Federal grants fund behavioral health programs in Oak Harbor elementary schools

A push for a course focusing on behavioral health in young people came from a dire community need.

According to Sara Lucero, principal at Olympic View Elementary School in Oak Harbor, a push for a course focusing on behavioral health in young people came from a dire community need.

“There’s not a lot of mental health support in Island County, and there’s really not a lot of mental health support or behavioral support for families, for students,” she said. “Our idea was if there’s nothing out there, can we come up with something?”

First Approach Skills Training, or FAST, programs, developed by Seattle Children’s Hospital, provide brief, evidence-based behavioral therapy for young people and families with common mental health concerns in places where longer-term treatment is not typically provided. The program focuses on intervention strategies for parents and caregivers to support their children with mental health needs.

FAST-B, Olympic View’s six-week program ending at the start of this month, focuses on behavioral management in ways child counseling doesn’t. The program is designed for children exhibiting such behaviors as arguing with adults, getting off-track during routines, throwing tantrums, seeking attention in negative ways and being in strained relationships.

The program was made possible by Oak Harbor pediatrician Dr. Amy Garrett, Lucero said. She presented a grant available through the Department of Health, facilitated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and helped brainstorm the best ways they could use it.

FAST-B was a great way to bring these behavioral health services to the Oak Harbor community, she said, as opposed to using the money as a connector to the limited services currently available. Island County provided staff to run the program, and Lucero joined with Crescent Harbor Elementary to coordinate with families who might benefit. The team started with families who had approached the school asking for help and addressed their personal concerns.

“We looked for families to specifically target so we could maybe help them grow and learn and change practices in their home that would also then impact their students in school behavior and abilities,” she said.

Families met in the evenings, and paraprofessionals volunteered their time to provide child care while the course was in session. In addition, the program provided dinner. Many of the current services for families have waitlists and are only available during the school day, so families are pulled out of school and work, Lucero said. Afterward, families were given gift cards.

“We tried to take every barrier out of the road and make it as easy as possible,” she said.

A bonus result of the program was the network that was created.

“One of the greatest things that happened was families became a community,” Lucero said. “These different groups of families came together, and they got to know one another, and the parents really connected and were able to share stories or successes that they had while they were implementing different strategies.”

The success of the network built in Oak Harbor will likely be used as an example for bringing this program to other communities, said Colleen McCarty, program manager for the Washington chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

“I was pleased to see how much of a community effort it was, and that was really rewarding,” she said.

Post-program surveys have shown tangible improvements in the home life of Oak Harbor families, Lucero said.

Some of the parents said they hadn’t been raised with the tools the curriculum offered, McCarty said. They wanted to do something different for their children, but they didn’t quite know what that looked like, so the course, workbook and group sessions were helpful.

“(They) just really expressed gratitude and appreciation to be able to talk in small groups with other parents who go through similar things with their children or being able to share, ‘I tried this with my kid and it worked really well’ or ‘we tried that strategy and it didn’t quite work, but then we made this change and we saw an improvement,’” she said.

While FAST-B has a limited run, program leaders will continue to check in with families in the next few months and answer questions as they arise. Now that they’ve identified a need, Lucero and staff are going to continue to seek out resources to help families.

“We’re always looking for out-of-the-box ways to be able to help our families be successful, and so this is just one of those ways that we did that,” Lucero said. “We’re going to continue to learn and grow from this experience and hopefully be able to provide other opportunities in the future.”

The program has revealed the community’s strength and dedication, she said.

“We’re tapping into some of the collective knowledge and the collective power of our community to support people and families in a different way,” she said.