DANVILLE — When a student at Mark Denman Elementary School was angry earlier this month, Gateway Family Service’s Michael Remole had him talk to Bandit, a miniature horse, about what was bothering him.
The boy could think about what horses need from people and what other people need from him. Talking to the horse can help students see how their behavior is affecting another person, Remole explained.
The horses Bandit, 4 years old, and Mr. Buttons, 6, were at the School of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy with certain students that day.
Illinois-based Gateway Family Services, a non-profit mental health agency based in Potomac, has previously provided services at North Ridge Middle School in Danville.
Now counselors and staff go to Mark Denman Elementary School.
Remole said Gateway is now in 11 school districts.
Gateway offers onsite one-on-one sessions to improve students’ mental health by providing individualized psychotherapy through evidence-based, experiential forms of therapy to assist students in managing the symptoms of trauma. Improve mood regulation and impulse control, as well as overall academic performance and reduce negative behaviors.
There are calming strategies for students with autism, opportunities to create quiet spaces, training and a regulation station for staff. Other strategies: animal-assisted groups, clinical counseling for difficult behaviors in the classroom, and individual sessions.
Remole said, “Right now we’re kind of in a place where we’re trying to stabilize some of these kids that are really struggling.”
Gateway works with students who are struggling for a variety of reasons. Some students may not escalate as often or as intensely, leaving them in a group with two to three other students with the staff and horses, Remole said.
He said they also support teachers.
“These teachers have worked hard and we reflect on what our students have been through over the past few years. (The students have) experienced a lot of trauma, they have experienced a lot of hardship, and so have the teachers. Very seldom do we have to go through exactly the same things as our students,” Remole said. “And it affected all of our stress responses. So the teachers are trying to control all these things and then our kids are behind and the expectations haven’t changed. So there are a lot of pieces to this puzzle that make it a bit tricky.”
The heroes are in the schools, said Remole.
Equine-assisted psychotherapy can help in many ways.
Remole said that when someone has experienced relationship trauma, there are associations that someone may have based on previous experiences.
“Physiologically, the[horse’s]heart rate helps ours calm down,” he said. “Alone near Bandit, a child came to a calmer state.”
There is a relationship with the horses.
Remole said that when a kid is having a rough day, they have to make decisions and pull themselves together to help the horses.
Remole said Gateway staff go to the schools to work with the students and staff. They want to work with the staff to build a room for her.
“Our kindergarteners, first and second graders, we see across the board that they’re really struggling because they’ve had periods there during their core developmental period, they’ve been in quarantine in Covid and parents have had to tutor them or have to work online or during that time teach other kids,” said Remole. “So a lot of these kids are struggling because they’re still functioning like a toddler and they’re in the body of a 7 or 8 year old.”
Students would have instant gratification from learning about the technology online. Now some are finding it difficult to pay attention in class.
When working with the miniature horses, part of that work is teaching the students how to care for another being.
Based on past experiences, a child might think someone doesn’t like them or that they aren’t good enough because there are ways in their brain that lead them to think that, since they were told that because of their upbringing, Remole said .
Gateway employees challenge some of these beliefs with the horses.
One kid said he was a failure because he wasn’t good at math.
“He talked to Bandit about that,” said Remole.
Help students in the area
Gateway has six miniature horses, 20 horses in all, with all horses and a donkey.
They had an original scholarship that helped them get started in school. They now have a contract with Danville School District 118.
Gateway also works with students in places including Rantoul, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Chrisman, Westville, Salt Fork, Armstrong and the Potomac.
They have around 10 employees ranging from equine professionals to licensed psychiatrists.
North Ridge has 10 hour clinical sessions three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Gateway is also working on supportive teachings and online workshops for parents, e.g. B. to eliminate stress and self-destructive behavior.
At Mark Denman, Gateway works for two people five days a week.
“The age group that I think struggles the most is kindergarten through second grade,” Remole said. “And if a lot of kids are somehow dysregulated, it can affect an entire school very quickly.”
With junior high, those students had a foundation, he added.
“They sure fight, but there are different types of fights,” Remole said.
At Mark Denman, Gateway is still working to build a consistent case count.
Some therapy sessions are conducted in groups, with students rotating with a therapist.
Remole said 24 students will rotate into more small group sessions. They are working to expand to two major classes. The plan is to increase the numbers.
A room for teachers in the school would also let them charge.
Therapy priorities include helping students learn appropriate social skills to thrive not only in the classroom but also in the community.
“Overall, we’re learning how to manage stress and how our bodies respond to it in a way that’s healthy for me and the people around me,” Remole said.
In the Potomac, Gateway also works with schools through its clinical session, visiting approximately 100 local families weekly. Gateway has a waiting list.
The work in the schools enables more far-reaching services.
“This allows us to provide services to a few more people faster and hopefully prevent people who may not even be on our waiting list from ever having to be put on our waiting list,” Remole said.
“We joke that we want to work our way out of a job. If we can reach out to larger groups and give them the tools to be successful, that’s fantastic,” said Remole.
In the Potomac, Gateway has a classroom, office space and they are working on a play therapy room and a sensory room.
“We’re in our parents’ basement right now. We will move the staff to the barn,” he said.
Chelsea Mehegan, Mark Denman’s school social worker, has worked at the school for four years.
Mehegan said they are happy to have Gateway in the school.
“We’re really excited and it’s just nice to have them here,” she said.
In the 600-student school building, there are many needy students and it’s great to have the extra support, she added.
“I think we saw a higher need in most students in terms of behavior and academics,” Mehegan said.
According to Mehegan, when students struggle with academics, they become frustrated and also have behavioral problems.
“So, we’ve really seen an uptick in those two areas,” she said. “We kind of had to spread ourselves thinner this year to meet the demand.”
Gateway comes to the rescue and helps them fill some of those gaps.
School officials see kindergarteners and first graders having more trouble this year. They were at home and many skipped pre-kindergarten. They didn’t socialize and didn’t go to daycare, Mehegan said.
“Unfortunately, they were only at home with mom and dad, often living in great poverty and receiving no benefits at all,” she said.
Now the schools are receiving these kindergarteners and first graders, and the students are way behind where they should be, Mehegan added.
“So we have some high expectations for them, which can lead to frustration and some fights,” she said.
She added that sometimes it’s hard for parents to understand, too, and they often don’t have an answer to a student’s behavior. Parents can say that the child is behaving like this at home too and they don’t know what to do.
Mehegan said sometimes school staff don’t even know what to do. They’ve tried everything and need to branch out and get more help, such as through contracts with Gateway Family Services, to reach all students.
“It’s a cycle, right, so we can teach them all those things here at school, but it also needs to be enforced at home so we can work with them,” Mehegan said.
She said one of the cool things Michael is doing is offering parent sessions to bridge the gap and help bridge that connection and see how behavior at home and at school is improving. Everyone is on the same team, she added.
“Last but not least, we’ve seen at least one moral shift among our employees because we’ve been so thinly spread,” Mehegan said. “Getting the support really helped us. That in turn helps the students because we’re in a better place, we’re less escalated, we have more patience because we’re getting support. So, it really comes full circle and we’re very grateful to have them in. And we’ve already seen a difference, just with the kids looking forward to it (Gateway staff).”