There was a time when Mary Johnson spent so much time at her son’s school, she had to quit her job.
She had to quit because most days, she would be called to her son’s West Island school to deal with yet another incident. Nathan wouldn’t sit still. Nathan was hiding in a garbage can. Nathan had to be carried out of class by the principal. For a time, caring for Nathan became a full-time job.
Now, Johnson worries about more run-of-the-mill occurrences – such as the fact that Nathan, 14, had his first hangout at Fairview Mall with friends this year.
“He went with two girls and a boy and took the bus home,” she explains, adding that she sat at work trying to process the new milestone.
Johnson is effusive in her praise of the Family and School Support and Treatment Team (FSSTT), a program run by the Lester B. Pearson School Board that Nathan has been involved with since he was in the first grade.
Members of the team, who help children with a host of socio-emotional problems, have helped Nathan cope with his oppositional defiant disorder, a diagnosis he received only after he began working with the team.
The program began in 1995, borne out of an initiative launched by the now-defunct Lakeshore School Board, which was experimenting with inclusive models of education – shifting from trying to “fix” children who were having difficulties to looking for ways to change the child’s environment in order to help them.
The team is permanently stationed in 13 elementary schools and eight high schools, but can be called in to other schools if needed. It is comprised of 18 behavioural technicians and six outside professionals, including psychiatrists, an art therapist and a music therapist.
Team members work with resource staff within each school. Teachers flag behaviour they consider worrisome and bring the child to the attention of the designated resource person.
The program’s philosophy encourages on-site interventions, meaning they try to use familiar faces – teachers, principals, support staff, parents, even sports coaches – to help the child work through his or her difficulties rather than removing the child from the class or school.
And those difficulties run the gamut, from long-term issues in need of diagnosis, problems that are solely classroom-related, or ones that deal with something in the child’s home life.
Cindy Finn is the director of the student services department at the school board, which oversees the FSSTT.
She explains that the program’s approach doesn’t mean that a student will never be removed from a classroom or receive outside help, it just doesn’t happen immediately. They try to keep the student in their “natural environment” as much as possible, she said.
For Nathan, this approach has worked. While he’s not fond of the CLSC workers he deals with, he has formed a special bond with the behaviour technician at his high school, who subtly but successfully intervenes when Nathan needs him.
These interventions sometimes start with a phone call from Mom, who may notice Nathan had a rough morning. After dropping him off at school, she may run in to ask that the technician keep an eye on Nathan that day.
“(The technician) doesn’t have to call me back, I know he’s taking care of Nathan, I know it’s going to be OK,” Johnson said.
The team uses what it calls a strength-based approach, which holds that even if the child is having difficulties, there are things that he or she excels at and that can be used to help them.
A child prone to outbursts may be asked to take attendance. Teachers may be asked to forewarn a student that he’s going to be called upon in class so he can prepare his response, instead of being put on the spot.
The FSSTT tries to teach school staff how to deal with problems that may arise with certain students.
The team maintains close ties with community organizations, working with psychiatrists who will offer recommendations for parents, guiding families toward services they may not have known existed, and organizing workshops with local professionals on topics such as bullying and eating disorders.
They also welcome interns from local CEGEPs, who work with members of the team to help ease their workload.
“Our goal is for (the students) to not need us, which is kind of sad for us because we love these kids,” said Nathalie Constant, an FSSTT behavioural consultant.
In May, the team won one of the first-ever Excellence in Education Awards, given out by the Quebec English School Boards Association.
Johnson says son Nathan now dreams of being a physicist and excels in math and science. Her trips to Nathan’s school are now far less frequent, but her younger children, who are 4 and 6, are just beginning their academic careers.
“I’m hoping they won’t need help, but if they do, I know where to turn,” she said.
The names of some people in this story have been changed to protect their identity.