Time and Expertise Help Student Build Social-Emotional Skills

December 21, 2020

In mid-March, when COVID-19 mitigation efforts temporarily closed in-person instruction and clinical services at Green Chimneys, teams of staff worked quickly to launch classes and clinical services online. For children with complex emotional and learning challenges well before the pandemic, staff inherently knew maintaining the continuity of care for our children and animals was critical.

For 12-year-old Patrick, the abrupt shift was not easy. As a Green Chimneys School student, Patrick had grown more than accustomed to his routine – he relied on it. Each school day he would get on the bus in Modena, New York and travel over 40 miles to the Brewster campus, ready to begin his day.

“Because of the nature of our program, Patrick and I were able to work beyond the confines of my office,” explained Social Worker Hilary Landman. “We were able to more quickly develop a positive therapeutic relationship by interacting with our surrounding environment.” As an active child, Patrick loved all that Green Chimneys offered in terms of movement and being outdoors. Since arriving in 2017, Patrick consistently showed an interest in learning in the classroom as well as independently. He was always fascinated by environmental science and in discovering more about the people and things around him. But as a child struggling socially, Paddy needed help identifying emotions and articulating feelings. Soon Patrick talked with Hilary about what was important to him and was eager to set goals.

Incorporating animal-assisted activities & nature-based experiences

Hilary built sessions around Patrick’s interests and energy level while also utilizing the resources available at Green Chimneys. From the walking trail to accessing the Great Swamp, Patrick and Hilary adventured around campus and explored new spots. “It really allowed Patrick space to be himself.” Hilary also partnered with colleagues and animals to enhance Patrick’s treatment. Soon the pair had a standing weekly appointment to walk Dexter, an approved campus dog.

Through their work together and with Dexter’s assistance, Patrick became increasingly more conscious of himself and the world around him. Patrick familiarized himself with feelings and learned a lot about them from Dexter. In 2019, at the age of 11, Patrick created a book entitled, “Dexter and Patrick’s Fantastic Expressions.” He composed definitions for a multitude of emotions. Patrick and Hilary collected photos of Dexter and himself which illustrated each expression.

Dexter also helped Patrick develop patience and acceptance. Though Dexter is very social, he can also be stubborn at times, and their walks didn’t always go as planned. Patrick became mindful of Dexter and anticipated Dexter’s least favorite areas. Patrick understood when Dexter needed to be cheered on and how to motivate the canine too. Through these experiences, Patrick also learned how to manage his own expectations and frustrations. And he often put Dexter’s needs before his own. Over the two years of sessions with Hilary and Dexter, Patrick’s social-emotional skills and confidence continued to grow.

By the start of the new school year in 2019, Patrick and Hilary set new treatment goals and continued their weekly sessions with their canine buddy Dexter. But by March of 2020, however, when the reality of COVID-19 began to sweep the nation, Paddy joined the ranks of children whose routines were shattered by mitigation protocols. Green Chimneys pivoted quickly to make online learning and clinical support services available. Patrick and Hilary’s weekly walks were only a memory by that point, and Patrick was not interested in meeting with Dexter via Zoom. Instead Hilary would occasionally join Patrick’s classes online. They also met one-on-one for telehealth sessions. Patrick admitted he didn’t know how to really type on the computer before the shutdown and that it was hard to keep up with all of the changes.

Returning to school and adjusting to new routines

In July, when state mandates permitted Green Chimneys School to reopen for in-person instruction, Patrick was excited to return to campus. Learning and observing the safety protocols hasn’t always been easy. And since Dexter has not yet returned to campus, Paddy and Hilary leaned into another interest of Paddy’s: gardening. Establishing a new routine, Paddy and Hilary spent much of their sessions over the summer and through the fall in the Children’s Garden.

While tackling a task in the garden, Hilary would check in with Paddy. They revisited a series of ongoing topics. Patrick grabbed any chance to discuss Nordic mythology, and Hilary continued to utilize Patrick’s interests as way to reinforce social skills, build relationships, and establish a rapport where Patrick feels a sense of pride in the knowledge he shares. Navigating conversation remains a growth area. Opening and closing conversations in an appropriate manner can be difficult, so engaging in basic conversational skills is important. And recently, at Patrick’s request, they reunited with Dexter via Zoom. It was a great opportunity to practice conversation skills, and it also allowed Patrick to reconnect with an old friend.

Preparing for winter and beyond

As the seasons shift, Hilary and Paddy are preparing for winter. They’ve talked about what future sessions may “look” like and how Paddy plans to spend his time during the holiday break. They’re also talking about what may happen this spring: the possibility of Patrick leaving Green Chimneys at the end of this school year. For the first time he’s expressing interest in returning to his home school district and showing signs that he’s ready. And while the prospect is very exciting, Hilary is helping Patrick remain in the present. “Patrick wants to be involved in his community and have opportunities for classes where his interests and knowledge can expand,” explained Hilary. Since being back on campus Patrick is appreciating his friendships and relationships more. “I see him being more kind and thoughtful in his interactions. He’s accepting help from others, improved self-expression – he’s come so far. I am most proud of Patrick for being himself.”

Help Green Chimneys continue to serve children, their families, and the animals.

By contributing to Green Chimneys, you’re supporting the educational and therapeutic programming that teaches students such as Patrick the skills and confidence to focus on their own well-being and academic development. And through the establishment of skills and self-esteem, students are able to look forward to their futures.