How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

How I Help

After a mother’s suicide, this Colorado school psychologist helped give her son a reason to live

Teenage boy sitting in hallway. (Tetra Images | Getty Images)

In our new “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Rachel Toplis, a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in Colorado Springs, once met extensively with a high school boy devastated by his mother’s suicide. During the following year, he struggled academically and got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Eventually, he confided that he’d considered suicide himself, but hadn’t gone through with it because of the work they’d done together and the bond they shared. To Toplis, it was a poignant reminder that all kids need someone in their corner.

Toplis, who was named the 2017 School Psychologist of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, talked to Chalkbeat about her weekly sessions with the teenager, why she looks at bad behavior as a skill deficit, and how parents should praise their kids.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

I completed my Ph.D. at the University of East London in England. A colleague of mine at the time was training to become an educational psychologist. I loved the process she went through of gathering a body of evidence, deciphering, interpreting, and understanding a child in order to explain individual differences and figure out how to support the child. After I immigrated to the U.S., I retrained as a school psychologist.

PHOTO: courtesy of Rachel Toplis
Rachel Toplis is a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in the Academy school district.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
I am very proud of my work as brain injury specialist for our school district. I am particularly proud of a training program we developed for middle and high students on concussion prevention and management. Using a grant from the Colorado MindSource Brain Injury Program we developed a complete package of PowerPoint presentations and instructor manuals for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I am particularly interested in brain development and processing, so I tend to lean towards interventions that have a basis in brain development. I am particularly excited about strategies and curriculum that support executive functioning, such as “The Zones of Regulation” and “Smart but Scattered.”

However, one “tool” I could not live without is my team. Each of us views a child through a different lens, and when all of that information comes together, we have the best understanding of how to support the child.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
I can’t think of any misconceptions, but there are some things that should be reiterated. If you have ever tried to change a habit or behavior, you know how hard it is and how long it takes. For the students I work with, maladaptive behaviors have not developed overnight and will not generally go away overnight. Teams have to be committed, consistent, and follow through with fidelity. I believe that children are not “bad.” I prefer to interpret challenging behavior as a skill deficit waiting to be discovered so the skill can be directly taught.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

Set expectations and be consistent. Be aware of the line between supporting and encouraging your child, and unrealistic expectations that result in pressure and anxiety. Praise your child for the grit and determination they show in reaching a goal, rather than praising them for being “smart” once a task is completed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I worked with a high school student whose mother had committed suicide a year earlier. We met weekly as part of his special education services, but he also knew he could stop by my office for a cup of tea if he needed to. In the beginning, he was angry and pushed away anyone who wanted to get close to him. He got involved with peers who were not a good influence on him. Over time, his grades began to reflect the difficulty he was having. We began working with the “WhyTry” curriculum and he was able to see how his group of peers was pulling him back down.

When the anniversary of his mother’s death arrived, he had a very hard time. He let me know he had considered suicide, but he had not carried it out because of the relationship we had, and things we had talked about and practiced. I was extremely grateful that I had been able to build a relationship with this student. This situation reminded me how important it is for everyone to have at least one person who is in her or his corner.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Often the hardest part of my job is sharing assessment results with parents as part of the process for establishing students’ special education plans. My teams and I are very cognizant to talk about strengths and how to use them to support a student. Unfortunately, in order to determine what a child needs educationally, we have to attempt to figure out what their skill levels are. Therefore, these meeting tend to be where families hear, yet again, all the things their child cannot currently do. It is still a tough conversation to have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
The Colorado Department of Education supports a biannual conference for parents of students with disabilities call the Parents Encouraging Parents conference, or PEP. It was extremely eye-opening as a professional to have unfettered access to conversations from parents about the process of creating special education plans and their experience as parents of students with disabilities. It renewed my appreciation and understanding of their struggles, concerns, fears, guilt, hopes, and, sometimes, their misconceptions about the process for Individualized Education Programs. I would strongly recommend anyone in the field of education to attend this conference once in their career.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I know exercise, fun activities, and spending time with my family reduce stress. This is something I constantly work on.

How I Help

Pushing past assumptions: For this Colorado school psychologist, a language difference is not a disability

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in the Aurora school district, is careful to ensure that students don’t get labeled as having a disability just because they don’t speak English well.

But it was a mother’s emotional plea that reminded her that receiving special education services can be a good thing, too.

In this installment of “How I Help,” Simpson — who recently was named the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Provider of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists — shares what she learned from that parent, why some people say her job must be boring, and how she reached a student fed up with special education testing.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in Aurora Public Schools, with her husband, Kent, and her daughter, Willow.

I became a school psychologist after working as a school social work intern as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia. I met the school psychologist at our school and understood his role to be a bit different than the school social worker. I loved the concept of using a combination of social science and statistics to understand students.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the schools where you work?
I’ve heard others in the field say, “It must be boring testing, scoring, and writing reports over and over again.” Just the opposite! It is exhilarating to use what I know about the culturally and linguistically diverse population as a lens for everything else (test scores, teacher reports, parent reports, etc.) in order to help understand a student and to help that student succeed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
This year, I tested a student with autism who the team thought might have an intellectual disability. His tolerance for testing was low. At one point, he just got up and walked back to his classroom! After a few attempts at using motivators and reinforcers, we finally found one that worked: For every item he completed, we read a page of a book. He tested higher than the intellectual disability range. He taught me that it pays to keep trying to find the right motivator!

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
The project I am proudest of is called “true peer comparisons.” It’s a way, based on current research, to compare culturally and linguistically diverse students (formally known as English language learners) who may have a disability to similar students who do not have a disability.

It is useful when a school team is considering the “specific learning disability” special education category. The criteria for this category are vague and many culturally and linguistically diverse students were being labeled with it based on assessments that are normed on monolingual English speakers and based on criteria assuming that the student is of the majority culture. (That is, has been exposed to English since birth, has parents who graduated from high school, is read to at home, etc.)

A student might read a year or more below grade level, and this, to a teacher may look like a disability. However, they are assuming grade-level standards, and grade-level standards assume majority culture. If you compare a group of true peers — other students who also speak Spanish at home, may not have books at home, did not start learning English until enrolling in kindergarten — you have a more appropriate norm that compares apples to apples.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The most difficult part of my job is hearing of the histories of our students with trauma. There is often trauma surrounding immigration to the United States and/or the environmental issues that drove them to immigrate. Also, now that I am a mother, it’s harder to work with students with severe disabilities. I often find it difficult not to take on their parents’ grief.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At some Individualized Education Plan meetings, I advocate that a student is simply in the process of learning English and likely does not have a learning disability. At one such meeting about four years ago, I gained an important insight. Our team was suggesting that a particular student may not qualify for an Individualized Education Plan.

The student’s mother was close to tears and said through an interpreter, “I work with my daughter every day after school, and she is still so behind. How can this be?” It was such valuable information. We often base a student’s level of progress, or lack of progress, on state standards and the level of supplemental academic support at school. This student stood out, not just to her teachers, but to her mother, as academically behind based on the high level of academic support at home.

I learned that advocating for students is not just supporting the absence of a disability. It can also be supporting the existence of a disability.

Is there a tool, curriculum, or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I couldn’t live without my co-workers. Recent immigration trends are causing the field of bilingual school psychology to develop quickly, but it is difficult for the research to keep up. Our team works together to figure out what is best for students who may be dually identified as English learners and learning disabled before, during, and after the assessment process. My coworkers are indispensable in best understanding and advocating for this population.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
Some kids may act aggressive or hurtful, but generally it comes from a place of hurt. It can be hard, but when you assume they are acting out of a place of pain, it is easy to be kind to them, even in stressful situations.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I enjoy being with my kids, especially outside. I also love going for a run to clear my head.