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Bringing Therapists To Schools Helps Ease Students’ Fears

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EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (WCCO) – The first day of school is fun for some and daunting for others. When fears and anxiety get in the way of learning, Eden Prairie schools have extra people to help.

“I’m always peeking in the classrooms, walking in the halls as they’re transitioning,” said school-based therapist Beth Dahline.

Eden Prairie has a therapist like Dahline in each elementary school, and the middle school. The staff therapists come from Washburn Center for Children in South Minneapolis, with an office in the school, instead of the clinic.

“It really has knocked down barriers to that now these kids are getting what they need, and now they can go out and learn what they need to learn,” said Christina Houck, director of health and related services for Eden Prairie Schools.

Traditionally, school psychologists and social workers have referred kids with mental health problems to outside counselors, usually at local clinics. But school-based programs bring the therapist to the school.

There are nine in Hennepin County right now, with 20 across the state. Sessions are billed through insurance, just like outside counselors, but these therapists are so much closer.

“Who can get my kid to therapy,” said Houck, citing a common concern for parents. “Well, your child is in school, so walk down the hallway and see Miss So-And-So.”

“It’s almost like having a private practice in a host setting,” said Cindy Markison, who has been an outpatient counselor before. Her office at Eden Prairie Middle school provides a safe sanctuary for kids, and easy access for the therapist.

“I mean, I just go down the hall,” she said, “I don’t even pick up my phone. I just talk to them.”

The leaves on her wall tell the story: middle school can be tough for any kid. But having a counselor so close, even on days they don’t have a scheduled sessions, can ease their worries.

“I think half of it for kids is now they have a safe place in the school,” she said. “Especially the panic attack kids.”

It’s safe for parents, as well, because they don’t have to go somewhere special for family therapy.

“It makes it easier at school, because parents are used to coming into schools,” said Markison. “It’s a lot less scary than coming into a clinic.”

In fact, follow-through rates are dramatically better for school based programs. Only 15 percent actually schedule an appointment when students are referred for outside therapy. More than 80 percent show up for school-based therapy.

“We’ve been able to see families very, very quickly and see them in a place that’s very comfortable and convenient for them,” said Tom Steinmetz, Washburn’s chief operating officer and program director.

There are also benefits for therapists, able to see kids in their own environment, in the places that they struggle, not just an office setting.

And for grade school students, missing those pieces can be critical. Anything that gets in the way of learning at this age can impact learning for years to come.

“When kids go through family change or school fears or maybe have some ADHD but we can normalize all of those things and give them tools and supports to help them function to their best ability,” said Dahline.

That’s why Eden Prairie has been doing it this way for the least seven years.

“It all it takes is for me to provide an office and a community to be a part of,” said Houck. “It’s pretty awesome.”

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