Salyers has served as an educator and school counselor for 17 years, working for La Sierra University and Georgia-Cumberland and Minnesota conferences before moving to Hinsdale, Illinois, in 2019. We explored with Mindy how this out-of-the-box experiment is progressing. —Debbie Michel
Q: Welcome to our Union! Can you begin by talking about how it came about for Illinois to receive this grant for the school counselor role, the first we are aware of for any conference?
A: So, I think it’s important for you to know that this school counselor “role” is technically not a role at all, but rather a project. We have termed the project “school counselor,” as it’s much easier for teachers, parents, and students to understand the services I will provide. The framework and funding for my services are designed around the “Care and Climate Connectedness” proposal that is grant-funded through La Sierra University’s Center for Conflict Resolution and the Versacare Foundation. This project was built on the thinking that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause school disconnect and increase the need for student and teacher care. Although this hypothesis was developed in summer 2020, it has certainly proven true, with a much greater than normal population of teachers, students, and parents in social and emotional crises that need a conference support person to walk beside them in these challenging times. Lori Aguilera, superintendent of education, foresaw the need for additional mental health support during COVID-19 and seized the opportunity to gain a school counselor for the Illinois Conference.
Q: Perhaps you can define for us what a school counselor does. The term seems ambiguous and oftentimes we think of counselors in the high school setting. But you’re catering to a broader age range. What do you do and how does your job differ from elementary to high school-aged populations?
A: In general, a school counselor targets the social and emotional development and well-being of students, putting into place both prevention and intervention services that help support students and ensure their school success. With the growing understanding of mental health, research shows that students cannot perform well academically if they are not healthy emotionally and socially. In general, a school counselor works alongside the teachers, administrators, and parents to provide whole school, classroom, small group, and individual support that can help them work on developmentally appropriate social-emotional growth so they can be successful in school. There are an estimated half-dozen school counselors in NAD schools (all being in Adventist-mecca locations that have a student body of 500+), but this is the only such position that is Conference-wide. This position provides services to all Illinois Conference schools, regardless of size.
Having worked in the elementary, middle school, high school, and collegiate settings, my background allows me to tailor counseling resources to issues that are appropriate for student grade levels. In preschool and elementary, I target topics like tattling, bullying, and mindfulness. Middle-schoolers often need help with study and test-taking skills, navigating social cliques, and developing a sense of self-identity. High school support might take the form of career exploration, college preparation, and credit recovery. Because I love the variety of all three levels, it’s fun for me to customize services to meet the needs of each and every student.
Specific to the Illinois Conference Care and Climate school counseling services, there is a wide variety of support provided. Through a mental health needs assessment, teachers identify specific areas for preventive classroom guidance lessons, targeted “Lunch and Learn” small groups, and at-risk individuals needing weekly one-on-one sessions. Referrals for these services also come from parents and students themselves. Thanks to technological innovation, I spend my days “Zooming” into a number of schools across the state, providing virtual support from my little Chicagoland office.
Q: So, it sounds like the role of the counselor is to help with the nearly limitless variety of concerns that students, parents, teachers, administrators and the school community may have. Sounds like a vital role. Why is it then that we don’t have more school counselors?
A: Thankfully there is a growing denominational awareness that mental health support services are needed for our Adventist schools. However, funding is the primary challenge that stands in the way of each and every school having a mental health professional. It is only through the generosity of the Versacare Foundation and the support of La Sierra’s Center for Conflict Resolution that the Illinois Conference has gained mental health support for its 429 students, 42 teachers, and constituent families. This hopes to be the first of a three-year project, with hopes to eventually extend school counseling services to all Lake Union schools.
Q: As it turns out, you began during a pandemic. We hear news reports of students, especially those doing online learning, really struggling. What challenges are you seeing with students, parents, and teachers?
A: Illinois Conference schools have not been immune to the stress of COVID-19 and are seeing the mental health crises that were foretold by public school data.
Specific to students, over ten percent of the conference’s total enrollment has required intensive mental health support through the Care and Connectedness program. With so many students doing fully online or hybrid learning, this school year has shown a significant increase in students suffering from anxiety and depression. With this sudden and drastic uptick in student mental health crises, I am able to conduct risk assessments with students to determine to assess at-risk individuals for self-injury or suicidal ideation and offer families support in referring for additional treatment programs.
Parents, too, are struggling with how to support their children during this time. In addition to a monthly “Kid Connection” parent newsletter that goes to all Adventist families of conference schools, I am available for individual support as well. This often takes the form of parents collaborating with me and their child’s school to provide special education accommodations, linking families to community resources, and partnering with guardians to develop behavior intervention plans.
Finally, the heavy toll of providing synchronous and in-person learning is evident in our educators. A large focus of the Care and Climate Connectedness project is to encourage teacher self-care for ongoing resiliency and mental wellness. A weekly “Teacher Tidbits” educator newsletter provides resources that work to prevent compassion fatigue. The October Teacher Inservice focused entirely on not just being a survivor but becoming a thriver. A monthly Take Heart and Teach book club is offered for all teachers, as well as a regular small-group Connection Circle for sharing and encouragement.