Teaching mentally ill children: A delicate balance for children and teachers
Katie Osgood made her way down Lawrence Avenue; she was on her way to work. An ambulance passed and she wondered if it was one of her students. Hers is not a typical classroom: There are no desks, the kids wear scrubs and she’s careful about what supplies she uses.
"Count out my pencils, you know. And then other things, I just can’t use—you know, staples, paper clips. I mean markers aren’t dangerous, but you do have to kind of watch them," Osgood said.
Osgood’s the only teacher at Chicago Lakeshore Hospital, a psychiatric facility that treats mentally ill patients, including kids. There are 40 beds for youth at Lakeshore but her average class size ranges between eight and 20 kids. She’s a certified teacher, so kids get credit for a half-day of class each day she teaches them. But because of privacy issues, she may not always privy to what they’re learning at their regular schools.
"I do always tell them, 'You know what? Make sure you’re OK first; if this is going to stress you out, we’re not going to work on it today. You gotta get well with you.' A lot of kids will actually respond with, 'No, I want to do this. I feel like I can.' Whereas if you’re in a regular school,you kind of have to keep pushing them. I mean, today a teacher’s job is on the line if your kids don’t get the grade,” Osgood explained.
The kids, between the ages of four and 17, come from all over the city. But share one thing in common: They are disoriented and away from their parents or guardians. They’re admitted at all hours—even at 4:00 a.m.
Osgood explained, "Some of them are going through the hardest point in their lives. Like it probably won’t get worse than whatever it was that brought them here--whether it’s a suicide attempt, whether it was a moment of rage where they got out of control, whatever it was that brought them here."
You won’t hear Osgood in action during this story. Heikenen-Weiss wasn’t able to record her with students present because of privacy concerns. And it might not have represented an average day for Katie; there is no such thing. Things are always in flux—her patients, their needs, their interests, their health and capacity to learn. One thing is constant: Every morning, the kids participate in a group therapy session called “community.” The kids state why they’re hospitalized. One kid says he kicked his sister’s door down. Next to his name on a white board up front, the counselor notes that anger is an issue he’s struggling with. Under his goals, she writes: “Build up anger management skills.”
"A kid starts acting up or something, you can always point to the board—'Oh, you’re supposed to be following directions today, remember?'," said Osgood.
Osgood looks for signs that might help her teach the kids.
"It’s almost like cracking a code for all these kids. You know, figuring out what exactly is driving these behaviors? What is going on behind the scenes that’s causing them,‘cause you might just look on and see, oh, the kid threw a chair. There could be a thousand things—someone could have called him a name in the morning, or maybe he didn’t eat anything that day or maybe, you, know, he’s going through being put into the foster care system and he just found out. You know, you don’t know what’s happening," Osgood explained.
All of the employees that work with Osgood were trained to catch these clues. But Lakeshore was not without its problems. A study out earlier this year, commissioned by the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services,claimed that children had been sexually abused because employees weren’t keeping an eye on them. Hospital officials refuted those claims—and Osgood said she felt supported.
"One of my biggest things that I love about working at a place like Lakeshore is that I have a team of people with me. I always have a mental health counselor there in the room with me," Osgood said.
Every member on staff was also trained to deescalate situations, even the small ones cause those can escalate with these kids. Sometimes, that can mean shutting down the entire ward if kids get too agitated. Osgood said that maybe once or twice a week, a kid has to be restrained by staff. But she looked at every act of discipline as a learning experience.
"After you give a time out to a child, you need to process and say, 'Well, why did you get this timeout? What can you do differently next time?'" Osgood said.
With a patient’s doctor nearby, Osgood could input on how medications were working out.
"Some of these mental health issues are brain-related. You know what? It’s a chemical imbalance, and if you regulate that, then guess what? You see amazing results. We always remind the kids that medication alone is not going to…you have to do your part, you have to use your coping skills," Osgood remarked.
Osgood gets to know some of the kids—some have a hard time leaving, even after they’ve been medically cleared. Those are usually wards of the state who have no place to go. They often stay up to six months’ other students plunge back into the outside world.
Osgood explained, "A lot of times, we’re discharging these kids straight back into school, like the very next day. And half the time, the teacher won’t even know that the child has been hospitalized for psychiatric issues. You know, it’s protected health information, you know, and if the family chooses not to share that, the teacher has no idea."
Osgood said that she sees a lot of kids return to the hospital.
"My objective is kind of to show these kids that they can do it. I want the kids to experience some kind of success, especially the ones who have experienced a lot of school failure. You can rope them in a lot easier in terms of getting them engaged," she said.
Osgood knows she’s not teaching her kids to test, or to pass a grade, or to build on the lessons of a previous teacher. She’s hoping to plant a kernel—something that might pop up later in life.