It is often said that children are our future. But there are big challenges for our kids today, and sometimes, our systems are slow to catch up with the needs. Here in southern Rhode Island, our children have a unique band of advocates, people from many occupations who unite across towns, school districts and agencies to tackle the most pressing needs of the county’s children.
The Washington County Coalition for Children (WCCC) is the region’s only countywide organization advocating for children and their families, bringing together an impressive array of advocates on a primarily volunteer basis since its inception in 2001. “The Coalition identifies needs that can’t be solved by any one agency or any one group,” explains Susan Orban, a social worker who is the only paid part-time staffer for the group. “These issues really require collaboration to address.” The group regularly analyzes data on the status of the county’s children and uses that to develop priorities. They look for the gaps, where kids might be falling through the cracks, and then unite people across the community to create solutions.
A long-time volunteer and mental health counselor who works with kids, Mike Cerullo, joined the WCCC while he was serving on the Exeter Town Council. “What makes the Coalition authentic and effective,” he says, “is that it is made up of volunteers who work in the trenches. We understand the needs and what works to meet the needs because we function at the ground level. We’re volunteers and not administrators. We’re not doing this because it’s part of our jobs.” Some of the top priorities identified by the group are ad- dressing children’s mental health and bullying prevention.
Children and young adults are experiencing mental health and behavioral problems in greater numbers, yet an awareness of this and an understanding of how to respond to them has not kept pace. Mental health is also often stigmatized and misunderstood. According to the WCCC, one in five children experience mental and behavioral health problems, including depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. But 75-80% of children and youth do not receive the mental health services that they need.
Last month, the group, in partnership with Gateway Healthcare, the South Kingstown Police Department, and all seven South County school districts in addition to East Greenwich, received a prestigious grant from the Federal Center for Mental Health Services to launch a major mental health effort to equip those in the community who work with children to change this alarming statistic. The grant was one of only 100 administered in the United States and the only one awarded in Rhode Island. It will bring the evidence-based program Youth Mental Health First Aid to Southern RI, training 500 people in the community to identify and respond to signs of mental health problems among teens. Teachers, police officers, Scout leaders, and coaches will be among those invited to receive training.
The WCCC also targets younger children with an emotional literacy project, Feelin’ Groovy, to run in second grade classrooms around the region. “An important component of positive mental health is emotional regulation and it begins with being able to identify and talk about your feelings,” says Orban.
Feelin’ Groovy combines a picture-book story, lesson plans and an art project to teach kids how to express and celebrate their feelings. This past year, the program ran in 22 classrooms throughout 14 area schools. “Kids learn that it’s okay to have feelings. It’s about how you express your feelings,” adds Orban.
Another focus has been on bullying prevention. As many as 67% of middle school students in Washington County report that they have experienced at least one type of bullying within the last 12 months. The WCCC has worked with area schools to implement proven, data-driven bullying intervention and prevention programs, which can now be found in many area elementary and middle schools. But they don’t stop their efforts when the school day is over. “Research shows that with bullying prevention, you have to change hearts and minds in the community in order to really be effective,” explains Orban. This year, the WCCC held the second annual Chalk It Up Against Bullying rally (pictured below), where sidewalks in Wakefield and Westerly were covered in chalk anti-bullying messages. They distributed handouts debunking common myths about bullying, such as that it is a natural part of childhood or “boys will be boys.” Bullying does not occur in isolated incidents by a few “bad apples.” Parents, peers, school and communities play a role in reinforcing or discouraging bullying behaviors.
The WCCC celebrates this rare collaborative spirit that drives all of its initiatives. “All of these issues that we address are beyond the scope of any one agency. Together, we are able to do something about it and it makes a difference and that is very exciting to me,” says Orban. “I’ve been unbeliev- ably fortunate to work with so many fabulous volunteers and collaborators who are just as passionate as I am about kids’ issues. They’ve made this happen.” The group continues to host a yearly “How Are the Children?” fo- rum to update the community about the current data and to vote on what the priorities of the group should be. Find more information on how to get involved at www.washcokids.org
Teaching Emotional Literacy
#1 Name that feeling
Help your child identify and name their feelings. Notice the ways your child expresses their emotions through body cues, facial expressions and behavioral changes.
#2 Set a good example
Children learn how to interact with others by watching the adults in their life. Show them with your own words and actions that feelings are okay, everyone has them and that no one should be judged or criticized for feel-ing a certain way.
#3 Talk about the interactions around you
Children are constantly exposed to both positive and negative expressions of feelings, from the playground to television to bedtime. Use these situa-tions as teachable moments.
#4 Teach how to cope with negative emotions
It’s normal to experience emotions such as anger or jealousy. Don’t try to “fix” negative emotions, but instead demonstrate appropriate ways to release them, such as doing jumping jacks, making a drawing or squeezing a squishy ball.
#5 Ask, “How would you feel?”
Talk about the impact of unkind or hurtful behaviors on others. Foster empathy in kids by recognizing them when they show it towards others.