Michele Grimaldi

Michele Grimaldi, community partnership coordinator for Mesa Public Schools, said the Terros-district partnership will help young children.

Terros Health and Mesa Public Schools are partnering to provide behavioral health services to students in grades pre-K through sixth.

Last year, Mesa Public Schools reported a sharp decline in students enrolled in preschool and kindergarten, largely due to pandemic-driven closures and fear of COVID-19.

Without proper socialization and routines, young students may struggle adjusting to in-person learning, said Michele Grimaldi, community partnership coordinator for Mesa Public Schools.

“If COVID taught us anything, it’s that kids really need that interaction,” she said. “Kids can’t get everything from technology. They need socialization. They need to practice routines and how to get along with others.”

During the pandemic, many children were isolated at home with nothing but screens to keep them company. While technology can be beneficial, lacking in-classroom experience can result in severe emotional and behavioral issues, Grimaldi said.

“We’re seeing kids who have not had your typical socialization,” she said. “They might have missed preschool and are entering kindergarten without school routines, structure – all of those academic skills that you would want ahead of time. 

“You can’t fault these children who may not have had exposure to others or been in a regular routine.”

Recognizing that early learning is a foundation of future success, Mesa Public Schools and Terros Health forged a partnership last year initially designed to help preschoolers make a smooth transition to kindergarten. 

Because it has pre-kindergarten behavioral health specialists, Terros Health was assigned to all preschool programs in the Mesa Public Schools district.

In August, the partnership expanded to help K-6 students overcome emotional, social and developmental challenges at three elementary schools: Washington, Whittier and Sirrine.

Terros Health is just one of five behavioral health agencies in partnership with MPS, the largest school district in Arizona with approximately 64,000 students at 82 schools.

“My goal is to get all schools a formal behavioral health partner,” Grimaldi said. “At this point, we have a partner at every high school, most junior highs and we’re getting there with those elementary schools. We started at zero less than three years ago and we’re at 42 schools now.”

When someone, whether it be a student, parent or staff member, identifies a student with concerns about their developmental, social or emotional health, that student is referred Terros, which then reaches out to the student’s family and offers services that can help children and their family get back on track.

“That age range, they only know what their environment is,” said Kimberly McWilliams, director of children’s services at Terros Health. “They could have experienced some trauma in their immediate environment. 

“COVID is an absolute trauma. If you remember being 5 years old, your parents would say ‘go and play, go outside.’ Well, these kids lost a whole year of that and were directed inside.”

When a child is used to an environment of isolation and screen time, the transition from screens to another activity can be a struggle, McWilliams said.

Screens don’t teach you everything you need to know, Grimaldi said. Delayed gratification, getting along with others, being able to sit still for a long period of time and focus on one task is important.

“Teaching these skills helps with early intervention,” McWilliams said. “The earlier we can get a kiddo to know how to self-regulate, identify emotions and communicate those emotions to get support, the better the outcomes.”

Terros has a program for teens that focuses on substance use treatment and that program is seeing younger and younger kids have issues because they are using substances to cope with stress, McWilliams said. If kids are supported early on, then potential future issues can be prevented.

Grimaldi was first drawn to Terros Health because it is one of the few providers specialists for kids up to 5.

“Even though children’s work is a specialty and our children’s department works from birth to age 17, birth to age 5 is even more special because it requires more training to really understand the unique needs of that age group,” McWilliams said.

If the family accepts help, Terros Health’s birth to age 5 specialist conducts a comprehensive assessment and developmental screening to identify physical, social and emotional deficits, McWilliams said.

Based on their findings and feedback from the child’s parents and teachers, Terros Health and Mesa Public Schools work with the family and the teacher to set goals for the student. These could include improving motor development, social and emotional health, or listening, engagement and coping skills to manage stress.

Terros and MPS then develop a treatment plan which is administered by

a child therapist in a one-on-one or family session. 

The program is school-based, so Terros Health specialists can provide direct intervention in the classroom. Terros Health also serves students at their homes or one of its health centers, as needed. 

“The in-school therapy is above and beyond what a school counselor can do,” Grimaldi said. “Mesa Public Schools is very good at having at least one counselor at every site, but sometimes kids have issues above and beyond what a school personnel or staff can completely help with.”

The beauty of in-school therapy is that students don’t have to face issues like transportation and already have trust in their school, she added.

Trauma can go beyond needing skills therapy, so therapy services also address anxiety, depression, troublesome behaviors and more, McWilliams said.

Treatment is paid for by patients’ private insurance, McWilliams said. Uninsured individuals also can gain access to services through programs provided by Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS). 

No family will be turned away due to limited financial reasons, she added.

 

Information: Casey Martinez, clinical site manager for Terros Health, at 602-389-3666 or casey.martinez@terros.org.

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