Sometimes the hardest job can have the most amazing rewards.
Living and working in the New Orleans metro area has been an eye-opening experience, especially working as a mental health counseling intern in one of the area’s elementary schools.
New Orleans has a vibrant culture that is woven together with tragedy and music that just draws you in. Coming here as a visitor, you are usually not aware of the negatives such as the long-term effects of Hurricane Katrina and the communities that have been locked in poverty (and the effects that has had on its residents). As a visitor, your focus is usually on the excellent music, the delicious food, and the eccentric characters that make visiting New Orleans so great.
The Bad With the Good
But behind those fun and exciting impressions of the city, there is the fact that 39% of New Orleans children live in poverty due to high unemployment rates. In turn, this poverty increases the crime rate in the communities where these kids live. Due to these factors, a lot of children have either had Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their lives or are cared for by someone who is affected by a traumatic experience.
In many ways New Orleans is familiar with trauma. Its inhabitants may show the scars by how they interact with each other, treat strangers, cope with stress, and process the trauma in their lives – both in the past and in the present.
From the outside looking in, it can even feel a bit hopeless, but since I’ve lived here I have learned that New Orleanians stick together and always rise up and overcome adversity; and I’m here to help promote healing and change.
Working as a Counseling Intern at an Elementary School
As an elementary school counseling intern, I work with children in grades K through 6th, and many of my clients have experienced traumatic events in their lives that have transformed them into “little adults.”
Some of these children have such a hardened worldview that at times it is difficult to see the innocence of childhood in their interactions with one another. It almost seems as if the wonder of childhood is missing because these children are dealing with more serious issues such as single parent households, poverty, lack of food, lack of adequate clothing, unemployment, lack of opportunities, violence, and a poor education.
A lot of my focus during the first few weeks of school is spent on making sure my students’ basic needs are met (e.g., proper uniforms, backpacks, supplies, food, and resources for parents and guardians).
The Effects of Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs)
Once these basic needs are taken care of, my primary focus is working with students in order to combat Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). Childhood experiences, either positive or negative, have a monumental impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, lifelong health problems, and lack of opportunity.
Studies have shown that as the number of ACEs increases, so does the risk for the following outcomes :
- Risky health behaviors
- Chronic health conditions
- Early death
- Poor work performance
- Financial stress
- Risk for intimate partner violence
- Multiple sexual partners
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Suicide attempts
- Unintended pregnancies
- Early initiation of smoking
- Early initiation of sexual activity
- Adolescent pregnancy
- Risk for sexual violence
- Poor academic achievement
Scientific research has also shown that child poverty can lead to toxic stress that disrupts the structure of a child’s developing brain .
New Orleans children living in poverty are more likely to experience exposure to violence, chronic neglect, and the burdens associated with economic hardship. These experiences cause prolonged stress that can lead to lifelong difficulties in learning, memory, and self-regulation .
How I’ve Worked With Disadvantaged Children
Many scholars argue that poverty is the single greatest threat to children’s healthy brain development .
Because of this fact, working with these students to give them hope for a better future has been my goal. Also, being an African-American female from a middle-class background working in this type of community was sometimes a heartbreaking stretch for me, but I have survived – and through this experience, I have become an advocate, a helpmate, and a confidant for the students and families who I serve.
You may be wondering what I did to see a change in my students. I didn’t reinvent the wheel, I just provided a supportive environment and built relationships with my students to help reduce their levels of overall trauma.
A majority of my students suffer from ADHD, ADD, ODD, autism, learning disabilities, and mental health issues that have been exacerbated by trauma.
One method I use to build trust with my students is to try my best to learn about them, getting to know such things as their likes and dislikes. Then, because they trust me, they know that they can come to me with both their problems and their achievements and that I am available whenever they need me.
Keeping Communication Open
Keeping my word and keeping communication open has been a key factor in creating and maintaining the relationship with kids suffering from trauma. During our sessions together, I utilize journaling, which gives them an outlet for their thoughts and feelings and helps them decrease their emotional outbursts and negative behaviors at school and at home. We discuss everything that they write and utilize modeling and role-playing to teach appropriate behavior.
Most of my methods are taken from CBT since, in my experience, this approach works well with children.
Overall, my goal is to help my students learn to cope with life’s challenges, have new positive experiences, build relationships, behave appropriately, and be resilient. Being able to make a difference in these students’ lives has made an incredible impact in my own life.
As I said at the beginning of this article, sometimes the toughest jobs have the most amazing rewards. When my students greeted me on the first day of school – telling me that I was missed and eager to tell me about their summer – I knew at that point that I had at least made a difference in their lives.
References Felitti, V. J et al.( May 1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults: the adverse childhood experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine , Volume 14 , Issue 4 , 245 – 258 Mack, V. (2015). New Orleans kids, working parents, and poverty. The Data Center.
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