PISCATAWAY, NJ – A collaboration with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care is providing more behavioral and emotional support for students attending two Educational Services Commission of New Jersey (ESCNJ) schools.

Appearing on ESCNJ’s Better Together podcast, Assistant Superintendent Gary Molenaar said Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care “is a recognized leader” in addressing school based behavioral issues.

Since November, Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care’s master mental health clinicians have been onsite at NuView Academy and NuView Academy Annex, schools offering support to students ages 5-21 with significant behavioral and emotional challenges. The ESCNJ faculty continues managing the academic program, with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Program focused on psychiatric and therapeutic services.

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Better Together, hosted by ESCNJ Coordinator of Communications David Sandler, can be heard at www.teachertube.com/audio/11429.

Also appearing on Better Together was Rutgers University Behavioral Health Program Director Sonia Rodrigues-Marto, who manages and designs student clinical services.

 “Our emphasis is the link between emotional wellness and academic success, which we personalize to meet individual student’s needs since one size does not fit all,” said Mrs. Rodrigues-Marto.

Student behavioral and emotional challenges include family violence, trauma, deportation concerns, life in homeless shelters, and many other issues, she said.

“We help students learn coping skills to manage life’s challenges so they can stay in school and continue learning,” said Mrs. Rodrigues-Marto, adding the services include a significant faculty and staff training component.

Mrs. Rodrigues-Marto said being onsite is an advantage, because clinicians can respond to student needs immediately, as opposed to outpatient programs, where students need to schedule appointments to meet with therapists.

 Mr. Molenaar said the goal of the collaboration is to help students reach the point where they are psychologically and emotionally available to return to the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

“We ultimately want to return students to their local school’s special or general education program,” he said.  

 NuView Academy Annex Counselor Amanda Olexian said helping students strengthen coping skills so they can remain in school, even when they are upset, is a major area of concentration.

 “I will meet with students whenever they need to talk,” said Mrs. Olexian.

“Sometimes I’ll reach out to a student to meet with me when I sense they are having a bad day.  The student still might be unable to concentrate on their work, but gaining the ability to remain in school and return to class is a significant accomplishment,” she added.

In addition to personal issues, students need support processing horrors like school shootings and acts of terrorism.

“Students bring those kinds of issues up,” said Mrs. Olexian.

“We offer an environment where they can work through their feelings. I often take a step back and let students process their emotions peer to peer which helps them learn how to be there for each other,” she added.

The ESCNJ Superintendent Mark J. Finkelstein, while not a guest on the podcast, said the collaboration with Rutgers Behavioral Health Program could expand based on enrollment.

“Everyone is struggling to prevent the kind of tragedies we’re all devastated by,” said Mr. Finkelstein, referring to the recent school shooting in Parkland, Fla.

“Addressing access to weapons may be part of the solution, but ultimately, educators must find ways to help students manage any destructive behaviors they are contemplating to make real progress,” he said.

Mr. Finkelstein cited Board Member Beth Maroney’s awareness of the Dylan's Wings of Change Foundation, which led to the ESCNJ hosting a professional development program on stronger social and emotional support to troubled students, which attracted approximately 100 educators statewide.  Mr. Ian Hockley, who founded the Dylan’s Wings of Change Foundation in memory of his son Dylan, one of 20 first graders killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy, facilitated the workshop. Mr. Hockley shared information and led exercises from the foundations "Wingman Youth Leadership" program, intended to inspire "all children to go above and beyond and create inclusive communities in their schools, sports clubs, dance studios and more.”

According to Mr. Molenaar, parents and educators interested in learning more about ESCNJ’s collaboration with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care Program can start by contacting their local school district.

“As a public district, we are partners with all public schools, so the process should begin in the student’s home district,” he said.

The largest Educational Services Commission in the state, the ESCNJ provides special education services to school districts statewide, coordinates transportation services for over 10,000 students across the state, and manages a Co-op Pricing System with over 1,100 members, the largest cooperative buying program in New Jersey.