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Vermilion County students benefit from equine-assisted psychotherapy

Commercial-News - 11/19/2022

Nov. 19—DANVILLE — When a Mark Denman Elementary School student was mad earlier this month, Gateway Family Service's Michael Remole had him talk to Bandit, a miniature horse, about what was bothering him.

The boy was able to think about what the horses need from people and what other people need from him. Talking to the horse can help students recognize how their behavior affects another person, Remole explained.

The horses Bandit, 4 years old, and Mr. Buttons, 6, were at the school that day for equine-assisted psychotherapy with particular students.

Gateway Family Services of Illinois, a non-profit mental health agency based in Potomac, already has been providing services at North Ridge Middle School in Danville.

Now counselors and staff have been going to Mark Denman Elementary School.

Remole said Gateway is in 11 school districts now.

Gateway provides one-on-one sessions on site to improve students' mental health by providing individual psychotherapy through science-based experiential forms of therapy to assist students in addressing the symptoms of trauma. Improve mood regulation and impulse control, as well as improve overall academic performance and reduce negative behaviors.

There are calming strategies for students with autism, ways to create calming spaces, training and a regulation station for staff. Other strategies: animal-assisted groups, clinical consultation for tricky classroom behaviors and one-on-one sessions.

Remole said "right now we're kind of in a place where we're trying to stabilize some of these kiddos that are really struggling."

Gateway works with students who are struggling for various reasons. Some students might not be behaviorally escalating as often or as intensely, so they are in group with two to three other students with staff and the horses, Remole said.

He said they also are providing support for teachers.

"These teachers have been doing hard work and we think about what our students have been through over the last few years. (The students have) experienced a lot of trauma, they've experienced a lot of hard stuff, and so have the teachers. Very rarely do we have to go through the exact same things our students are going through," Remole said. "And it's impacted all of our stress responses. So, the teachers are trying to navigate all of this stuff and then our kids are behind, and the expectations haven't changed. So, there's a lot of pieces of this puzzle that make it a little tricky."

The heroes are in the schools, Remole said.

The equine-assisted psychotherapy can help in a variety of ways.

Remole said when somebody has experienced relational trauma, there are associations someone can have based on past experiences.

"Physiologically, (the horse's) heart rate helps ours settle down," he said. "Just by being around Bandit, a child came down to a more calming state."

There is a relational connection with the horses.

Remole said a child having a rough day has to make decisions and get it together to help the horses.

Remole said Gateway staff go to the schools to work with the students and staff. They want to work with the staff on building a room for them.

"Our kindergarteners, first- and second-graders, we're seeing across the board that they're really struggling because during their core development time, they had periods there, they were in Covid in quarantine and parents were teaching them or having to do work online or teach other kids during that time," Remole said. "So, a lot of these kids are struggling because they're still functioning in the sense like a toddler and they're in the body of a 7- or 8-year-old."

Students would have instant gratification through online learning from technology. Now some are struggling paying attention in classes.

In working with the miniature horses, part of this work is teaching the students how to take care of another being.

Based on previous experiences, a child may think someone doesn't like them or they are not good enough, because there are pathways in their brain that makes them think this, having been told this based off their upbringing, Remole said.

Gateway staff challenges some of those beliefs using the horses.

One child said he was a loser because he wasn't good at math.

"He was talking to Bandit about that," Remole said.

Helping students across the area

Gateway has six miniature horses, 20 equines total, with all horses and one donkey.

They had an original grant that helped get things started with going into schools. They now have a contract with Danville School District 118.

Gateway also works with students including in Rantoul, Georgetown-Ridge Farm, Chrisman, Westville, Salt Fork, Armstrong and Potomac.

They have about 10 staff members, from equine professionals to licensed mental health clinicians.

North Ridge has 10 hours of clinical sessions three times a week on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Gateway also is working on supportive teachings and online workshops for parents such as eliminating stress and self-destructive behavior.

At Mark Denman, Gateway is there five days a week, between two employees.

"The age group that I think has really struggled the most is kindergarten through second grade," Remole said. "And when you get a lot of kiddos that were kind of dysregulated, that can impact a whole school really fast."

With junior high, those students had a foundation, he added.

"They're struggling for sure, but different kinds of struggle," Remole said.

At Mark Denman, Gateway is still working on building a consistent caseload.

Some therapy sessions are performed in groups, where students rotate with one therapist.

Remole said 24 students will rotate in more small group sessions. They're working to expand to two large classes. The plan is to grow the numbers.

A space for teachers in the school also would let them recharge.

The therapy focuses include seeing the students learn appropriate social skills to be successful, not just in the classroom, but in the community as well.

"Overall, learning how do we navigate stress and the way that our body responds to it in a way that is healthy for myself and the people around me," Remole said.

In Potomac, Gateway also works with the schools with its clinical session and sees about 100 families a week on site. Gateway has a wait list.

Working in the schools allows for broader-reaching services.

"This allows us to provide services to a few more people faster, and hopefully prevent people that may not even be on our waiting list from ever having to get on our waiting list," Remole said.

"We joke that we want to work ourselves out of a job. If we can address larger groups and give them the tools to be successful, then that's fantastic," Remole said.

In Potomac, Gateway has a classroom, office space, and they're working on a play therapy room and sensory room.

"We're in our parent's basement right now. We will move staff out to the barn," he said.

Mark Denman School Social Worker Chelsea Mehegan has been with the school for four years.

Mehegan said they're glad to have Gateway in the school.

"We're really excited and it's just nice to have them here," she said.

In the 600-student school building, there are many high-need students and it's great to have the additional support, she added.

"I think we've seen a higher need in most of the students behaviorally and academically," Mehegan said.

If students struggle with academics, then they get frustrated and struggle behaviorally as well, according to Mehegan.

"So, we've really seen an uptick in both of those areas," she said. "We've kind of had to spread ourselves more thin this year to cover the needs."

Gateway coming in to help, helps them cover some of those gaps.

School officials are seeing kindergarteners and first graders struggling more this year. They were at home and many skipped pre-kindergarten. They weren't socializing and didn't go to daycare, Mehegan said.

"They were unfortunately just at home with mom and dad, a lot of times living in high poverty, not getting any services at all," she said.

Now schools are receiving those kindergartners and first graders, and the students are way behind in where they need to be, Mehegan added.

"So, we're putting some high expectations on them which can lead to some frustration and some struggles there," she said.

She added that sometimes it's hard for parents to understand too, and a lot of times they don't have the answer with a student's behavior. Parents may say the child acts that way at home too and they don't know what to do.

Mehegan said sometimes the school staff even don't know what to do. They have tried everything and they have to branch out and get more help, such as in contracting with Gateway Family Services, to reach all of the students.

"It is a cycle, right, so we can teach them all these things here at school, but it also has to be enforced at home for us to be able to work with them," Mehegan said.

She said one of the cool things Michael does is offer parent sessions to bridge the gap and help make that connection full circle and see the behavior improve at home and school. Everyone's on the same team, she added.

"If nothing else, we've at least seen a morale change in our staff because we were spread so thin," Mehegan said. "To have the support coming in has really helped us. Then in turn, that helps the students because we're in a better spot, we're less escalated, we have more patience because we have support coming in. So, it really does all come full circle and we're very grateful to have them in. And we have seen a difference already in just the kids looking forward to seeing (Gateway staff)."


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