One Teacher’s Mission to Improve Connections for Her Students in Treatment

By Cara Spagnola MSW, LISW, LCSW

Rachel is an Education Specialist at Eating Recovery Center and Pathlight Mood & Anxiety Center (ERC Pathlight) in Oak Brook, Illinois working with youth ages 12-18. Her teaching background has spanned 26 years, in regular and special education, and from pre-K through junior college in the public-school setting.

When I visited Rachel’s classroom last fall while touring our Oak Brook Center, I felt nostalgic for the space: papers atop clusters of desks, posters on the walls, and a group of chatting young teens on their way out the door. The space was colorful, warm, and decorated with plants that brought peacefulness and nature into a setting that can be stressful for many. Rachel was equally inviting and genuinely friendly. Recently, I reconnected with her over the phone, hoping to learn more about the education specialist’s role so that I could give proper credit for all they’ve done this school year. During our conversation, Rachel shared something unique that she has been doing to support her students, which was the inspiration behind her dissertation for her doctorate in education.

During her time at ERC Pathlight, Rachel discovered that many children in treatment develop the belief that their teachers have negative perceptions of them because they haven’t finished homework due to lack of attendance or lack of participation. Then, upon completing treatment, they feel as if they’ve been thrown into the deep end when they return to school after having had no contact with their teachers for weeks or months. Rachel made it her mission to establish and maintain strong connections with schools while their students are in treatment. By holding weekly meetings with key school personnel, with the student leading and providing input, students are supported in communicating with their schools and breaking down barriers that are holding them back.

Starting this weekly meeting can be an adjustment for some schools; this level of involvement is not the norm in treatment at higher levels of care. It can be confusing for teachers who have never met with students in treatment and don’t know what to expect from a request like this. The meetings typically begin with the child establishing a relationship with their teacher and realizing that their teacher does not harbor any ill feelings toward them. Rachel has seen shoulders relax and stress decrease after these meetings, and she believes it makes school reentry easier once treatment with ERC Pathlight is completed.

Communication and connection start on day one, before the first meeting. At the beginning of treatment, Rachel sends an admission packet to the student’s school that includes an introduction to her (the education specialist working with the child), an estimate for how long the child is expected to be in treatment, and a letter asking for a reduced and prioritized list of homework. This last piece, requesting a list of essential assignments, helps bring the school, caregivers, and student onto the same page as to what is expected of the student while they are in treatment. Along the way, if a student or caregiver has a concern about a particular task or assignment, they fill out a “School Concern” form explaining their concern and what steps they have taken to resolve the issue.

The student is involved in each step of the decision making. If a student needs assistance to return to school and does not have a 504 Plan or an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place, Rachel helps them review possible modifications, construct a list together, and provide it to their caregivers so they know what to ask from the school. Rachel also has students fill out their school reentry packet a week before their step-down meeting as it helps to sort out issues and answer questions early. When it is time to transition back to school, Rachel has the students take ownership and run their school reentry meetings.

One thing that Rachel stressed is that every student is an individual and every case unique. Some students manage well while others need two meetings with their school per week. Sometimes they meet with teachers, other times with the guidance counselor; it is all based on the particular needs of the student. At each point in treatment, Rachel helps students and families empower themselves to take control of their education. She knows that she did a good job when she sees anxieties reduce, confidence grow, students’ connections with their schools strengthen, and when patients can shift from identifying as their diagnosis to identifying as a student again.

Many thanks to Rachel and all our ERC Pathlight education specialists, and to teachers, professors, and educators everywhere!




Written by

Cara Spagnola MSW, LISW, LCSW

Cara has over 10 years of experience working with children and families in a variety of settings. She learned along the way that connection, education, and support help alleviate the stigma and…

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