By Laurel Lisovskis, BSW
Part 3 in our Share the Wealth series. Click to read other Share the Wealth posts.
As an MSW intern at the school-based Bethel Health Center, working under the only therapist in the district, I have been noticing all the different ways school and health center staff try to reach kids. Group counseling has been an excellent way to reach a large body of students, especially students who may not otherwise receive mental health support of any kind. Groups such as multicultural groups, teen parent groups, empowerment groups, and trauma groups are all examples of the kinds of closed-group therapy that is spread throughout the district. While these are all critical to the schools they are utilized in, another kind of group has been successful as well, and that is the informal student-led group.
At Shasta Middle, the site where I do most of my work for the health center, a group called Hot Topic Lunch was conceived by and is led by students. It is by far and away my favorite part of the week because kids show up by choice and want to talk. Hot Topic Lunch was born to provide a place and time at school for seventh graders to talk without being judged about things that are important to them in an open-group setting on a consistent basis.
Its creator, a student named Mariah, approached both myself and the school counselor, about a gap she saw in support for students around social climate. She was upset by what she was seeing in the breezeways, bathrooms, and even classrooms regarding issues like bullying and self-harm. Having been part of a girls’ empowerment group, which included discussions about things like relational aggression, ally-building skills, self-care, and resiliency, she thought these skills could be shared with the wider student population. And so, through collaboration, a plan was hatched to create Hot Topic Lunch.
The structure for the topics was created by surveying seventh-grade students during their health class. We created the content of the survey by talking to students who were interested in articulating the needs of their population. These were kids who naturally flowed into the counselor’s office to address concerns on a regular basis and students who were dealing with small group issues while we were conceptualizing the idea. We knew that bullying and self-harm were consistent barriers to a positive social climate, and we brainstormed on other possible issues. We built a sixteen-question survey and found that bullying and self-harm rose to the top, followed by identity shaping, social recognition, and loss.
In order to create a loosely structured open discussion to last thirty minutes—while eating—we knew it would be best to keep it simple. The current rules are that everyone is invited each week, and that it is a safe space. We define safe space by an agreement of confidentiality, a willingness to listen all the way, and an assumption that each person has a different experience and choice of whether to share it. In a safe space, we agree to be supportive of one another. We hold Hot Topic Lunch once per week at the same time and place, and share what the topic will be that morning during school-wide announcements.
We wanted to have some kind of curriculum, and we found that using reproducible materials from the book Talk with Teens About What Matters to Them by Jean Sunde Peterson, Ph.D., a Purdue University professor and director of school counselor preparation, was an excellent resource for guided activities. These planned activities are there if we feel we need them, but usually the students begin discussions right away based on only a small amount of prompting. We end up using the materials as more of a touch point for ourselves to make sure the discussions are useful and end on a meaningful note.
It is difficult to gauge success for overall school climate, but attendance is high for Hot Topic Lunch, and the array of students participating is wide. The climate during our informal sessions goes from serious to fun depending on the day, but it always feels very nurturing. Many personal stories and issues have been shared, and students tell me they feel better after sharing. And they keep coming back for more. It may be too soon to tell whether the overall social climate at school has been impacted, but we are moving forward one hot topic at a time.
Laurel Lisovskis, BSW, is in her second year of graduate school working toward clinical licensure in social work at Portland State University. Her field placement is at the school-based Bethel Health Center, one of the innovative programs conceived through an alliance between state healthcare initiatives and public schools to bring services directly to students and families at school sites. Her intern experience includes doing individual and group therapy, as well as traditional social work roles such as resource utilization, collaboration with internal and external supports, and case management. Laurel is also working within the clinical setting to streamline integrated care services. With over ten years of expertise in counseling in both healthcare and public school domains, she lends a unique perspective of the connectivity between mental health and the well-being of middle school student populations.
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