By Billie Wade, guest writer and PrairieFire graduate
September heralds the end of summer, cooler weather, shorter days, and the annual exodus to school. It’s time for students of all ages to head for the classroom. From kindergarten through adult learner, going to school can be a time of joy and excitement or a time of apprehension and trepidation. Students entering school for the first time or going to a new school may have some uneasiness and fear of the unknown. Students returning to school may feel a sense of exhilaration or a sense of dread. Parents see their children off to school feeling a host of emotions ranging from fear to relief.
Years ago, I read that children are not miniature adults. Children have stressors adults may not understand. Parents and teachers may be in a quandary about how to help and feel overwhelmed with the challenges of children in addition to those they already experience. A stressed-out parent still must pay the bills, put food on the table, and quite possibly maintain a job. A stretched teacher still must develop lesson plans, create tests, teach the class, and maintain a learning environment for all students. Growing up and learning how to interact with others is hard. Children need the adults in their environment to model civil behavior. When the adults misread or do not understand a child’s perspective, problems can arise.
Sara Swansen, and Grace Sherer, former clinicians at Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center, recognized the mental health needs of children and their families and created a specialized clinical approach within the Center called C.O.O.L., Children Overcoming the Obstacles of Life. They believed in children’s abilities to thrive, given a fertile environment. Since December 1999, the experiential program has helped thousands of children, 645 in 2017. C.O.O.L. aims to help children, adolescents, and their families navigate the murky waters of life’s challenges. C.O.O.L. meets children at eye-level with age- and developmentally-appropriate activities and services. Kelli Hill, Ph.D., director of clinical services and one of six clinicians facilitating the C.O.O.L. program, said,” “The C.O.O.L. waiting room and wing of the Center is designed specifically to help children and adolescents feel comfortable being here.”
Dr. Hill said children come to C.O.O.L. in varying stages of mental health and for sundry reasons, including divorce, separation in impending divorce, abuse and trauma, attachment concerns, bullying, life decisions, anxiety, and depression. When life stressors pile on, children respond in myriad ways including poor study habits and the resulting grades; withdrawal from family members, teachers, and classmates; anxiety; depression; low self-esteem; substance abuse; and, inappropriate behavior, Dr. Hill said. C.O.O.L.’s clinicians work with children ages two through college-age and assessment and evaluation services are available to children of all ages, even younger than two. Sometimes, siblings participate in C.O.O.L. and may see the same clinician or a different one. C.O.O.L. works through the child’s strengths and perspective, relying heavily on age-appropriate “play, art, music, literature, the outdoors and physical movement” in a highly spontaneous and creative environment. Dr. Hill shared with me that some children refer to the Center as their second home. Children usually attend the program biweekly, and more often if necessary. Clinicians customize the program to the unique needs of each child and her or his family. Some activities focus on the child and others focus on interactions with their families.
Dr. Hill told me bullying is a big problem in schools and can follow students through several school years. Social media has changed the landscape of bullying. No longer confined to recess, gym class, the school bus, and the walk to and from school, the harassment and torment invade children’s’ sanctuaries—their homes. Bullies now can Tweet, text, post, and email damaging messages to large numbers of people simultaneously. Usernames allow them to carry out their hurtful behavior in anonymity.
I loved school and learning, but my experiences there were not always pleasant. Shy, soft-spoken, and overweight, from an alcoholic, abusive family, I was bullied through fifth and sixth grades and junior high school. My parents were ill-equipped to address what I experienced. My father demanded good grades and grounded us for anything less than an “A.” My mother demanded good behavior and a trip to the principal’s office for her meant grounding for us, regardless of who was at fault. Fortunately, my brother, sister, and I rarely wound up in the principal’s office. My father grounded us for not fighting; my mother grounded us for fighting. Thirty-two years later, as a single parent, I was ill-equipped to help my son as he faced teacher-supported bullying. When he reported offenses to teachers, they accused him of being a trouble-maker or tattling. School administrators surprised me by making excuses for the bullies while blaming my son. Punishment for my son often exceeded that of the bully’s. Bullies tormented him through elementary, middle, and high school. I spent several afternoons in principals’ offices defending my son after a bully or a group of bullies attacked him.
The holistic approach of the C.O.O.L. program reaches beyond a child’s need for physical safety to psychological and emotional safety. Children learn personal limits and gain confidence in their evolving bodies and identities. Finding the balance between giving a child too much rein and not enough can baffle adults. C.O.O.L.’s staff are there to bolster the parents and families as well as the child. They encourage children to explore and trust themselves, and they encourage parents to trust their child’s autonomy.
Dr. Hill said, “I get to come to work every day and watch the amazing growth and development of young people. I have a great opportunity to serve children and their families. We at C.O.O.L. feel blessed and honored to be on the journey of hope and healing with the children and adolescents.”
C.O.O.L. is a dynamic intervention for children and their families. Participants receive the support system and guidance that is so crucial to their development and their ability to engage fully in life’s opportunities and to face life’s challenges with confidence and courage. For more information about C.O.O.L. please visit www.dmpcc.org/COOL. To start the process to schedule an appointment for your child or adolescent, please visit www.dmpcc.org or call 515-274-4006.
Billie Wade is a gregarious introvert whose primary interests are writing, lifelong learning, personal development, and how we all are affected by life’s vagaries. Issues facing black people, women, the LGBTQ community, and aging adults are of particular concern to her. She enjoys open-hearted dialogue with diverse people. The opinions expressed here are her own.
To read more of Billie’s blogs: www.dmpcc.org/Billie