Stories

↓ The Kindness Challenge
Counseling in Schools shows how acts of kindness build positive self-esteem, partnership and pride in one’s community. Respect For All was the theme for the month of February, and so many students stepped up and modeled this amazing behavior, which demonstrates examples of success.
Setting the tone in a school by letting students know that they can make positive changes is a fantastic way to build community. Counseling In Schools believes deeply in this philosophy and acts on it by teaching students to greet each other with a ‘good morning,’ and a ‘good afternoon.’ Students are also asked to introduce themselves in front of their peers and to offer each other compliments. These are the perfect opportunities to model that by simply highlighting strengths and making note of it with other students benefits the entire group and is a great way to set the tone.

Acts of kindness in a school community are frequently discussed topics. Teachers regularly encourage students to compliment each other, to say ‘thank you,’ to recognize when a friend is upset and to invite a new friend to play or join a group.

But, periodically, young people and adults alike need to be reminded about the importance of these acts. Counseling In Schools enjoys sharing details about our programs; especially ones that involve themes of Respect and Kindness. One of our counselors from a partner school in the Bronx shared details about their Kindness Challenge, which took place on Valentine’s Day. This particular theme was just one of many spectacular examples that has sprouted from this school’s community.

The children at this Pre-K through grade 5 school are taught to compliment each other in front of their peers as the perfect opportunity to model acts of kindness. By simply highlighting strengths and making note of students’ strengths, everyone benefits as a whole, which sets the tone.

“I normally set the tone by letting my group members know that I really believe they can make positive changes,” said Jannet Rivera, MS, MHC, a CIS counselor for the school. “I greet them with a ‘good morning’ and a ‘good afternoon;’ I have them introduce themselves to the group, identify strengths in each member and verbalize those sentiments in front of each other.”

Ms. Rivera focuses on behavior modifying activities, meaning that she prepares themes that are relevant to a particular month, including good manners, kindness, anti-bullying, empathy, and Women’s History Month. The on-site CIS team collaborates and determines the specific theme for the month with an emphasis on keeping the students engaged and positive, reinforcing everyone’s strengths, including how to use a sense of humor when appropriate.

Group rules are emphasized and everyone is given an opportunity to be heard. “There are times where the sessions become a bit overwhelming, but that ultimately leads to teachable moments,” emphasizes Ms. Rivera. “We try to keep it simple, helping the students find new or different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving, while practicing gratitude in their daily lives.”

In the month of February, Ms. Rivera and the team explored the theme of Respect For All. The group elaborated that Kindness Matters, so the staff, students and families were encouraged to show many random acts of kindness. The students appreciated the challenge and recognized that they are each other’s role models, so they jumped at the opportunity to write an act of kindness on an index card and give it to their parents, fellow students and the school staff throughout February.

Students were helpful with setting up, before reading the assigned Kindness worksheet, where attributes were noted. They contributed their creativity and ideas before moving onto their Valentine’s Day cards for loved ones, family members, a peer or a staff member. The students felt even more empowered by taking individual and group pictures of their projects and gifts.

As a team, they were able to have a positive impact on their peers by uplifting and inspiring them to think and act in ways that they may not have considered previously or that had slipped away temporarily. Whether it is smiling at each other, lending a classmate a pencil, or writing someone a note, the takeaway of the Kindness Challenge for these students is impactful and has long-lasting ramifications.

Several of the students modeled the behavior, which demonstrated examples of success, respect for all and acts of kindness – all of which builds positive self-esteem, partnership and pride in their community.

↓ Good Leaders Make Good Schools
Counseling in Schools partners with many high-energy principals and teachers, who demonstrate leadership by reflecting and collaborating as a team.
A picture is worth a thousand words, especially when it involves leadership, trust and engagement between principals, administrators, teachers and students.

New York Times writer David Brooks published an opinion piece on March 12, Good Leaders Make Good Schools, that immediately brought to mind the partners that Counseling In Schools works with in the NYC school system.

The word ‘partners’ is used very deliberately in this context because of the references that Brooks makes to the school systems in Washington, New Orleans and Chicago, where the graduation rates have increased by 20 percent since 2011, in large part due to the partnerships and collaboration with principals as keys to their successes.

In a recent blog post, we referenced the CIS procedure for assessing the strengths and assets of a school community when we begin our engagements. Parallel to David Brooks’ point, our partnerships with principals are fundamental to our mutual success. A significant statement in Brooks’ piece is about how the delegation of power and making room for the elevation of voices make a principal effective. A few weeks ago, Counseling in Schools held an all-staff development day where one aspect that we examined was ways to strengthen our relationships with principals.

Counseling In Schools understands that it is instrumental for our directors to build trusting relationships with principals as we align ourselves with a wide array of stakeholders, thus supporting the achievement of the children. We believe that good leadership is found in active learning through inquiry, reflection, and collaboration.

We have recently brought CIS partner principals together in forums where interschool inquiry, reflection and collaboration took place. There has been a high level of engagement between principals and with us as we explored common goals and cited specific examples of where our relationships and collaborations have effectively influenced the culture and climate of the whole school in support of student achievement.

Our dialogue validated that “rituals for welcoming members into the community; the ways walls are decorated to display school values; the distribution of power across the community; the celebrations of accomplishment and the quality of trusting relationships,” to paraphrase Mr. Brooks, are hallmarks of effective principals, strong partnerships and successful schools. Counseling in Schools is proud to work in partnership with many high-energy principals as together we “circulate through the building, offering feedback, setting standards, and applying social glue” to the benefit of all students.

↓ Of Robots and Self-Confidence
At Counseling In Schools, possibilities are awakened through inquiry and practice. Can a Robot build self-confidence?
Brooklyn’s Junior High School 223’s Lego Robotics Team, dubbed “Cybermatic Potatoes 3.0”, is answering this question as they develop their scientific, creative, social and emotional skills in a CIS run afterschool program.

For the third year running, CIS staff members Adnan Lotia and Erel Pilo are preparing a group of students for the annual First Lego League Robotics Competition. Concentration, cooperation, risk taking, creativity, patience and a fun-loving attitude will be the key ingredients to this group’s successful participation in the event.
In order to get a handle on the theme for the competition – Hydrodynamics – the team is studying the local water management strategies at the Valentino Pier, the Gowanus Canal and the Newton Creek Wastewater Treatment Facility. Taking this field knowledge back to school, team members are working diligently to learn how to program sensors, wire Lego pieces, design robots, and, perhaps most daunting of all, to make oral presentations! This competition requires these students to not only demonstrate the technical ability to create functional robots, but moreover, to display the self-confidence and verbal skills to stand before the judges and effectively communicate the relationship between their robot and their research.
Amidst the groans of frustration when programming sequences fails, the shrieks of excitement when the robot responds as planned and the mottled speech of an anxious oral presentation, there is a baseline of playfulness and pure fun that permeates this group. Day after day, these young people acquire more knowledge, show more creativity, take more risks and build stronger bonds with one another. Witnessing this group in action is seeing what whole child education is all about!
To answer our initial question: A Robot cannot build self-confidence. Self-confidence, however, is built upon the opportunity, encouragement and abilities of individuals working within a supportive community that may coincidentally be building robots! So, we might conclude that it is through self-confidence that robots are built, relationships forged, and possibilities awakened!

↓ Awakening Possibilities at MS 354
When Counseling In Schools enters a school community, we follow a simple procedure: we assess where the strengths in the community lie; we assess what additional assets can benefit the community; we create a plan to provide those assets ourselves and/or to secure them from the community; then, community members utilize and integrate these assets into their lives as they grow and attain personal and communal goals.
In 2015, CIS entered MS 354, a Crown Heights Brooklyn middle school, as the lead community partner to implement the city’s Community School Model. The first asset we introduced into the community was our Community School Director, Amanda Bernardine.

Amanda’s work at this school began by attending meetings and events where the full range of school stakeholders gathered. Hearing the strong desire of the children and adults to create a school culture that would promote mutual respect and safety, she set in motion a plan that could achieve just that.To complement the work of our counseling services, Amanda identified the Anti-Defamation League’s No Place For Hate initiative as a program that could inspire and guide the entire student body, their family members and the staff towards the creation of a safe school culture for all.

A central event of the initiative was an assembly that featured Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, a 25 year old woman of Jordanian and Palestinian descent and founding editor of MuslimGirl, an online magazine for Muslim women. Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh exposed the perils of hatred by describing in great detail the bigotry she faced when she was a middle school student. She shared her experiences of being teased, feeling isolated and trying to fit in by appearing to be anything but the Muslim girl that she was. These painful experiences resonated with many and stiffened the resolve of the audience to speak out against prejudice, bigotry and hatred.

Large assembly presentations, such as this one, can empower students, who would otherwise remain silent, to speak out – and that is just what happened at MS 354. Immediately following Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh’s presentation, 3 students approached her and started speaking to her in Arabic. The linguistic and cultural connections with Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh gave these students the impetus they needed to reveal their never-before shared experiential connections: being bullied, being called names, feeling separate from their classmates, and getting into fights. For nearly 30 minutes, Ms. Al-Khatahtbeh, Ms. Bernardine and MS 354 teacher, Marium Rizvi, bore witness to stories of pain and fear that had been pent up for months, if not years. The positive implications of these early adolescent children stepping out of the shadows, sharing their stories and investing their trust within the MS 354 community cannot be overstated.

Creating an environment that acknowledges the realities of pain, prejudice and hate in one’s life while at the same time opening opportunities for compassion and healing to take place is an asset frequently offered by CIS to members of our partnering school communities.

↓ Drawings on Asphalt
Sometimes, the seemingly simplest thing—like participating in an art class—can make all the difference for a struggling student. But for paraplegic special-education kids, there are many challenges that must be overcome before they can engage in artistic activities.
CIS seeks to awaken possibilities in all students, particularly those with specialized needs. So, for a group of wheelchair-bound paraplegic students, counselors put creativity to work—in order to make art therapy a reality for these children.
Drawings on Asphalt

CIS counselors had three main goals in mind with the “Drawings on Asphalt” program: outdoor activity (to increase ability of self-expression outside the regular setting), large-scale art (to stimulate body involvement in the art-making process), and the transformation of physical impairments into an art-making tool (to nurture physical and psychological empowerment and validation).

The first and most important hurdle was the students’ limited range of motion. If these types of barriers are not properly addressed, there is a significant risk of students feeling frustrated or withdrawn in the art-making process. So, as springtime rolled around, each student was provided with a “drawing device” consisting of a three-feet-long wooden stick attached to their wheelchair on one end, and extending with colored drawing chalks on the other end. Once outside and artistically enabled, the students reacted immediately—driving their wheelchairs around and drawing hearts, scribbles, abstract designs, and geometrical shapes.

The experiment brought a sense of enhanced freedom and empowerment to the students, who in turn showed more independence in taking actions, making art, and communicating verbally. Most importantly, the students’ physical impairments were no longer an obstacle, but the main medium in the art-making process. These students have shown considerable growth, increased self-esteem, and greater self-acceptance through this clever art therapy program.

↓ Answering the Call
Tragedy comes in many forms, which means it must be handled appropriately and effectively for each unique situation. And when it comes to natural disasters, there are many unforeseen challenges that require immediate action.
CIS is always ready to help a school and its community at a time of need. So, when we received a call from (location), we were ready to take swift, collaborative, and constructive action.
Hurricane Sandy devastation

Word came in that Hurricane Sandy had devastated a school building and the surrounding community. They needed our help right away—despite the fact that this was two years after the storm itself. Delayed traumas are surprisingly common, and CIS was awarded a social services block grant from NY State for just this kind of situation.

These students were still reliving the devastation of Hurricane Sandy in ways that were affecting their behavior in class, ability to focus academically, and relationships with friends and peers. CIS sprang into action, engaging the school and its community in a number of collaborative programs to cope with both immediate and long-term needs.

In particular, our Care for the Caregiver program provided necessary support to teachers and parents—and we set up individual and group counseling sessions with students. Additionally, through our partnership with CANY (a trauma-informed drama therapy program), a select group of children are participating in ongoing workshops to help them build the social and emotional tools they need in order to thrive and reach their maximum potential.

Through these restorative programs that we’re fortunate to be able to provide, CIS fosters healing in real times of need—helping to lay the groundwork for communities to rebuild, strengthen, and move forward with confidence.

↓ CIS and the Art of Healing
School communities are by no means immune to the news and stresses of the world. Case in point: the catastrophic 2010 Haiti Earthquake hit the Brooklyn’s Canarsie community hard (many students’ immediate family members lived in Haiti).
CIS employs a community-based approach in order to meet the varied academic, emotional, and family-related needs of New York City’s students. So when Carnarsie school buildings became overwhelmed with students in deep distress, we responded accordingly.

Teams of CIS counselors were deployed to more than 18 schools, to help students cope with the turmoil. These counselors worked with groups of students, providing them a safe space to process the tragedy, help them cope with stress, understand their grief, and express their pain.

As CIS Counselors laid the foundation for a supportive, trusting, and restorative environment, the students themselves began to initiate group sessions, where they could share their feelings and be supported by their peers. As stories of life, loss and survival filtered through the schools, a sense of solidarity and deep connection arose—and out of this crisis emerged a stronger community of students whose resilience was being tested and proven.

↓ Family Fun Day
Quality family time may seem like a simple concept, but it’s certainly not a given for all of New York City’s children. And, when lacking, the longing for quality time with family members can be at the root of many children’s social, emotional and academic struggles, particularly those who live in temporary housing.
CIS utilizes collaborative, creative approaches to help children thrive in not only a school setting, but also at home and in the community. So when we learned about the needs of a second-grader who lived at a city shelter for homeless families, we reached out with a helping hand.
Child in zebra mask

This student had been involved in a number of fights at her school, PS 46. Through family counseling, the root cause was identified—which was the young girl’s desire to spend time with her mother in the relaxed manner they had enjoyed before their housing troubles began.

With this knowledge in mind, CIS counselors decided to put together a Family Fun Day and invite the families of eighteen students they were working with at PS 46, most of who also lived in a city shelter.  For those children whose parents were not able to attend, siblings, friends and community members were invited in to show their support.

The families engaged in a variety of bonding activities and games, from bingo and puzzles to relay races and arts and crafts.  Children were asked to draw pictures of what family means to them, and the adults were asked to create “Chests of Hope” – small boxes that contained slips of paper with inspirational notes, including memories, dreams and bits of wisdom for their children to hold onto forever.

Throughout the event, CIS counselors heard parents reflect not only on the joys of the day, but also on their desire to spend this kind of quality time with their children. The success of this transformative occasion was truly inspiring; from one child’s courageous voice to a compassionate counselor’s ability to listen, an experience was created that gave support to a larger community.  Parents and children were given the opportunity to see each other outside the demands of school, work, and housing.  Consequently, children and their parents were enabled to settle into the trust and understanding that will get them through current and future challenges.