The kindergartners in teacher Kristen Barton’s class are sitting in a circle on the brightly colored carpet, thinking hard and taking turns offering suggestions about how they can recognize and take control of their emotions when they begin feeling frustrated in school. Their answers vary greatly, but Glenwood Heights Primary School Psychologist Marissa Avalon is there to help guide the students in devising healthy, productive means for coping with the stresses that may arise during the school day.
This exercise is part of Avalon’s outreach to all students at Glenwood Heights, helping to teach the school’s Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports, or PBIS expectations, which Battle Ground Public Schools has implemented at all its schools in support of its focus on social-emotional learning.
Avalon certainly isn’t alone in what she does for BGPS students. The district employs 21 full-time school psychologists, plus an intern. School psychologists are considered the “case manager” at their buildings, serving both general and special education students. The services they provide include counseling, group work, and guiding the multidisciplinary special education team processes.
“Our school psychologists are essential to providing successful social-emotional learning programs in all of our schools,” said Ellen Wiessner, the district’s Executive Director of Special Services. “I’m continually impressed by the phenomenal job they’re doing through engaging with students, and they bring an impressively versatile skillset to Battle Ground Schools.”
Glenwood Heights’ PBIS motto is Be Safe, Be Respectful, and Be Responsible, and with help from their teachers and specialists like Avalon, these kindergartners are learning how to meet and exceed these expectations.
In addition to general student outreach efforts, Avalon also engages directly with individual students who are struggling to meet behavior expectations. Last year, she brought the district’s “Check In, Check Out” support program to Glenwood Heights. Students who have been referred by their classroom teacher meet with her or one of Glenwood’s four other designated mentors for 10 minutes each morning to “check in” about how they’re feeling and to discuss coping strategies should challenges arise. At the end of each day, they meet again to “check out” and discuss how the strategies worked and plan ways to be more successful in the coming days and weeks.
“For kids struggling with emotional regulation, having positive connections with an adult for even a few minutes each morning and afternoon can have a huge impact,” Avalon said. “Having that guided conversation, setting specific goals, and providing encouragement to these students is beneficial in helping them make progress.”
Avalon also leads skill-building groups that help students with trauma, anxiety, impulse control, and those who have trouble focusing. Groups of about four students meet with Mrs. Avalon weekly to practice strategies that help them build coping skills. Using colorful charts, these kids learn to identify disruptive emotions and cope with them using methods such as positive self-talk, breathing techniques, and muscle relaxation. For example, kids in the impulse control group use a chart modeled after red, yellow and green traffic lights called “Stop, Think, Do.”
“Essentially, these kids are learning about self control,” Avalon said. “Over the course of 6-8 weeks, these students can work with a group of peers to become more self-aware and practice skills to use, such as forgetting and moving past negative interactions with peers that would otherwise make them react emotionally. There’s a lot that these kids can learn to do on their own to feel better and be happier at school and beyond.”
“Marissa is a critical component to the overall success of Glenwood students,” said Assistant Principal Damen Hermens. “She is continually supportive of teachers and has a natural ability to connect with students. Her contributions have helped Glenwood establish successful systems of intervention and supports that center around providing for student needs and growth.”
Avalon is passionate about what she does, and that quickly becomes apparent when you talk to her about her work. She realizes that teaching coping skills to children, especially those in the early years of their education, has a tremendous impact on shaping their future success.
“Some conditions are easy to diagnose and respond to, but behavior problems can pose a challenge because they can be hard to identify and can be easily misunderstood by others,” Avalon said. “Each student has different needs, and it’s important that every student feels supported so they can come to school each day emotionally prepared to learn.”