Nov. 1, 2019

A collaborative approach to child well-being

A well child is one that can adapt — to their own feelings, to new situations, and to setbacks and struggles

As increasing rates of anxiety continue to impact children’s health, self-esteem and success in the classroom, parents and teachers struggle to respond. At the Werklund School of Education, researchers and practitioners are studying the factors that contribute to anxiety and other disorders impacting children, helping parents and teachers recognize the signs while learning more about prevention and the avenues for treatment.

The Werklund School’s director of Integrated Services in Education (ISE), Dr. Erica Makarenko, PsyD, is working with educational psychology students to help children succeed in their learning, social relationships and mental health, as well as improving resiliency and overall well-being.

“Child well-being is a lot like happiness,” explains Makarenko, a registered psychologist. “It’s a long journey, not a destination. A well child isn’t always happy, or successful, or emotionally regulated. A well child is one that can adapt — to their own feelings, to new situations, and to setbacks and struggles.”

In focusing on child development and by bringing innovations in neuroscience and psychology to the field of education, the Werklund School is educating future teachers to better understand children and adolescents as developing, complex human beings, and not just receivers of knowledge. If educators have a strong foundation in how children’s brains develop, they can better address the needs of their diverse classrooms.

Makarenko’s team offers assessment and diagnosis for children facing difficulties, whether academically with issues of attention or memory, or those struggling with anxiety, including children experiencing bullying who are overwhelmed by their worries. Beyond support for individuals, educational psychologists help schools design and measure programs that support all children, building positive school climates and proactive programs for wellness and inclusion. As well, they support teachers in identifying students who may be at risk academically, or aid in planning small-group interventions for children who may require extra support.

Whatever the service, it must be a collaborative effort, says Makarenko, who worked closely with children, parents and teachers when she was a school psychologist in Delaware and New Jersey before moving to UCalgary to pursue post-doctoral work.

“Well-being is a team sport,” she explains. “Children need others to model and support wellbeing. As teachers, parents and psychologists, we can help create the conditions for well-being by showing children how to handle difficult situations, how to react when you are sad or angry — and that it’s OK to be sad and angry — how to be flexible when plans change, and how to ask for help when you don’t understand something.”

Each year, the ISE serves as a practicum site for approximately 50 Master of Education, Master of Science, and Doctor of Philosophy students. Based within a faculty of education, school psychology can offer a bridging opportunity between psychology and educational research.

“There are many things that teachers can learn from school psychologists and equally as many things for school psychs to learn from teachers,” Makarenko says. With child well-being as their common goal, there are increasing prospects for integration and collaboration within schools and during pre-service teacher training.

“Children flourish when the adults in their life have a consistent message and work together,” she says.