Schools taking preemptive steps to bolster students socially, spiritually

Youngsters who don’t have someone to play with at recess can sit on Buddy Benches in St. Joseph School, Toms River, which lets fellow students know that one of their classmates needs a friend. Mary Stadnyk photo

By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor

In 1736, when Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he was talking about fire safety. But the same axiom can be applied today when it comes to helping students’ with social anxieties.

Catholic schools in the Diocese of Trenton rely upon the skills of administrators, counselors, pastors and chaplains when students need an understanding ear. And with the aid of various programs and a spirit of Christian discipleship, both staff and students are doing much to in their schools.

Special Training

The recent increase in nonpublic school security funds means private schools can not only bolster physical security upgrades, but also training and activities that promote a positive school climate and foster open communication among staff and students.

Such activities include training in peer mediation and conflict resolution, substance abuse prevention, sexual harassment and suicide prevention, cyber safety, student violence response training and more.

Anne Reap, Lower School director in Trenton Catholic Academy, Hamilton, said TCA has enlisted training from Thom Stecher and Associates to help teachers address students’ social and emotional needs.

“His workshops [help them] set high expectations in their classrooms and to create an atmosphere where students feel safe, accepted and loved,” Reap said. The team does periodic check-ins with teachers, providing encouragement and new strategies.

In St. Joseph School, Toms River, counselor Divina Roche regularly goes into each classroom with different age-appropriate messages about kindness, respect, character and Catholic values. She also provides in-services to the faculty and staff on mental health in the classroom, anxiety, depression and self-harm.

“[It] helps them better understand and help their students,” Roche said. “We create a safe and caring environment, which encourages students to come to me or their teachers to discuss their concerns.”

Barbara Carey, counselor in St. Rose Grammar School, Belmar, and St. Dominic School, Brick, spoke about St. Dominic’s Second Step program, which teaches social skills to entire classes and addresses empathy, impulse control and anger management.

“Children are given the message that they are only in control of themselves,” Carey said. “In every situation, their choices will either make things better or worse.”

Notre Dame High School, Lawrence-ville, partnered with The Social Emotional Learning Connection in summer 2018 to provide training for staff and students on social emotional learning. “These sessions included topics such as mental health issues, mindfulness, resilience, coping mechanisms and wellness,” principal Joanna Barlow said.

Empowering Students

On Jan. 10, Notre Dame High School held a Student Voice Session to learn about and foster positive social-emotional health in teenagers. Seventy students took part in team-building and communication exercises.

Reap noted that at Trenton Catholic Academy this year, Stecher and his group have begun holding student sessions.

“These sessions foster a sense of acceptance and illustrate to the students their responsibility in keeping our school community a safe environment. Many times, students just need a little encouragement if they are having difficulty interacting with peers. An invitation from a classmate or teacher suggestion is often all that is needed.”

The school’s “Make a Difference Team,” composed of the school guidance counselor, disciplinarian and classroom teachers, highlights monthly themes and issues and also works with the students on conflict resolution. Their current project, a video titled “Because of You,” features students revealing to classmates how something one did or said had a positive impact on them. “Many times the students are not aware of how something they perceived as insignificant had such a big impact,” Reap said.

In St. Rose Grammar School, Carey holds a Good Game Club, helping foster the skill of winning and losing well in an non-virtual setting. “The Good Game Club is a free, voluntary, low stress, fun way to interact with their peers in a small setting while building social skills,” she said.

Roche is moderator of the St. Joseph School Peer Leadership group, composed of sixth- through eighth-grade students, whose purpose is to reach out to students in need of social support.

“For example, [the group provides] a friend to sit with at lunch, or a ‘buddy’ for our new students,” Roche said. “We have installed two Buddy Benches on our playground for students to use at recess … it lets others around know they are in need of a friend, which prompts students to go ask them to play. It has been a beautiful success.”

When to Intervene

When the environment and education are not enough to assist a student’s social development, Catholic schools have a number of ways to intervene positively. When necessary, parents can also be invited to the school to get a broader view.

Several times a month, Carey has lunch with a struggling student and a friend they select. “It reinforces the friendship by having a ‘special’ event – lunch out of the cafeteria in my office,” she explained. “We can discuss current issues and steer the students toward good decisions.”

St. Dominic School also has the Peace Table, a simple conflict-resolution guided process. “As long as the two individuals want to make things better, the success rate is high,” Carey said. “Students … learn that it is possible to improve relationships by talking directly to each other, with a mediator.”

Reap said that Trenton Catholic Academy uses community resources available, such as CARE Kids at nearby St. Francis Medical Center, Trenton, if students need a more intensive therapeutic program. “If needed, we can assist the student by providing the student with the age-appropriate skills to interact in social situations.”

Spiritual Support

Woven through this fabric of support is the Gospel message, focusing on self-worth in a way unique to Christian education.

The Campus Ministry Program at Notre Dame High School is made up of a team including a full-time chaplain, Father Jason Parzynski; campus ministers Tracey Reed and Kathy Maley; and campus ministry students, faculty, staff and administration who are responsible for providing spiritual programs for the entire school.

“We work to fulfill the spiritual and emotional needs of our students through a variety of programs, from one-on-one spiritual direction to peer ministry and individualized programs,” Father Parzynski said.

For example, each year underclassmen experience a day of reflection, prayer and discussion with their fellow classmates. Seniors have the option to take part in Kairos, a four-day retreat that leads them through an intense self-reflection. Campus ministry clubs promote prayer, faith development and social justice.

Roche said that when meeting with her St. Joseph School students, faith is always incorporated. “Our faith is the groundwork for everything I do,” she said. “I guide students using the belief that God has a plan for all of us, and is always with us – mostly in our times of need.”

Reap said students are both supported and challenged by the spiritual environment in TCA. “Through verbal communication, in daily religion lessons, by modeling Christ-like behavior, we let our students know they are loved and cared for … while also holding them to high expectations,” she explained.

In 1736, when Benjamin Franklin coined the phrase “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” he was talking about fire safety. But the same axiom can be applied today when it comes to helping students’ with social anxieties.

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