A world of positive change is taking place inside a classroom at PS 36 elementary school in Harlem. Student’s footsteps echo through the halls as they run into the room where the door is always open to greet Ginelle Wynter, site coordinator for Healthy and Ready to Learn (HRL).
Many mornings, Joseph Peña, a boy of seven with dark brown eyes, visits to tell Miss Wynter about what he’s looking forward to learning that day. And though he barely reaches her waist, his energy and enthusiasm fill the room.
Joseph wasn’t always this excited to come to school. He would cry each day after drop-off until his teacher could finally calm him. Separation was difficult, and school didn’t feel quite as comfortable as home.
One day in the cafeteria, Joseph and another student got into an argument and exchanged threatening words. A very concerned Ms. Peña met with the principal who mentioned that Joseph might benefit from the HRL program’s counseling sessions.
Mental health counseling is one of several HRL initiatives implemented in PS 36 to combat health barriers to learning (HBLs). These common, manageable health conditions identified by Children’s Health Fund can keep kids from doing well in school, which could set them back for life. The counseling program at PS 36 focuses on helping students with their emotional challenges. With one in five school- aged children affected by a mental health condition, these in-school supports are becoming more essential. They help kids like Joseph, who have trouble focusing and controlling emotions that can cause them to struggle both in and outside the classroom.
Since the counseling occurs in the classroom, parents don’t have to miss any work or adjust their schedules, and children don’t miss appointments because of transportation challenges.
Before counseling, Joseph had a hard time paying attention and had trouble managing his time, which often caused him added stress. Excited by having multiple things on his plate, homework, studying, and bath-time, he found it difficult to calm down. During the counseling sessions, Joseph received an individualized plan and eventually, coping strategies. These include things like breathing, mindfulness, mantras, visualization strategies, reminders of pleasant memories, and use of soft or textured toys/items.
Joseph also discovered time management, and a newfound ability to compartmentalize his daily activities leading to significant improvements in his life. Ms. Peña notes that when he’s doing an activity, her son is fully engaged, not thinking about homework or play time, because he has learned how to treat them as separate activities that each have their moments. Joseph now tells his mom that “Everything has its own time,” words that are wise beyond his seven years.
After a year in the program, Joseph is better able to connect with others as well. Once easily irritable when playing with his 6-year-old sister, Jocelyn, Joseph is now a patient older brother and role model.
When discussing Joseph’s dreams for his future, Ms. Peña lights up. “Joseph wants to be a basketball player,” she notes. Through counseling, Joseph now has the tools to interact better with others and she is optimistic that he will realize his potential to tackle all things teamwork. “I hope that every child can learn what my son has: how to manage his emotions and time.”