For evidence of Providence Day’s growth and evolution in recent years, look no further than the Student Services team headed by Joyce Harris.
From just three team members only a few years ago, the department now contains five counselors, four learning specialists, and four more Lower School resource/specialist teachers serving a wide range of academic, social, and emotional needs of students across all three divisions in collaboration with the school’s families and teachers.
Harris, Director of Student Services, began her time at PD as a fourth-grade teacher and remained in that role for 12 years. Her degrees in special education and early childhood fueled her interest in understanding how children learn. “When I was (teaching) in fourth grade I sought out courses on the brain at the beginning of the neurological merging of education, psychology, and neuroscience,” she says. “Neurodiversity was coined, and teaching with the brain in mind evolved as schools nationwide began to differentiate learning at that time.”
Learning specialists, who support students in need of intervention for learning differences or academic struggles, did not yet exist at PD. “When I had the opportunity to move into this role, I started as a tutoring coordinator and organized speech and language services,” she says. “Our occupational therapist did training on the value of movement in the classroom, teaching different kinds of minds, how occupational therapy practices can help all kids, and how to get centered and ready for learning.” Harris had already integrated these brain-friendly practices in her classroom, and then-Head of School Gene Bratek saw that these techniques worked.
“It was no surprise to me as a special educator that there were students at PD with learning differences, because the definition of a student with learning differences is someone bright and highly verbal who may have trouble reading or a discrepancy getting thoughts to paper,” she says. These students benefit from time with learning specialists, and Bratek gave his approval to hire a small team before he retired. Harris credits school administrators, the Parents’ Association, and the Board of Trustees for their ongoing support of the team and their programming.
Things evolved quickly when Dr. Glyn Cowlishaw joined the community as Head of School ten years ago. “He was interested in student services and supporting students, parents were interested in having additional support for their children, and that’s when we became a recognized and formalized student services department,” Harris says. “I will never forget during his first year when he asked, ‘How can I support you and what do you need?’ He was one of our early advocates, especially in the areas of adding additional personnel and supporting the topic of mental health and wellness.”
“I became the department chair and at that time we had one counselor in each division, one Lower School learning specialist, and Shelley Mikszan handling both Middle and Upper School learning,” she says. “A couple of years later Julie Hill was hired, and Elisa Clark joined the team as a Lower School learning specialist in 2020.”
A key factor in the team’s growth has been an evolution in views of mental health - from a sometimes-stigmatized topic to one discussed openly in the school setting. Upper School counselors Claire Bell and Marissa Kohn recently began their fourth year on the team, Middle School counselor Lisa Bernard is in year three at PD, and a second Lower School counselor, Jenny Montague Gould ’96, joined Margot Brinley last year to support the growing number of students on campus.
“Thankfully, there was a national movement for people to talk about mental health,” says Harris. “At one time, the role of a school counselor was to help kids but it was behind the scenes. That has completely changed and our counselors have done a great job demystifying talking to the school counselor.”
“We are grateful for the ongoing support the Student Services team receives,” Harris says. “We feel heard and supported. Our faculty is amazing in so many ways, including how open they are to learning more about how to support all kinds of learners in their classrooms.”
No stone is left unturned for student services as they proactively plan as consultants and resources for the school. “Now as a department, we have the counseling team and learning specialist team speaking a common language and focused on the bigger picture,” Harris says.
“They are the future; they are bringing this positive energy and insightfulness and new ideas that will carry student services. They are bringing it from good to great and they are great. I’m very grateful for them.”
Lower School Student Services Team
With Margot Brinley, Counselor for Grades 3-5; Elisa Clark, Lower School Learning Specialist; and Jenny Gould, Counselor for Grades TK-2
Margot: I am the holder of big feelings. Our role is to support students, families, parents, and teachers in the social-emotional and behavioral life of the students at PD. We work very closely with the Learning Specialists whose lens is academic, but as we know, those overlap. We support parents as they navigate the world of Lower School and then we work directly with students should they have big feelings at school, struggles, or friendship issues that need conflict resolution. Teachers are very supportive of us popping into a classroom or grabbing a student for a little check-in.
Elisa: My job is to be an advocate for students with learning differences and I am the thread for all grades in Lower School to make sure the kids I have get the support they need every single year. I also am the liaison between the families and teachers. As a whole, our Lower School student services team spends most of our time supporting our teachers to support the students. I am grateful to have Ann Williams as a reading specialist, Kerrie Hancock as a math specialist, and Anita McLeod as a writing specialist. They are available to support teachers as well as work individually with students. We also spend a lot of time communicating with outside supporters who also support our students.
Learning differences include many things. It could be a sensory issue in younger students to noise, clothing and tags, or food. It can involve executive functioning and organization which impacts working memory. It can also involve dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia, or dyspraxia between writing, math, and reading. There are lots of different types of differences, and a lot of anxiety that goes beyond those things.
Jenny: Last year Elisa started an entire remote school for the Lower School which was amazing. This year the Lower School Student Services Team is off to a great start. Our goal is to provide the most comprehensive whole child-centered care and support for students in TK-5. We really value our team collaboration and are constantly looking for ways to grow and improve the support we offer to students, families, and teachers.
Elisa: We are the ‘yes, and’ team. Because we work well together, we collaborate, we all bring different perspectives into the middle, we are accepting of everyone’s ideas, and we add onto them.
Margot: Elisa talks about ‘grows and glows’ – we acknowledge that everybody has things they need to work on, but we really try to listen for the bright spots. The Lower School student services team is clicking. We are not only connected with each other and the Lower School administration, we also have a strong connection with the broader student services department in all three divisions. We work closely together to develop appropriate and intentional steps along the TK-12 path to help prepare students to launch.
Elisa: We introduced professional development for teachers from TK-12 to show them that when a child has a certain need in Lower School and it’s not addressed, one thing might be impacted in Middle School, and then another thing might happen in Upper School. We are big on helping teachers and parents understand that we want to nurture each child and support them however we can.
Jenny: It’s about planting the seed. Children are constantly developing, changing, and learning new things. When there are challenges for them, we work together as a team. That team is made up of the learning specialists, counselors, teachers, administrators, parents, and of course the student. There is so much growth and resiliency that comes from facing challenges. Our goal is to provide a comprehensive strengths-based service and get everyone working together. There are a lot of people involved in the care of each student, and everyone has such a valuable perspective to share. We want to provide support in a gentle, nurturing way to communicate that we have the child’s best interest at heart.
Elisa: I feel like we plant lots of seeds and the Middle School and Upper School water them. No matter what, we work on solutions for how to support each child in the best way we can to get them the help they need. I think parents sometimes worry about the label, but I’m not focusing on the specific diagnosis, I’m focused on how they are going to feel successful as a student in the class. I love that kids here think it’s cool to be smart and I want them to all feel like it’s cool to be smart in their own way.
Jenny: It’s about reframing those learning differences because kids’ brains, like all of our brains, work differently. We are all unique in our strengths and challenges. When we focus on building upon strengths and using those strengths to tackle challenges, we build confidence and resilience. At the end of the day, our goal is happy, confident, and resilient students.
Margot: My hope is to normalize our services. When I introduce myself to parents they often say, “I hope I never see you!” and I think, “No, reframe, reframe – I’m all good and value-added!” We’ve had children go through this school and we’ve seen the magic that happens. Our teachers know their students so well and they are able to point out the “glows and grows” in ways that feel empowering.
Elisa: We energize each other and that energy is transferred to our students. I’m excited that we now have the woman-power together to support our Lower School students and we can divide and conquer. It feels great when the puzzle pieces start to fit together and we see the value that we have starting with students in TK and spiraling all the way through fifth grade. I think parents get nervous about what’s going to happen in Middle School, but it’s the same stuff. We’re just going to walk them across the street! We want parents to trust the partnership with us.
Margot: We hope to partner with parents in the many celebrations and inevitable struggles. Some of the experiences that are hardest for a parent, such as watching your child fail or struggle academically, socially or emotionally, can be moments of significant growth. We hope that we can normalize the bumps and struggles and be there to support the student and family along the way.
Middle School Student Services Team
With Lisa Bernard, Middle School Counselor, and Julie Hill, Middle School Learning Specialist
Julie: One of my roles is to help students understand who they are as learners. The process of learning isn’t necessarily instinctual. Some information is easily acquired because of things like cognitive strengths, interest level, and prior knowledge but other information can be quite challenging to understand. The good news is that we now have access to brain-based research that has shown certain strategies can improve learning across all areas. An analogy I often use is: talking through our feelings can lead to greater intrapersonal awareness, whereas practicing learning strategies can lead to greater metacognitive awareness. The more we know about our strengths and weaker areas, the more resources we have to lean into when approaching a task. My job is to help kids get there and help parents understand how to support their kids getting there.
Lisa: I like to say that my main role or responsibility is to be a student’s Trusted Adult on campus. I want students and their parents to know that I am here to help students process their feelings, to help them to start problem-solving, and to develop self-advocacy skills. I tell our students that there is no one way to solve a problem when they come to me with an issue. We might not get it right the first time! It’s a process that sometimes takes time. I like to think of my role as empowering students and giving them hope.
Moving into the sixth grade, students are at the stage where cognitively they are able to talk about their feelings and are beginning to develop abstract reasoning skills. This allows me as their counselor to engage in higher-level problem solving with them and to help them reframe their thinking. Sometimes with little ones, we are putting on band-aids and managing behavior, but at this age, you can really teach and change behaviors and emotions. I teach students that our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are all interconnected, so if we can impact one, then we can change the other two. It’s a question of which one do we need to focus on first (thoughts, feelings, or behaviors)!
Julie and I see ourselves as problem-solvers and a resource for parents and teachers. Building relationships with families and collaborating with them also is important. The most rewarding part of the job is receiving letters from a student that says, “thank you for helping me grow,” or, “thank you for teaching me to have confidence in myself.” Seeing that type of growth is most rewarding to me.
Julie: Oftentimes if a child is struggling with big feelings, struggling in the classroom, Lisa and I will look at a situation and think, where’s the best place to start? If we work on organizational skills, will that help this child emotionally regulate? Or do we need to focus on getting the anxiety under control before we can address the academic piece of it?
Lisa: The academic piece and the social-emotional piece are interconnected; you can’t have one without the other. They really do impact one another. What Julie and I try to do is normalize what we do. Parents say, “I hope my kids never have to come to see you!” And we say, “No, we want them to come to see us!” We want kids to seek us out. We love parent partnership and collaboration; it’s that piece we really like, being a resource for them.
Julie: We understand that being a parent is one of the most emotional roles that you ever have in your life which is why we think it’s important for parents to have support, too! I want to say to all parents – it is okay if your child is neurodiverse. It’s okay if their brain works differently. Many, many times neurodiverse people are the most creative, athletic, brilliant thinkers out there. They grow up and start companies, solve large problems, or use their amazing people skills to connect with others. If they know this about themselves then it can be empowering. And if they are identified with learning differences, they can gain skills and capitalize on their strengths.
Lisa: The earlier the intervention, either academic or emotional, the better the prognosis. What we have to remember is how resilient kids are. We want parents to know that when their children are in their darkest spot, with help, they can emerge from the other side of the dark tunnel.
Julie: We want to encourage kids to become resilient critical thinkers who, when they fail, have the coping skills to do better next time. Failure doesn’t mean you’re broken, it's a chance to learn and grow. It’s important to equip our students with a toolbox of strategies where they have the skills in place to be confident people.
Lisa: Middle School students often experience really big feelings. I try to reassure parents that “It’s okay, and we’ll get through this.”
Julie: We both enjoy working with kids in Middle School because the developmental growth they experience between sixth and eighth grade is second only to infancy. Who they are in sixth grade and who they are at the end of eighth grade is so different. And we get to witness that.
Upper School Student Services Team
With Claire Bell, Counselor for Grades 10 and 12; Marissa Kohn, Counselor for Grades 9 and 11; Shelley Mikszan, Upper School Learning Specialist for Grades 11 and 12; and Emily Young, Upper School Learning Specialist for Grades 9 and 10
Claire: As school counselors, we meet students where they are to support them as they explore who they are as individuals and part of the greater community. My job is to advocate for students and help them through reflection and skill-building to support their social and emotional wellness.
Emily: I work with students who have diagnosed learning differences, those who received a psychological educational evaluation testing how their diagnoses impact their everyday learning in an educational setting. I help them determine where their strengths and weaknesses lie, how they can advocate for themselves in the classroom, how they can utilize who they are, and make it work the best way they can. I work closely with Marissa and Claire because we realize how much the social-emotional component is buried in the academic component. I try to normalize what the counselors do so the students will come to them, too.
Shelley: Being a learning specialist is the best role I could have because it allows me to advocate for and support students, parents, and teachers in very individualized ways. Each child is unique so I get to create academic support plans to help them learn and grow in their own ways. There's nothing I enjoy more than helping a child find ways to be successful academically. When the strategies start paying off there's a lot of joy for all of us!
Much of my work with students is done through individual meetings with them, but I also go into classrooms to do observations or help teachers with a particular lesson. Since I miss being in the classroom as a teacher, I enjoy seeing the learning in action. It also allows me to better problem-solve challenges students are having with first-hand knowledge of how the issue manifests in the classroom.
Learning specialists have a lot of paperwork since we write Learning Profiles (accommodation plans) and submit documentation to the College Board and ACT for students' to receive accommodations on standardized tests. While some people may think the paperwork sounds boring, I actually like the process of making sure I'm building a case for why a student needs accommodations. I'm a fierce advocator for students so I like the challenge of making a case for them.
Claire: Our students are more than just students. While in one aspect that is their primary responsibility, their identity is influenced by so much more than just school. As a Student Services team, we take a holistic approach to serving students. Counselors and Learning Specialists have specialized skill sets that allow us to meet a student where they are, consider all aspects of their identity, and develop support systems to help them find success here at PD! Collaboration and consultation within our team and the greater PD community makes that possible.
Shelley: We are really lucky to have a strong Upper School team that collaborates regularly to ensure we are supporting the whole child. The academic and social-emotional worlds are so heavily intertwined that we have to make sure the work we are doing ensures the best overall outcomes for students. We have grown with the addition of another counselor and learning specialist in the Upper School and it's made an incredible difference in being able to support all students at a very high level.
Marissa: The counselors are growing with students, so I tease kids when they are freshmen that they are stuck with me. They look scared but the parents like it! We call it continuity of care. The better we know kids the better we can serve kids. Now that we are growing bigger as a school, we need to put in different checkpoints with adults so they know the students. If we know that someone struggled last December we can anticipate that maybe they’ll struggle this December and we can prepare for that. Our team has learned how to collaborate in new ways, especially with COVID.
Emily: We as learning specialists give students strategies and skills to help ensure that they have some kind of ability to do things on their own – to organize, to learn better, etc. You can model something for a student, but unless they are practicing and using it every day, the habit isn’t going to change. We also have to consider their diagnosis and meet the kid where they are at that moment. Perhaps it’s not using a paper planner, but rather taking notes on their phone and setting reminders every day because that’s what’s going to work for them. There’s a lot of negative self-talk and feeling like if I have a diagnosis, I can’t do as much as my peers and I’m a failure. We are all special and unique and different and nothing defines you unless you want it to. You define yourself.
Marissa: We rely on our colleagues in Lower School and Middle School. If families have good experiences with Jenny and Margot in Lower School and continue that with Lisa in Middle School, we all build on each other. We talk a lot about the TK-12 experience at PD and we want families to know us and be part of their TK-12 experience, too.
Emily: Growth and adaptation are good words for us. I learn something new every single day and I’m in my seventh year at PD, my second year as a learning specialist, and I’m going back to school to be a counselor. We’ve got such great kids and they are always evolving and learning, and we should be too.
Claire: Working directly with students and building relationships with them brings me joy! I love knowing that the counseling office is a safe, open, and accepting place for students to process their thoughts and feelings. A major tenant of the counseling relationship is mutual respect. Through that interchange, I learn so much from students, and in turn, through their work with me, I aim to help them develop skills, confidence, and insight that make them more authentic and fulfilled individuals.
Shelley: What I like the most is working with the students! It's an amazing feeling when they start believing in themselves and realize that they CAN be successful. I enjoy the partnership we build and the trust that develops. Providence Day is special because of the relationships we can create with families and I love being a part of that.
Marissa: I worked with seniors last year and Dr. Blackwell came in to do a pre-college talk which he does every year. He always says something about talking with your counselor. After that, a student came into my office and said, “My biggest takeaway is that I should have done this sooner. I’m going to do it when I get to college because it’s a good place for me to talk about what’s going on with an unbiased view and that’s what I want to do moving forward.” The best part of the job is seeing students and watching them grow into amazing people. We of course want to see every kid every day, but it’s usually a good sign when they don’t need us. I’ll say, “How are things going?” And they say, “Good, see you later.”
Emily: The kids are the best part for me, too. I love it when they come by to say hi and talk about nothing but, “How are you?” The cool part is normalizing our space, making it welcoming and comfortable so students want to catch up with us, or if they graduated, they want to come back and talk.
Claire: Students, just like any human being, are complex individuals. There are so many factors that impact them. We talk about the “tip of the iceberg” being what often brings students to work with us, but we know that what exists under the surface is typically impacting a student. It often takes time to help students figure out what is influencing their thoughts, feelings, or behaviors. It can be hard to manage expectations when students are hoping for immediate relief or solutions.
Shelley: Research shows that study skills taught in isolation don't translate to students' academic lives. Modeling studying for tests and how to organize their week leads to great success for larger numbers of students. This allows students to collaborate and support one another with their academic needs as well. Being able to help a peer leads to increased self-esteem and better academic outcomes for everyone.
Marissa: The biggest challenge for us is normalizing our services. One of the first times I introduced myself to parents they said, “Oh, I hope my kid never has to go to you.” And now I’ve met once a week with that child for two years. It’s not a bad thing, although it’s a hurdle that parents are worried and I want them to trust us. It’s important that kids have a good experience in our space because even if it’s not right now that they need our service, maybe in 10 years they think, “OK, I can go to therapy.” It has to be good enough that they come back.
Claire: As a society, I see us embracing the fact that we all have mental health. The normalizing of mental health feels empowering and validating for the work we are doing for students here at PD. I am thrilled to be a part of a team that is actively working towards building an emotionally well and thriving PD community.
Marissa: As a society we are talking more about mental health and it’s interesting to see how students internalize this. Simone Biles, the best gymnast in the world, said I need a break at the Olympics and I’m excited to see this. If I take a rest and a break I show up better the next time. Sometimes we need that experiential learning and to be OK with it.
Shelley: Looking toward the future, I am most excited about the team of people we now have in Student Services. We all complement each other well and truly love supporting our families. Our team has an amazing leader in Joyce Harris and with our exceptional vision, I think you'll be seeing great things from us in the future!
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