Lea O’Malley and Kristyn Williams are embracing a rare opportunity in elementary education: They’re both elementary school counselors at Union East Elementary in Cheektowaga.
Both say they might know of an elementary school here or there that employs one counselor, but to have two counselors at an elementary school is the exception.
“I don’t think I know of any other elementary school that has two counselors in one building,” O’Malley said. “So that’s very rare.”
Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies is the program they use for social and emotional learning to teach students about coping with different feelings, conflict resolution and problem-solving.
These two, plus two counselors at the middle school, were hired using a nearly $1 million federal grant that lasts two more years.
“A major role for us is to just be preventative and to give the kids the skills they need now, but in the future, too,” O’Malley said. “There’s a need for them (counselors) at every income level.”
They said Union East has nearly 800 students, but the pair services kindergarten to fourth grade. There are 35 classrooms, so “they just split it up,” Williams said.
In New York State, they do not mandate that there’s an elementary school counselor. In this school, “they’ve been super supportive of us,” said Williams.
“Schools want to start helping kids with these family issues or learning issues,” Williams said. “We also help students who need help learning social skills.”
O’Malley said they teach skills for how to deal with a potentially bumpy home life. They teach a lot of conflict resolution, she said. They teach kids problem-solving.
Almost once a week, each classroom gets serviced by us,” O’Malley said. “Today I had a grief group for kids who had lost loved ones.”
Williams said anger management, self-esteem, anxiety, grief and family changes are subjects of small groups.
They have some terrific success stories. The pair even receives something they call “fan art” They get “fan art,” like when a student brings in a thank you – usually a drawing, maybe a picture.
“There’s a little boy I’ve been working with for more than a year, on anger management and self-control issues. I’ve been teaching him self-control techniques so he can calm himself down,” O’Malley said. “His behavior has gotten a lot better. We work closely with his dad at home and he goes to outside counseling, too. I believe it’s just everyone coming together to support each other.”
Williams said she teaches her students to calm down, then make a plan, then go and try it out and evaluate it for themselves.
“Hopefully, eventually, this will become a mandatory position in New York State,” Williams said.
Dennis Kane, superintendent of the Cheektowaga Central School District, said he doesn’t believe there’s a reapplication process for the grant.
“I think there’s an expectation that you’ll find a way to fund it, because it worked so well,” Kane said. “The expectation is that you should be able to sustain it on your own.”
He said the two counselors are “working very well at the elementary school.”
“You’re creating positive student attitudes and behaviors,” Kane said.