How I Help

Pushing past assumptions: For this Colorado school psychologist, a language difference is not a disability

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in the Aurora school district, is careful to ensure that students don’t get labeled as having a disability just because they don’t speak English well.

But it was a mother’s emotional plea that reminded her that receiving special education services can be a good thing, too.

In this installment of “How I Help,” Simpson — who recently was named the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Provider of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists — shares what she learned from that parent, why some people say her job must be boring, and how she reached a student fed up with special education testing.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

Cameran Simpson, a bilingual school psychologist in Aurora Public Schools, with her husband, Kent, and her daughter, Willow.

I became a school psychologist after working as a school social work intern as an undergraduate student at the University of Georgia. I met the school psychologist at our school and understood his role to be a bit different than the school social worker. I loved the concept of using a combination of social science and statistics to understand students.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the schools where you work?
I’ve heard others in the field say, “It must be boring testing, scoring, and writing reports over and over again.” Just the opposite! It is exhilarating to use what I know about the culturally and linguistically diverse population as a lens for everything else (test scores, teacher reports, parent reports, etc.) in order to help understand a student and to help that student succeed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
This year, I tested a student with autism who the team thought might have an intellectual disability. His tolerance for testing was low. At one point, he just got up and walked back to his classroom! After a few attempts at using motivators and reinforcers, we finally found one that worked: For every item he completed, we read a page of a book. He tested higher than the intellectual disability range. He taught me that it pays to keep trying to find the right motivator!

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
The project I am proudest of is called “true peer comparisons.” It’s a way, based on current research, to compare culturally and linguistically diverse students (formally known as English language learners) who may have a disability to similar students who do not have a disability.

It is useful when a school team is considering the “specific learning disability” special education category. The criteria for this category are vague and many culturally and linguistically diverse students were being labeled with it based on assessments that are normed on monolingual English speakers and based on criteria assuming that the student is of the majority culture. (That is, has been exposed to English since birth, has parents who graduated from high school, is read to at home, etc.)

A student might read a year or more below grade level, and this, to a teacher may look like a disability. However, they are assuming grade-level standards, and grade-level standards assume majority culture. If you compare a group of true peers — other students who also speak Spanish at home, may not have books at home, did not start learning English until enrolling in kindergarten — you have a more appropriate norm that compares apples to apples.

What is the hardest part of your job?
The most difficult part of my job is hearing of the histories of our students with trauma. There is often trauma surrounding immigration to the United States and/or the environmental issues that drove them to immigrate. Also, now that I am a mother, it’s harder to work with students with severe disabilities. I often find it difficult not to take on their parents’ grief.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
At some Individualized Education Plan meetings, I advocate that a student is simply in the process of learning English and likely does not have a learning disability. At one such meeting about four years ago, I gained an important insight. Our team was suggesting that a particular student may not qualify for an Individualized Education Plan.

The student’s mother was close to tears and said through an interpreter, “I work with my daughter every day after school, and she is still so behind. How can this be?” It was such valuable information. We often base a student’s level of progress, or lack of progress, on state standards and the level of supplemental academic support at school. This student stood out, not just to her teachers, but to her mother, as academically behind based on the high level of academic support at home.

I learned that advocating for students is not just supporting the absence of a disability. It can also be supporting the existence of a disability.

Is there a tool, curriculum, or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I couldn’t live without my co-workers. Recent immigration trends are causing the field of bilingual school psychology to develop quickly, but it is difficult for the research to keep up. Our team works together to figure out what is best for students who may be dually identified as English learners and learning disabled before, during, and after the assessment process. My coworkers are indispensable in best understanding and advocating for this population.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
Some kids may act aggressive or hurtful, but generally it comes from a place of hurt. It can be hard, but when you assume they are acting out of a place of pain, it is easy to be kind to them, even in stressful situations.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I enjoy being with my kids, especially outside. I also love going for a run to clear my head.

How I Help

When she couldn’t reach a student’s parents, this Colorado counselor discovered the growing role of grandparents

PHOTO: Steve Debenport | Getty Images

In our “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

A few years ago, Gemile Fleming, a counselor at Giberson Elementary in Colorado Springs, repeatedly phoned the parents of a student who had missed lots of school. She never reached them, and later discovered the child’s grandmother was the main caregiver.

It was a moment that helped reshape Fleming’s approach to her job. Realizing that many grandparents were raising Giberson students, she expanded her outreach efforts to include them.

Fleming, who was named 2017 Elementary Counselor of the Year by the Colorado School Counselor Association, talked about why she created her “Grandparents and Goodies” event, what she likes about student-led committees, and which conflict- resolution curriculum she loves.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?

PHOTO: courtesy of Gemile Fleming

For 20 years, I worked in the medical field, as a member of hospital support staff in cardiology, intensive care, and the emergency room. The work was hard, at times heartbreaking, and the hours were long, but I found enormous pleasure in helping people. I realized that some of the greatest challenges patients faced were not physical conditions, but mentally coping with those challenges.
It was then I caught a glimpse of the power of counseling and decided to pursue a career in counseling. That, coupled with my passion for working with young children, brought me to my current career as an elementary school counselor.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.

To quote an old proverb, “If you give someone a fish, they will eat for a day. If you teach them to fish, you will feed them for a lifetime.” Throughout my career I have grappled with how best to bring about sustained change among students. I have found that student-led committees encourage change from the ground up and provide longer-lasting effects.

As a result, I have created a host of committees designed to train the students to model positive, respectful, and constructive behaviors. Student-led groups like the Attendance Committee encourage students to be in school EVERY day. The Gentlemen’s Club encourages young men to be mindful of others, polite, and respectful. The Super Hero committee is a group of students with physical or social disabilities that encourages others to respect diversity and to overcome whatever challenges they face. The Kindness Committee along with the Bully-Busters encourage anti-bullying and kind behavior throughout the school.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?

Without a doubt, the most useful curriculum I have found that I use day in and day out is Kelso’s Choice. It provides steps students can take to work through conflicts. Not only does it give logical steps to overcoming conflicts in the classroom or on the playground, but it also provides rich and fun graphics.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?

Many believe one of the main functions of the school counselor is to provide consequences for students who have made poor choices. However, this is a misconception. The primary role of a counselor is to bring the necessary tools and resources to each situation to bring about positive growth and change.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

I would encourage parents to be careful what they say and do in front of their children. Children are not only sponges, but they are also mirrors that many times reflect what they see in their parents. These days, children are losing much of their innocence because parents are forcing them to process adult ideas and visuals. Parents need to shield their children from things that can be harmful and unsafe.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?

I had a high school student who was struggling academically, personally, and socially. Her home life was riddled with drugs and abuse, and school was suffering. Her low self-esteem forced her to look for approval from others. She became suicidal and ended up being initiated into a gang by the time I met her.

Over the next few months I met her without judgment and with much care. I had to look beyond the labels, the tattoos, the tough veneer and see a struggling girl who needed someone to believe in her. Nearly 10 years later, she is married, has a career and is thankful for the pivotal relationship she and I shared during a period she thought she would not survive.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Four years ago, when I came to Giberson Elementary, I encountered an interesting social phenomenon. I noticed more and more grandparents were raising the students. This became clear to me when I reached out to the parents of a student who was consistently absent. Though I tried every phone number we had on record I never got a return call from the parents. Finally, after weeks of failed attempts, I reached the student’s grandmother. I found out that she was the one raising the student. The mother was an addict and facing prison time and the father did not have any involvement with the child.

This changed my perspective on how to best work with some of the families at Giberson. Grandparents can play a much more influential role in students’ lives than I once anticipated. As a result, along with my “Mothers and Muffins” and “Dads and Donuts” events, I now offer “Grandparents and Goodies” to introduce myself and tell others about the counseling program.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?

I do this by spending time with those that love me and understand what my day looks like. My husband is a great sounding board and even greater Skip-Bo opponent. We also go to our workout room each night and get on our treadmill and elliptical for an hour. We always end up the evening surrounding ourselves with our dogs and watch “Survivor” or some other favorite show we share.

How I Help

After a mother’s suicide, this Colorado school psychologist helped give her son a reason to live

Teenage boy sitting in hallway. (Tetra Images | Getty Images)

In our new “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Rachel Toplis, a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in Colorado Springs, once met extensively with a high school boy devastated by his mother’s suicide. During the following year, he struggled academically and got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Eventually, he confided that he’d considered suicide himself, but hadn’t gone through with it because of the work they’d done together and the bond they shared. To Toplis, it was a poignant reminder that all kids need someone in their corner.

Toplis, who was named the 2017 School Psychologist of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, talked to Chalkbeat about her weekly sessions with the teenager, why she looks at bad behavior as a skill deficit, and how parents should praise their kids.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school psychologist?

I completed my Ph.D. at the University of East London in England. A colleague of mine at the time was training to become an educational psychologist. I loved the process she went through of gathering a body of evidence, deciphering, interpreting, and understanding a child in order to explain individual differences and figure out how to support the child. After I immigrated to the U.S., I retrained as a school psychologist.

PHOTO: courtesy of Rachel Toplis
Rachel Toplis is a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in the Academy school district.

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
I am very proud of my work as brain injury specialist for our school district. I am particularly proud of a training program we developed for middle and high students on concussion prevention and management. Using a grant from the Colorado MindSource Brain Injury Program we developed a complete package of PowerPoint presentations and instructor manuals for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I am particularly interested in brain development and processing, so I tend to lean towards interventions that have a basis in brain development. I am particularly excited about strategies and curriculum that support executive functioning, such as “The Zones of Regulation” and “Smart but Scattered.”

However, one “tool” I could not live without is my team. Each of us views a child through a different lens, and when all of that information comes together, we have the best understanding of how to support the child.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
I can’t think of any misconceptions, but there are some things that should be reiterated. If you have ever tried to change a habit or behavior, you know how hard it is and how long it takes. For the students I work with, maladaptive behaviors have not developed overnight and will not generally go away overnight. Teams have to be committed, consistent, and follow through with fidelity. I believe that children are not “bad.” I prefer to interpret challenging behavior as a skill deficit waiting to be discovered so the skill can be directly taught.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?

Set expectations and be consistent. Be aware of the line between supporting and encouraging your child, and unrealistic expectations that result in pressure and anxiety. Praise your child for the grit and determination they show in reaching a goal, rather than praising them for being “smart” once a task is completed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I worked with a high school student whose mother had committed suicide a year earlier. We met weekly as part of his special education services, but he also knew he could stop by my office for a cup of tea if he needed to. In the beginning, he was angry and pushed away anyone who wanted to get close to him. He got involved with peers who were not a good influence on him. Over time, his grades began to reflect the difficulty he was having. We began working with the “WhyTry” curriculum and he was able to see how his group of peers was pulling him back down.

When the anniversary of his mother’s death arrived, he had a very hard time. He let me know he had considered suicide, but he had not carried it out because of the relationship we had, and things we had talked about and practiced. I was extremely grateful that I had been able to build a relationship with this student. This situation reminded me how important it is for everyone to have at least one person who is in her or his corner.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Often the hardest part of my job is sharing assessment results with parents as part of the process for establishing students’ special education plans. My teams and I are very cognizant to talk about strengths and how to use them to support a student. Unfortunately, in order to determine what a child needs educationally, we have to attempt to figure out what their skill levels are. Therefore, these meeting tend to be where families hear, yet again, all the things their child cannot currently do. It is still a tough conversation to have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
The Colorado Department of Education supports a biannual conference for parents of students with disabilities call the Parents Encouraging Parents conference, or PEP. It was extremely eye-opening as a professional to have unfettered access to conversations from parents about the process of creating special education plans and their experience as parents of students with disabilities. It renewed my appreciation and understanding of their struggles, concerns, fears, guilt, hopes, and, sometimes, their misconceptions about the process for Individualized Education Programs. I would strongly recommend anyone in the field of education to attend this conference once in their career.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I know exercise, fun activities, and spending time with my family reduce stress. This is something I constantly work on.