For Kalissa Jardine ’17, ’18 (M.A. in Clinical Mental Health Counseling and Pupil Personnel Services Credential, School Counseling), no two workdays are the same—and she wouldn’t have it any other way. As an elementary school counselor at Hemmerling Elementary School in Banning, California, Jardine is in her element providing mental health care for students and was recently named Banning Unified School District's Counselor of the Year.
Originally from Michigan, Jardine wanted to pursue a career in counseling but thought the state lacked job openings for mental health care personnel. Jardine took a job in central California and, after a year in that position, enrolled at the U of R, where the small class sizes and streamlined program completion time piqued her interest.
Throughout her program, Jardine says her professors and classmates in the School of Education introduced her to new ways of thinking about mental health and the counseling profession. “One of the things that Professor Janee Both-Gragg would say is that everyone has to care for their mental health,” she says. “It’s not weird or wrong if you’re struggling. The program was all about destigmatizing mental illness and being advocates for care.”
Part of that destigmatization involved learning about how other cultures understand mental health, ultimately encouraging students to be more competent counselors. These discussions, Jardine says, contribute directly to her daily work at a school where 100 percent of students receive free lunch.
“There’s definitely a lot of trauma in the school’s community, from gang violence to abuse and neglect,” she says. “It’s hard for students to think at high levels when they’re just trying to get through the night and have their basic needs met.”
In order to care for students, there should be one counselor for every 250 children. But Jardine, who works in an office alongside a marriage and family therapist, serves a population of 600 students. Still, she says, this is progress compared to previous years in the district.
“My district is aiming to employ a counselor at every elementary school, which is not the case in many other districts,” Jardine says. “We’ve also purchased a social and emotional learning curriculum in order to teach students critical social skills that might not be modeled at home.”
In addition to societal pressures, there is a strain on mental health professionals who work in school environments—often too few counselors are employed to meet students’ needs. At the beginning of the academic year, the number of crises is heightened because some children have never been to school before, so Jardine works to help them adjust to a new environment. As student settle in, she engages in group and individual counseling sessions.
In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Jardine’s work has moved online. Each week she hosts a school-wide lunch session via Zoom that has allowed students and staff to connect with each other and engage in activities. A recent session included a virtual scavenger hunt that encouraged participants to share one item that makes them feel happy.
Jardine has also spearheaded the creation of Mustang Minute, a talk show series that features appearances from the school principal and a collection of teachers. “My goal is to maintain connectedness and boost staff and student morale while also encouraging students to keep growing socially and emotionally,” she says.
On a smaller scale, Jardine is hosting online small groups every week, allowing her to check in with students and help them with coping skills. If a student needs support at home, that student or a family member can submit a virtual counseling request.
In her work with students, Jardine regularly draws on an analogy from a U of R counseling theory course taught by Both-Gragg—that anger is often an emotional umbrella hiding an underlying feeling or issue.
In addition to its long-lasting professional impact, the U of R clinical mental health counseling program was a fulfilling experience for Jardine. From regular dinners with members of her cohort to advice from her professors, the University of Redlands community encouraged Jardine to be introspective and curious.
“Throughout the program, I learned so much about myself,” she says. “Learning that it’s okay to be different and embrace those characteristics allows me to trust my instincts. When I’m my best self, that’s when I can be the best for my students.”
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