For many children suffering from anxiety or stress, school is the only place they are able to receive psychological services. However, during the summer, these resources are often unavailable to students who need them the most.
Sadie Hasbrouck and Catherine Sanger, doctoral students in the Clinical & School Psychology program working at the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning (CASTL), set out to bridge this summer service gap. The Doris Buffett Fellowship, which is competitively available through the Center for Children, Families and the Law to graduate students doing applied work with children and families in need, provided them with the funds necessary to plan and implement a program geared towards elementary school Latino students.
Hasbrouck and Sanger became interested in providing summer therapy services after working with a group of Latino students at Cale Elementary School during the spring of 2013. Both Hasbrouck and Sanger worked with the school’s psychologist, Trish Reyes, as part of their practicum placement.
“The spring group went really well, and we realized there were kids who could benefit from a summer version of the program, especially since many of them wouldn’t be getting any services whatsoever when school was no longer in session,” Hasbrouck said.
We realized there were kids who could benefit from a summer version of the program, especially since many of them wouldn’t be getting any [counseling] services whatsoever when school was no longer in session.
After consulting with Reyes and UVA faculty advisers, Hasbrouck and Sanger decided to focus the 9-week group around fostering the children’s self-regulation skills. They would spend the summer sessions teaching the students how to use various tools to address feelings of anxiety or anger, such as monitoring reactions with an emotion thermometer or using relaxation strategies to calm down.
During the planning process, they also identified a potential partner to sponsor the program.
Hasbrouck explained, “We had the idea to contact the Southwood Boys & Girls Club to see if they would be interested in offering a coping skills-focused group since many children in the community go there for childcare and activities over the summer. The director, Olga Aruca, was really excited about the idea and helped us set everything up.”
With the help of several people in the community, Hasbrouck and Sanger recruited 15 children to participate – enough that they decided to divide the children into two smaller sections, one comprised of rising 1st and 2nd grade students and the other of rising 3rd - 5th graders.
Separating the children into two groups allowed Hasbrouck and Sanger to differentiate the curriculum based on age, which proved to be key to the success of each group. “We felt pretty comfortable with our curriculum for the 3rd - 5th graders since we had worked with that age group during the spring, but we quickly found out in the first few sessions that we would need a different format for the 1st and 2nd graders. We needed quick activities,” Hasbrouck said.
After recognizing the unique needs of the younger children, Hasbrouck and Sanger found their supervising faculty member, Amanda Williford, to be a valuable resource.
Sanger said, “Because she has a specialty in preschoolers and early childhood, Amanda was really helpful in picking other activities that were more appropriate for the younger group. We were then able to mix those activities in with the more focused and targeted work we were doing,”
Hasbrouck and Sanger tried to maintain this balance in both age groups, incorporating educational activities and fun into each 45-minute session, but even the games reinforced the overarching strategies children were learning. This structure also allowed Hasbrouck and Sanger to observe the students’ skills in action.
Sanger remembered one particular occasion early in the summer in which a younger child became visibly frustrated after dropping a ball during a game. “In later sessions, she was able to reflect back on the incident and think about how she could have used one of the strategies to calm herself down.”
Over the course of the summer, Hasbrouck and Sanger were able to see many other instances of progress in students. They discussed the evolution of one child, who had also participated in the spring group.
“One rising third grader struggled to positively engage and stay focused in a group environment,” Hasbrouck explained. “Then, Catherine and Amanda had the idea to have him keep a sticker chart in order to track his behavior – being able to see his good behavior materialize in stickers really helped him to participate and gave him something to be proud of.”
Sanger added, “That combined with being in the group environment where we set clear goals – we listen, we try our best, we engage while we’re here – and rewarding him when he fulfilled those goals allowed him to have a positive experience and feel successful. He did really well when given the right supports.”
The children weren’t the only ones who benefited from the summer program – Sanger noted the invaluable hands-on skills she and Hasbrouck gained through planning and directing the group. “Not only was it helpful to learn more about the group therapy format, but it was also a good experience partnering with an agency in the community,” Sanger explained. “Getting familiar with the logistics and challenges of doing this kind of work in the community will help us in our future work with children and their families.”
Not only was it helpful to learn more about the group therapy format, but it was also a good experience partnering with an agency in the community. Getting familiar with the logistics and challenges of doing this kind of work in the community will help us in our future work with children and their families.
Hasbrouck and Sanger hope to adapt the program and continue their work with a younger group of children next summer.
By: Kate Miller-Bains