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Paradigm Shift: School Mental Health Panel Convenes at Brookhaven Town Hall

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A special presentation was held at Brookhaven Town Hall Tuesday evening to discuss the growing problem of mental health crises within the walls of our communities’ schools.

The panel was hosted and emceed by New York State Assemblyman Doug Smith (R-Holbrook) of the Fifth Assembly District who is the Ranking Member of the New York State Assembly Education Committee and moderated by Lisa Navarra.

Navarra, a behavior specialist and former special education teacher, moderated the presentation and fielded questions and answers between the attendees and panelists.

Navarra holds an M.S. Ed. in Special Education and a certificate in School District Administration (SDA).

She now serves as the President and Founder of Child Behavior Consulting, LLC., a firm that specializes in childhood learning disorders, developmental delays and executive functioning deficits.

The firm works within schools and organizations, in-house or on-site, and seeks to maintain professional development with the children, parents and teachers with whom it coordinates.

The panel focused on those exact issues the firm seeks to address but targeted at the local school systems at-large.

Assemblyman Doug Smith opened the event, “We are honored to be joined tonight by Veteran educators and experts in the field of child psychology here on Long Island. I am grateful to Lisa Navarra for moderating this important conversation about the most important topic for our community: the mental wellbeing of our children.”

A prestigious panel, consisting of education professionals, child psychologists and school administrators, took questions from Navarra and pitched their own ideas for change, coupled with their collective decades of experience within Long Island schools. Navarra opened the presentation by declaring the movement a “paradigm shift for those who need it.”

According to statistics she presented in her opening statement: “A combined 32% of school-age kids with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) will drop out of high school; 50-70% of kids with ADHD are rejected by a close friend by second grade (as per a Russell Barkley study).”

This set the tone and the subject matter for the night. Immediately following Navarra’s opening, a brief video was played that showed kids interviewed before, during, and after their struggles with certain learning or developmental disabilities. The children’s testimonies followed a common theme: they needed help and didn’t receive it, either due to their own reservations about asking for help or due to the schools’ inadequate responses that worsened their mental conditions.

The brief slideshow outlined major points the panelists would like schools to address: Executive Functioning, Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), Self-Regulation and Working Memory.

Executive Functioning is, according to the slideshow, a “set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking and self-control.” Kids with ADHD in particular tend to struggle with this particular set of mental skills.

Social-Emotional Learning is being championed by the group as the possible turning point upon which real change can be seen within schools.

It is the “process to acquire and apply the skills to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve goals, show empathy for others, establish supportive relationships, and make responsible decisions.”

Self-Regulation is the “ability to manage one’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.” This is an area in which kids with ADHD struggle particularly.

“Impulsive emotionality is problematic with ADHD, especially in adults,” said Joseph Volpe, PH.D, a clinical and school psychologist as well as Executive Director of East End Psychological Services, P.C. “For example, people will tolerate you if you’re tapping your pencil at your desk. But if you act out impulsively with frustration and aggression because someone cuts you in line, this will make you lose friends.  So, social rejection is very common among people with ADHD. Identifying ADHD is key and why we discuss early identification. We talk about early intervention as well for many conditions. It can set the stage for productivity and success later on in life. If we miss it, it is problematic.”

“We are born with the executive brain,” Volpe added. “We are very fortunate to be the only species that has such an advanced brain. Executive functions bring together many skills. The ability to get started, initiate, the ability to remember what to do, working memory, the ability to resist distractions, and get back to what you started.”

Working Memory is the “ability to acquire, access, and apply information.”

The panelists then elaborated on issues they view as persistent, pervasive or requiring urgent attention from administrators, legislators and parents alike.

Some themes were common throughout the night, chief among them being the COVID-19 Pandemic’s effect on education, with all panelists and Navarra herself asserting that the pandemic not only dampened and even reversed some efforts to improve mental health in schools but also produced upticks in learning disabilities once the world returned to classrooms.

Rhonda Young, SDA, the Assistant Superintendent of Special Services for Brentwood Schools, said that, since COVID, the referrals for behavioral/emotional services for Pre-K students have tripled.

Volpe said that there has been a “major regression” in Executive Functioning.

“The need for these skills is critical,” said Volpe. “Unless a child is interacting with caregivers, teachers, and peers who provide these opportunities for development, this is disrupted. When kids were away from their teachers and peers, we saw major regression in these areas.”

Dominick Palma, Ph.D., Superintendent of Merrick Schools, Co-Chair of Nassau County Mental Health and Related Services Committee, says that three years ago, there was a “slow evolution” of SEL being taught until COVID reset most of the progress. He succinctly likened SEL to the proverbial “plate” upon which our responsibilities, actions, emotions and thoughts are piled.

Young said that, in her district, there is “more aggression now than ever before” from Pre-K to second grade. She says there are some Kindergarteners who are not toilet trained, and requests for Picture Exchange Communication Systems (PECS), devices that allow non-verbal students to communicate, have increased.

In addition to blaming masks and remote learning for the sordid social conditions that children are experiencing, Young also blames video games, electronics and social media for the same conditions. Her point, which was greeted with thunderous applause from the audience, is that kids are increasingly accustomed to socializing superficially, and we’ve been approaching this point for some time. COVID is merely the catalyst that opened peoples’ eyes a bit more.

However, some panelists have noted the silver linings of the pandemic, in that these issues have become more centered in water cooler conversation than before.

Volpe said that emotional well-being is “more prioritized” now after the harrowing nature of the world on edge for so long.

Palma said that there is “much more collaboration” between teachers, specialists, administrators and parents than there was before the pandemic. That exact type of collaboration is the cornerstone of the panel’s proposed set of solutions.

Orly Calderon, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Director of Assessment, Psychological Services Center, Clinical Psychology Department at LIU-Post, says that “everyone knows what to do,” but streamlining the communication and plans is what needs to be bolstered. She emphasizes that doctors, psychologists, neurologists, teachers, parents, etcetera coordinate together to get children the services they need as early as possible.

Palma said that in the past, he would counsel children in his office. Now, clinicians are in classrooms regularly, not just to “put out fires,” as he put it. Gloria Taylor Jackson, EdD, Principal of Twin Pines Elementary Brentwood School District SAANYS, Region 1 Government Relations Committee, says that part of the solution is “releasing the stigma of mental health and seeking help.”

The panel also discussed new techniques that teachers and clinicians alike should consider introducing to classrooms. Jackson said that some schools had moved away from traditional icebreakers to start a new year. She said that having kids play games with each other and perform team-oriented exercises can allow them to strengthen their executive functioning.

Young said the relatively new sit-and-stand desks are increasingly popular, especially among children with ADHD. The option to choose between sitting and standing freely is said to alleviate some of the hyperactivity associated with the disorder.

Jackson has championed the practice of students writing down negative thoughts on paper during class. When questioned by an audience member, Jackson insisted these are read privately by the teacher and referrals are made to appropriate professionals if necessary.

Some members also said that legislative/administrative changes are necessary. Smith, a former school teacher himself, who is also the Ranking Member of the Assembly’s Education Committee, said that the parent-led movement that was successful against the special interest-ridden Common Core system needs to be recreated for the mental health movement. He also said that the Board of Regents is looking to move away from requiring Regents examinations.

Young, again to thunderous applause, said that the No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law by President Bush in 2001, focused too much on testing, where higher stakes were placed on an exam grade than nurturing SEL and Executive Functioning.

Another fulcrum of argument was the need for universal Pre-K to ensure kids receive clinical services early on to help them as they develop down the road. Steep price tags, however, make it a tougher beast.

Community-based organizations (CBO) can offer some of the services levied by universal Pre-K, but aides are paid at roughly half the rate of teachers and are not approved by the state to offer more robust and necessary services.

The floor was open to questions from the audience. Many were mothers who were concerned about parents being a major role in the process. The board emphasized full transparency and that parents are vital to the paradigm shift they seek.

Jackson said that the first parent workshop on SEL would be this Friday at Twin Pines but is not open fully to the public. She is looking to make it a regular workshop but implores parents to spread the word and show up. 

The schools will not host these events if people do not attend and invite others. Another parent questioned Young specifically about Brentwood receiving $64 million in funding and being one of the most populous districts in the state, stating that advocacy and funds only go so far if this panel had to be held.

Young concedes that parents’ distrust of schools and administrations is regressive to true change.

In attendance was Dana Platin, former President of the New York State PTA, who emphasized that some students flourished on Zoom during the pandemic and that added attention must be provided on the rising suicidality.

Young said the iPads the kids use in school have helped curb potential suicides and increase referrals to clinicians due to monitoring of search histories on each device.

Navarra ended the presentation with a simple message, mainly aimed at parents: call upon your legislator, your superintendent, your school board, your principal, your neighbor— anyone who can and will listen to start constructing a massive paradigm shift that needs to happen.

Some Statistics at a Glance:

  1. 32% of students with ADHD drop out

of high school

  1. 50-70% of students with ADHD lose a

close friend by second grade

  1. 25% of substance abusers have

ADHD, which in turn, produces higher

medical bills (on average)

  1. ADHD contributes largely to trouble maintaining jobs and relationships
  2. According to Young, Brentwood Schools saw 135 suicide interventions in

2018 From 2021-2022, they saw 254, a near doubling of the years immediately

before the pandemic

  1. According to Volpe, many adults who he’s counseled for anxiety/depression

turn out to have ADHD, either as the main culprit or concurrently

  1. At about 18,000 students, Brentwood School District is one of the largest on

Long Island and one of the largest in New York State outside of New York City