The development of a mental health program begins with understanding why our students behave as they do.
In general, our students are placed due to significant behavioral struggles that prevent them from accessing their education in a mainstream academic environment. This includes problems with achieving academic progress, complying with school rules and expectations, and developing healthy, trusting relationships with peers and adults.
Common domains of behavioral problems include:
- Impaired emotional self-regulation (e.g. mood swings; quick to anger or tears)
- Aggressive or provocative behavior (e.g. picks fights, bullies others, or lashes out)
- Marked impulsivity (e.g. cannot sit still; cannot resist temptations)
- Exaggerated sensitivity to perceived danger (e.g. frightened or startled easily)
- Distorted or confused interpretations of social signals (e.g. misunderstands others; is easily insulted or aggrieved)
- Profoundly negative beliefs about the self and others (e.g. negative self esteem; assumes others are always untrustworthy or dangerous)
- Difficulty coping with limits, disappointments, or transitions (e.g. becomes defiant or oppositional when faced with a non-preferred activity; creates power struggles)
These behaviors can often seem confounding and inexplicable. However, the patterns of behavior we see are very frequently correlated with early experiences with abuse, neglect, and family disruption, often with pre-natal exposure to alcohol or other substances.
The behaviors listed above do not represent merely a lack of knowledge, skill, or positive attitude—although such deficits almost always exist to one degree or another as unfortunate byproducts with the traumatized child. Rather, the underlying struggle with most TMS students is a lack of adequate complexity and integration within the neural structure of the brain.
In other words, early negative experiences helped to “wire” the brain in physical ways that inhibit the ability to regulate emotions, develop a positive self image, form healthy relationships, and make sound judgments and decisions.
Since his social, emotional, and cognitive systems haven’t developed optimally, the traumatized child will obtain any number of coping skills—often primitive, irrational, and dysregulated in nature—to help him navigate the world. And since these strategies tend to result in negative consequences (especially in school), the child continues to have negative and confounding experiences. These ongoing experiences can further reinforce skewed perceptions of themselves, such as an internalized sense of incompetence, helplessness, and shame.
For many of our students, these early traumatic experiences sit alongside other issues, such as multiple domestic placements, learning deficits, health problems, living in high stress environments, exposure to violence and sexual activity, and poverty. The impact of these issues on their life in general and education in particular is often profound.
Mental Health Services at TMS
Because so many of our students arrive with significant psychological and behavioral problems, we have developed a mental health program that is deeply embedded throughout the entire school. Our core approach is based on the Attachment, Regulation and Competency (ARC) system developed by The Trauma Center of the Justice Resource Institute. This comprehensive, evidence-based framework informs every aspect of our school as well as our general clinical approach. We currently deliver mental health services in three domains:
1) Therapeutic Classrooms
—Dr. Ash Bowie, PsyD
While academic progress is our ultimate goal, we know that addressing mental health issues is key to helping our students access their education. This begins with our trauma-informed Positive Behavior Support System. It promotes new, more appropriate behaviors in the classroom through the utilization of evidence-based, positive reinforcement strategies.
It is also critical for our staff to be up to date on issues relevant to our student population. And so our clinical team offers trainings and workshops on a range of topics such as trauma, behavior, attachment, and effective self-care. Workshops around the TMS behavior system have included various methods of classroom management, such as avoiding power struggles and developing shaping programs to help our students practice and master new behaviors. This enables our staff to better understand the students and to effectively and safely address problem behaviors in the classroom. Our goal is to help train the most knowledgable, compassionate, and effective special education staff in the Bay Area.
We have also begun to integrate mindfulness practice in all our classrooms. This is a simple and yet powerful technique with well-documented benefits.
2) Educationally Related Mental Health Services
As excellent as our classroom staff are in working with high-needs children, many of our students require additional educationally related mental health services. This service almost always takes the form of individual counseling sessions within a confidential therapeutic space. The student’s therapist will either be a licensed clinical psychologist or a qualified psychology trainee working under clinical supervision. All therapeutic sessions take place in the therapy wing on the Timothy Murphy campus.
3) Social-Emotional Competency Groups
Every classroom participates in a weekly skills group facilitated by our mental health staff. These ARC-based groups utilize videos, activities, brief talks, and games to promote age-appropriate developmental tasks such as learning to identify and modulate emotions, strengthening problem solving skills, and developing a healthier, more positive sense of self. The group format also provides opportunities for practicing critical social skills that are often lacking in our student population.