CADILLAC — Shane Walker knows the problems children, tweens and teens face.
He has worked as a social worker at Eagle Village as well as at Community Mental Health for Central Michigan in Harrison. He now is working within Cadillac Area Public Schools. While some might not understand why a social worker is needed in a school, especially when there may be a school counselor, Walker helps students work through some pretty tough issues.
“We have a lot of stuff come up in the schools that teachers are not trained to handle,‘ he said. “If kids are focused on home, depression or loss of a family member, it’s hard to focus on 2 + 2. When they deal with issues in the school environment, it also helps with their ability to learn.‘
Last spring, Mackinaw Trail Middle School increased student behavioral health support with the addition of a social worker. The position was created through a grant awarded to the Wexford Physician-Hospital Organization from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund. Although Walker began at MTMS last spring, he continued outreach and connection with CAPS students through the summer at the Cadillac Area YMCA and Cadillac High School.
At the middle school, Walker is working with the district’s fifth and sixth-grade students and helping work through some tough issues. He has open discussions with them and helps them to mature as they work through things such as screen time, substance use prevention, life skills, teamwork and personal health.
CAPS Superintendent Jennifer Brown said there are behavioral health specialists at nearly every building within the district which is provided via three separate grants as well as through District Health Department No. 10. This includes the Wexford Adolescent Wellness Center within Cadillac Junior High School and social workers at Franklin Elementary and Cadillac High School.
Brown said the district also works with Baldwin Family Healthcare to place a social worker at Lincoln Elementary. Brown said the purpose of having behavioral health services within schools is to break down barriers for parents when it comes to time and location of outsider services.
“We are just trying to provide families with diverse health services as needed to break down barriers and make learning a priority,‘ she said. “We provide hearing and vision screenings, physicals and now behavioral health.‘
Like Walker, Brown said for kids to learn they have to have their basic needs met which includes their health. She also said the grant is through the Wexford Physician-Hospital Organization, so it can be a coordinated effort with the primary care doctors.
Walker said when he talks to students, typical topics include students who are acting out in the classroom, having big emotional responses like crying or even self-harm. In all cases, Walker said he has had success helping students address their issues. He said he helps students learn mindfulness, thought replacement, distress tolerance and other coping skills.
He said parents or guardians also can play a role in the process especially if they notice their child changing their behaviors.
“Changes in patterns are important to notice. If they are not sleeping like they normally do or not eating like they normally do or pursuing activities they normally do like sports, band or choir, those could be signs something is going on,‘ Walker said.
Walker said the school addressing behavioral health issues is a proactive approach rather than reactive. He said quite often kids try to protect their parents or are afraid to tell teachers because then they will know. With that in mind, Walker said he provides a safe space where they can talk and not worry about hurting his feelings or worry about what he thinks.
“There is no judgment,‘ he said.
Moving forward, Brown said she sees the partnership between the Wexford Physician-Hospital Organization expanding once a successful model is found. She said while it was common 20 years ago to have a school nurse on site that isn’t the case in most schools. She said the focus in the 21st Century is on the whole child.
“We are not providing the service. We are providing space. We are not taking responsibility for behavioral health but we are improving access and breaking down barriers,‘ she said.