Behavior Consultant (SBBC) from Northwestern Counseling & Support Services (NCSS), delivered sloppy and ambiguous directions, quickly moving from one ask to another, while eyeing the hesitant participants. They folded and unfolded, creased and pressed.

Some giggled at their gross misunderstanding of the task; others sighed in exasperation and quit folding their papers altogether. Murmurs could be heard throughout the room.

“I can’t follow along.”

“What did she say?”

“That doesn’t make sense.”

“Okay, open your eyes,” said Lawyer.

With raised eyebrows, one participant reviewed his amorphous creation. “What is it?”

“You were making a frog!” Lawyer said. She proudly displayed her cute little frog, perched on the palm of her hand. The point of the exercise was to understand what a student might be feeling in a classroom when they don’t understand the directions, can’t follow along or they feel their work is all wrong.

Even for those working with kids every day, it can be easy to forget what it feels like to be a student in a classroom, muddled and diffident. Many of us—as adults—have vast experience with frustration and failure, but it’s countered by years of success, collaboration, and support; we know what it feels like to come out on the other side.

“I knew it wasn’t important, but I felt anxiety anyway,” said one of the participants whose folded paper looked more like a crumpled ball than a frog. “I wanted to get it right.”

Others said they would have done better if the directions were repeated, if Lawyer spoke more slowly, or if people around them were quiet. Lawyer and her presenting partner, Colleen Pastina, both SBBC at Enosburg and Swanton Elementary respectively, nodded their heads in agreement to the participants’ frustrations.

This particular training, attended by para-educators, administrators and special educators and titled Effective Communication, was one of several trainings offered on October 19, 2017. In total, there were eight trainings ranging from an introduction to Applied Behavior Analysis, Trauma, Characteristics of Autism Spectrum Disorder, the Impact of a Disability on Families, to specific strategies for working with students in public schools. In all, 155 individuals from 13 schools engaged in learning activities with their professional peers. “The community response to these free trainings was so tremendous, we had to split the trainings into three separate locations,” says Amy Irish, team leader for the School-Based Behavior Consultant Team at NCSS. “Discussion has already begun with school administrators for how to continue to broaden the scope of this type of collaboration in the near future.”

The presentations were facilitated by NCSS employees from the School Based Behavior Consultant Team, School Based Autism team, and the Collaborative Achievement Team, all teams that are integrated in schools across Franklin and Grand Isle Counties. The 2017-2018 school year marks the seventeenth year that NCSS has partnered with schools in the area. “The partnership that has developed between NCSS and the schools in Franklin Northeast is something we feel is making a real difference for our students and families,” says Lynn Cota, superintendent of Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union. “We are living and working in a time when children and families need more support than ever,” she says.

As a SBBC, Lawyer may provide behavior consultation to both classroom teachers and support staff. She acts as a resource in a variety of ways, whether it is a minor adjustment or a long term intervention with a learner. A behavior plan may be created by a SBBC like Lawyer when particular needs of a student are identified. A student may need to work toward sitting still in the classroom, entering the classroom appropriately, or using a respectful tone of voice and staying safe. Teachers, parents, administration, support staff and the guidance department then collaborate to assure the best possible outcome. “This position allows me to share knowledge with others and build capacity of social and emotional development in an ever-changing learning environment,” says Lawyer.

Ginger Miles works in an alternative kindergarten classroom for a couple hours of the day, then moves on to small group instruction for third and fifth grade. A few times a week, she works one-on-one with a third grader on specific skills. In her position, she has come to appreciate and rely on Lawyer at Enosburg Elementary. “Tara is very much a part of the Hornet culture,” says Miles. “She is out and about in the school, always checking in with students and staff.” Miles says Enosburg has always been incredibly supportive; the behavior plans created by Lawyer add another layer of support and consistency.

“These interactions have fostered inclusion for me within the school. I appreciate being a part of a tight knit community,” says Lawyer. “One of the many things that I love at Enosburg is the staff’s desire to learn and support each student in the best way possible. There are so many opportunities for success and small victories every single day.”

From left to right, top to bottom: Dan Bebernitz, SBBC at Swanton Elementary; Amy Irish, Team Leader for the School-Based Behavior Consultant Team; Carrie Hatch, SBBC at Sheldon Elementary; Tara Lawyer, SBBC at Enosburg Elementary; Sarah Tebbetts, SBBC at Berkshire Elementary; Sierra Smith, SBBC at Highgate Elementary; Colleen Pastina, SBBC at Swanton Elementary

Irish commends Franklin Northeast Supervisory Union for being such an innovative community partner, continually pushing NCSS to evolve in the relationships with partners and in the supports to children and families. “This partnership has resulted in the development of new and creative initiatives that focus on prevention and resiliency for all students,” says Irish. While NCSS employees are based within school settings, the ultimate goal is for those staff to become truly integrated as part of the school team.

“Not only does NCSS provide high quality support for children demonstrating extraordinary levels of need within the school setting,” says Cota, “they also provide our faculty and staff with training and resources to help us all better understand how best to support children with behavioral and mental health needs in the classroom.” The partnership that NCSS shares with local schools represents an understanding of the importance of academics as well as behavioral and mental health needs, notes Lawyer. Many students have experienced trauma or have mental health needs; it is important to emphasize the significance of social and emotional learning in the academic setting.

The common goal for NCSS and for our local schools is to provide the best possible outcomes for local students. Working together, through integrated partnerships, allows for everyone’s expertise to be utilized in difficult situations. “It’s not fair to ask one person to be responsible for raising a child, to make sure their experiences are positive and healthy,” says Riley Benway, CAT Behavior Consultant and a presenter at the October 19th trainings. Through partnerships with agencies like NCSS and our local schools, we are a bit closer to assuring local students have the best opportunities possible.

“It’s up to all of us,” says Benway.

Written by Meredith Vaughn



NCSS values all the partnerships in our community. Below are the schools NCSS has partnered with in a variety of capacities:

Alburgh Elementary

Bakersfield Elementary

Berkshire Elementary

BFA Fairfax (Elementary)

BFA Fairfax (Middle/High)

BFA St. Albans

Enosburg Elementary/Middle/High School

Fairfax Elementary

Fairfield Elementary

Georgia Elementary

Highgate Elementary

Montgomery Elementary


Richford Elementary/Middle/High School

Sheldon Elementary

St. Albans Town (SATEC)

Swanton Elementary