Chris was 16 years old when I met him. He had a few credits, but he was far behind where he should have been at that point in his secondary school career. He was disengaged from school, often skipping classes, seeming not to care about his lack of progress, feeling no connection at all to the school. Showing little regard for others, he would walk brazenly through a gym class looking for his friend, take very long breaks to go to the washroom, or stroll casually into class after smoking pot behind the school.
Chris was referred to me for a psychoeducational assessment to determine why he was struggling. It turned out that he had a Mild Intellectual Disability and had been well-supported through his elementary years by the structure and accommodations available in that setting. As a result of the assessment, the school team was able to identify a placement for Chris in a vocational program. He began to study a trade, and he thrived in that setting. Not only did he reengage with school, but returned to his home school to tell others about the program, enthusiastically suggesting that they, too, should get an assessment so they could transfer to his new school.
Michael is a 17-year-old student faced with an entirely different set of challenges. Diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder at the more severe end of the continuum, he has not developed language and he communicates mostly through vocalizations and nonverbal methods. As you can imagine, this often leads to frustration as he struggles to clearly communicate his basic needs and feelings. When he does not feel understood, or when his needs are not being met, Michael tends to lash out physically at staff who are nearby.
To address the problem, Professional Student Services Personnel (PSSP) staff have provided expert advice and support to help the classroom teacher and educational assistants learn a variety of appropriate strategies to support Michael. For example, Psychoeducational Consultants provided training in ways for teachers and EAs to de-escalate tense situations, and to keep themselves, as well as Michael and his classmates, physically safe when he becomes frustrated and potentially violent. The school’s Speech-Language Pathologist continues to consult with staff and review Michael’s program in an ongoing effort to help improve his communication skills. Technology is also being utilized to help Michael communicate, and the school’s Social Worker has helped connect his family to community resources.
These are only two examples of the thousands of situations across the province where PSSP staff have been able to provide crucial assistance to students who need it, as well as to the teachers and other staff who work with those students on a regular basis.
Within OSSTF/FEESO, the PSSP group is comprised of 38 job classes, all focussed on students who require help beyond what can be provided in the classroom. PSSP play a central role in supporting students with learning needs, mental health issues, challenging life events such as the death of a parent, difficulty with speech articulation, and a variety of other struggles. There are a number of ways in which these issues manifest for students, such as violence toward peers and school staff, absenteeism, withdrawal from social settings, homelessness, the emergence of psychiatric conditions, and academic difficulties. PSSP supports can be delivered directly to students, but often PSSP consult with educators to support them in helping students.
We frequently hear of the importance of early intervention for students with learning or social/emotional needs, and think of these services as something that’s provided in elementary schools. While PSSP do provide a great deal of support to elementary students, they also play a major role in serving secondary students with a variety of needs.
Every school board has different procedures for accessing PSSP services. Teachers who are concerned about a student’s progress with learning or their mental health, or who have a student who is specifically asking for help beyond what is currently available in the classroom, should speak to their administrators, a guidance counsellor, or a special education teacher about consulting with PSSP to access additional supports.
There are often cues, which teachers can watch for, that might indicate that a student is dealing with issues that would warrant support from PSSP.
What to watch for: changes in engagement with school or extra curricular activities, seeming to be socially withdrawn, emotional reactions that are disproportionate to an event, crying easily, avoiding certain situations because of fear or anxiety, or difficulty concentrating. The appearance of physical marks on a student, or a tendency for the student to wear long sleeves and pants to hide such marks, are also strong indicators of social or emotional issues.
Students often connect well with their teachers and feel safe in disclosing personal information about struggles with mood, friendships, or family relationships. Teachers often direct those students to guidance counsellors for support, but students often require more in-depth, ongoing counselling than a guidance counsellor can provide. Some schools have child and youth workers or social workers, who are equipped to provide counselling supports, as part of their onsite staff. Most schools will have access to an itinerant social worker who may see a student once a week or so, for counselling supports, and may also facilitate further supports by linking students and families to
Learning and communication difficulties
What to watch for: not accumulating credits, disengaged from school or, conversely, putting in a great deal of time and effort that does not lead to strong results, skipping classes, challenges with speaking clearly or at an appropriate volume, difficulty listening and following oral directions.
PSSP can provide various forms of assessment that will shed light on how a student learns and on the state of their language development, and can deliver recommendations for further support and accommodations. Educators can also benefit from consulting with PSSP around ways to support students’ vocabulary development, or around programs to remediate lagging skills. PSSP often participate in transition-planning meetings for students with special needs who are moving schools, or who are transitioning to receiving adult services as they complete high school.
Violence in schools
In the forefront of many educators’ minds right now is the issue of violence in schools. PSSP can provide support around individual students who are exhibiting violent behaviour. They may be able to work with the student and their family to address the issues at the root of the behaviour, or they may work with educators to develop safety plans and provide training to help de-
escalate violent situations safely. PSSP may also assume a broader role as part of a larger committee of school board employees, community stakeholders and police, looking at ways to address systemic and community-specific issues that are leading to violence, such as gangs. They can help institute programs at the secondary level to help reduce the incidence of violent acts. By identifying the issues at the secondary level, PSSP can also identify gaps that exist, and can partner with community agencies to fill those gaps for younger students, with the goal of preventing violence in years to come.
PSSP are available to provide professional development opportunities to school staff on topics of interest. This may take the form of a lunch and learn session, or a more formal, in-depth session on a professional learning day. If there is a topic of common interest to a number staff in a school, arrangements can be made through the Guidance Department, the Special Education Department or through an administrator to explore the possibility of inviting PSSP to make a presentation.
When a student’s learning difficulties, behavioural problems or mental health challenges require more effort and attention or a different kind of expertise than a classroom educator is able to deliver, PSSP can frequently provide appropriate and effective supports that will significantly improve that student’s chances for success.