“I noticed Marie immediately during my first day in the classroom. She was sitting on the lap of her teacher, Ms. Rogers, who was teaching a math lesson. I watched her grip geometric shapes tightly in her hands as she rested her head on Ms. Rogers’ shoulder. Later, I learned she had a tantrum before I had arrived, and this was how she calmed herself down. I watched her as she desperately clung to the paper circles, squares and triangles in her hand while her teacher quietly rubbed her back. The noise of her classmates seemed to be bothering her, as she had her fingers in her ears, trying to plug out the chatter.”
Academic papers aren’t often gripping emotional reads, but “In the Nest: Case Studies from the School-Based Mental Health Collaboration,” published recently in The Journal of Infant, Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy by a team led by Teachers College adjunct faculty member Nancy Eppler-Wolff, is a powerful exception.
Eppler-Wolff directs the School-Based Mental Health Collaboration (SBMHC), through which TC graduate students serve as “classroom consultants” in schools attended by underserved children. The program’s approach centers on “nested mentalization,” in which supervisors help the TC students reflect on their own emotional reactions and growth so that they, in turn, can work with teachers and students to improve the children’s classroom behaviors and address the teachers’ behavioral management styles.
[Read the full paper, “In the Nest: Case Studies from the School-Based Mental Health Collaboration,” co-authored by Eppler-Wolff: Jessica Albertson SBMHC supervising psychologist; Siân Martin, Program Assistant; and Lily Infant (M.A. ’19), a graduate of TC’s Counseling Psychology program who works as a middle-school counselor at International School of Brooklyn. Read a recent story about Eppler-Wolff and SBMHC. Read a profile of Helen Feldman (M.A. ’20, who, as a TC student, worked for SBMHC as a classroom consultant.]
In the article’s first case study, the teacher, Ms. Rogers (all names are fictitious) is consumed by preventing or containing Marie’s tantrums, either by physically comforting the girl or allowing her to sit apart from the class, repetitively drawing geometric shapes. The classroom consultant, too, finds herself drawn into constantly comforting Marie, at one point sitting on the bathroom floor with the child in her arms for several hours. But she comes to understand that the exclusive focus on soothing is not in Marie’s best interest — that, in fact, Marie also needs boundaries from the adults in the room. Eventually she is able to help Marie acquire the language to understand her own emotional responses and draw her into classroom participation.
The program’s approach centers on “nested mentalization,” in which supervisors help the TC students reflect on their own emotional reactions and growth so that they, in turn, can work with teachers and students to improve the children’s classroom behaviors and address the teachers’ behavioral management styles.
In a second case study, a younger, white classroom consultant describes the evolution of her relationship with Ms. Henry, an older teacher of color who so resents her presence that at one point she half-seriously accuses the narrator of trying to obtain her fingerprints.
Ms. Henry often responds to her students with great empathy but at other times shouts them down or ignores their distress: “While she could be keenly attuned to the issues facing her students, I also noticed that she often lacked self-insight as to how her own experiences had impacted her.”
The narrator eventually realizes that she herself will have to put in “a lot of personal work to do this job well.” She learns that Ms. Henry grew up, and still lives, near the school; that she has worked in the juvenile prison system; and that she holds together her own family, which includes a nephew with a neurological disorder, a father who is a substance abuser and a brother who is incarcerated. “I felt such empathy toward Ms. Henry,” she writes, “and finally grasped the extent to which she felt the pain and suffering of the students she served and the degree to which she cared for them…I began to let down my guard – and let go of my assumptions. I was better able to really ‘be’ with Ms. Henry and the children. I noticed that as my own curiosity grew, I was driven less by my internal expectations about what a training clinician should do and think and I became more open and flexible… As a result, Ms. Henry’s trust in me grew as she saw my authentic interactions with students.”
I felt such empathy toward Ms. Henry, and finally grasped the extent to which she felt the pain and suffering of the students she served and the degree to which she cared for them…I began to let down my guard — and let go of my assumptions.
—A TC student, describing her experience as a SBMHC classroom consultants
On the last day of the classroom consultant’s field placement, she and Ms. Henry embrace.
“When I got home later that day, I noticed something on my white blouse: a smudge of ink from a leaky pen when she embraced me during our farewell hug. I laughed to myself as I thought of that first day [when] she accidentally left [her] ink fingerprint on the teacher contact sheet. There was no more fitting way this challenging, singular alliance could have ended than with Ms. Henry literally leaving her mark on me.”