Havasu schools partner with counselors to combat toxic stress in children

April 8, 2019

If a child continually acts up, we’re inclined to ask ourselves, “What’s wrong with that kid?”

But experts say the better question is “What has happened to this child?”

Teachers are often the first ones to ask the question. A child’s behavior issues can quickly disrupt a classroom. In most cases, the unruly student is sent to the principal’s office for the expected talking-to.

Except in Lake Havasu City. The “talking-to” is more likely a friendly conversation rather than a stern lecture.

That’s because administrators in the Lake Havasu Unified School District were trained in a summer session two years ago to look for signs of trauma in children. If trouble is discovered, resources are in place to help a child deal with toxic stress in their lives.

“In those situations, we have to start asking questions to find out if there’s a lot of stuff going on at home,” said Diana Asseier. She is the school district’s superintendent. “When there’s a pattern of extreme behaviors, there’s most always a problem at home that is affecting the child.”

The school district’s priority is to educate children. However, that expensive mission doesn’t have room in the budget to professionally counsel traumatized students. That’s why the district partners with Creason Counseling Center.

It’s a relatively new partnership that started after Interagency dissolved in 2018. Children in need get the expert help required during school hours.

In Havasu schools, disruptive behaviors at the elementary level can include getting up and walking around during class, angry outbursts, bullying, hitting other students or touching them inappropriately and being oppositional.

“They’ll say ‘no’ to everything a teacher is trying to do,” Asseier said.

Rooting out trauma is less difficult at the middle school level, she said. Identifying trauma in high school students is the hardest of all.

“It’s been my personal experience that high school students tend to sit stone-faced and you don’t know what they’re thinking. In middle school, you know how they feel – they’re very vocal and will tell you about it,” Asseier said. “At the elementary level, the kids have behavior and learning problems. For instance, (a troubled child) has never been able to focus, which makes it hard for him or her to learn how to read.”

The school district has three psychologists who are almost entirely devoted to completing assessments of special education students. However, each district school in Havasu has an intervention team to help troubled children.

When problems are persistent, parents or guardians are consulted to identify possible causes. Those can be domestic issues such as violence, chaos, hostility, unpredictability, rejection or neglect. In some instances, the child is trying to cope with a toxic cocktail of two or more of those problems at home.

While the school district cannot repair a child’s home life, it can guide the student in a direction that teaches coping skills and resiliency.

“We’ve used SAP for a long time. SAP stands for Student Assistance Program,” Asseier said. “We’ve seen the most benefit from it in our schools. If we intervene while the child is young, he or she has a better chance of successfully coping as they mature.”

The in-school meetings occur weekly and are provided by the Creason Counseling Center through the Havasu Community Health Foundation. The school district awards SAP a $20,000 grant every school year to help fund the program. SAP also receives tax credit dollars.

Currently, there are 200 district students enrolled in SAP, said Cami Castanon, the program’s coordinator. She and several facilitators meet with children each week to foster healing and teaching them how to deal with their own circumstances.

Pam Ashley can be reached at 928-453-4237, ext. 230 or pashley@havasunews.com.