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What I Do: Reid Olmstead, school psychologist

New York Teacher
Reid Olmstead

He has worked at P 186, a District 75 school for special-needs students in the Morrisania section of the Bronx for three years.

How would you describe your job?

My primary role is to provide counseling as prescribed by the student’s Individualized Education Program. But a lot of what I do is try to repair the severed relationships with parents who are estranged from school involvement because of past experiences in other schools or because of the child’s problems. Our school has many services because we specialize in working with students with such high needs. A third of our students have such profound multiple disabilities that they don’t take high-stakes tests.

What’s the particular role of the school psychologist in serving special-needs students?

It’s subjective, depending on the student and the needs of the student in that moment. I am primarily there to provide counseling, but a lot of what I do is responding to crises. We have to know the student so well, and typically they don’t know themselves well. We try to help them know what their triggers are, and express their emotions in a healthy way so they can regulate themselves, especially in the classroom so their learning doesn’t continue to suffer.

How does your day typically begin?

To get the day off on the right foot, I greet the students when they arrive at 8 a.m. I just don’t work with my caseload. It’s in my interest and the school’s interest for me to know each child, and what their baseline is — what their normal behavior is. I can let the staff know if the student has had an issue on the bus or over the weekend.

What are some of the signs that a child may be off baseline?

When their emotions are escalated they cannot use words effectively, but I can gauge by body language, facial expression and the pitch of their voice if something has added to their stress. And if you don’t have a relationship with the child, he won’t respond to you. They have to know whom they can trust for their own self-preservation. It comes down to me and my colleagues. We have to be one of the people they can trust.

What happens next as your day gets underway?

I usually hold individual and group counseling sessions. I also attend IEP meetings and safety meetings with building engineers — they’re removing PCB-tainted lighting. Sometimes there’s a middle school basketball game with another District 75 school. This year, the majority of the team is my caseload, so I’ll travel with the students and keep score if they need me to. And I’ll prepare them to represent our school appropriately.

How do you that?

If I’m the one who is advising students to respect officials of another school, it may fall on deaf ears. Coming from one of their peers, it might be more effective, so I have to identify the leaders on the team and their baseline that day. Anything could affect their baseline: if they’ve had a medical change, or a death in family, or they’re living in a shelter.

Are any of your students ready to transition to their community schools?

A number of my 8th-graders are making strides to meet the criteria for going to a high school in the community. We don’t expect perfection. They’re adolescents. They have to be academically ready, and at the same time they have mental and behavioral issues that impede progress. We ask, “How quickly can they get back to baseline?”

How do you help them do that?

It’s rarely what I do in the moment. It’s what I’ve done leading up to that moment. Knowing I’m there for them, building trust. I also hold them accountable. They want to know where the boundaries are and that I’m consistent.

How do you gauge your success?

Success is having a student make such progress that he is able to move into a less restrictive environment or a community school, even if he may still require special services. Success is also having students feel that they have an ally in a mental health provider so they will continue to access mental health resources as they enter adulthood.

You’re also the school’s chapter leader.

I come from a long family line of unionists: electrical workers, boilermakers, nurses and teachers. At P 186, I have great resources in my colleagues here and throughout the union. I always feel supported by them. Also, I inherited a strong chapter from the former chapter leader, Don Albright. I want to maintain political involvement. Our livelihood is under attack, and I want to make sure our members understand what’s at risk.

— As told to reporter Linda Ocasio

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