When Tifanie Petro approaches her work on children’s mental and emotional wellness, she does it from a cluster of different angles. As the director of advocacy and prevention for Children’s Home Society, in Rapid City, she sometimes speaks directly to children. Or, she’ll hold training sessions with school teachers and staff members who encounter students in various contexts.
A consciousness of mental health, Petro explained, can emerge in many shapes.
“When we talk about how we respond to students’ mental health, it’s not this big, grand gesture,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a therapy session or a big intervention. Sometimes it’s those small moments of connection that we see so many providers in our schools have.”
The Children’s Home Society, Petro said, works with the South Dakota Department of Education through a Project Aware grant, held by the Department of Education and received from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. SAMHSA is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The partnership with the South Dakota Department of Education enables Petro to work with school districts throughout the state.
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Petro also teaches four courses a year at Black Hills State University in the Human Services program. She’s earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degrees in human services and public health. She serves as a troop leader – along with other positions – for Girl Scouts Dakota Horizons.
Petro said she worked in the last several months with nutrition and transportation staff members at RCAS on training revolving around Adverse Child Experiences – often referred to as ACEs.
“For (RCAS) to bring us in to talk to their support staff was fantastic,” Petro said.
Support staff members, Petro said, “are seeing the impact of trauma just as much as the teachers are.”
And Petro wants, she said, to help people working in various places within a school to think about some of what may lie behind children’s actions.
“We talk about the ‘why’ behind the behavior,” she said. “How come kids are acting out? It’s about a recognition that kids aren’t being difficult, they’re just having a hard time. It’s also about equipping (people) with an understanding about why it’s important that we all play a role, that we all collectively realize that the experiences of others are our responsibility.”
Chelsie Ogaard, community based services program director for Children’s Home Society, added, “Sometimes it’s as simple as redirecting … A quick change of pace is sometimes all it takes.”
Ogaard, a social worker, has a bachelor’s degree in psychology and master’s degree in social work. While Petro’s work focuses on the child advocacy center – and involves much interaction with schools – Ogaard concentrates on community based work, including several programs working in the child welfare system, the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system.
Petro, in addition to the ACEs training, has conducted several training sessions for handling child abuse disclosures. She mentioned recent training sessions for the nurses, social workers and counselors at RCAS.
Petro and Ogaard both noted the challenges of doing the work they do during the pandemic.
“It’s a tough time to be in community-based services,” Ogaard said.
She noted the benefits of in-person contact with families and children – benefits curtailed in the last year and a half or so.
“It’s (also) forced us to be more efficient with our time,” she said. “It’s created lasting change so that we can potentially serve people outside of our geographical area.”
Ogaard said she and other staff members are meeting with families in person when they can while staying safe.
“A lot of the youth that we’re working with have a very difficult time discussing their traumatic experiences on a computer,” she said. “They need that personal connection, so we strive really hard to meet their needs in the most effective and safe way.”
Petro emphasized the strong role educators play in keeping children safe.
“About 50% of child abuse disclosures come out of a school,” she said. “When the pandemic shut the schools down, there wasn’t a single community provider who wasn’t concerned about the safety of the children.”
Petro said she and the people she works with create “simply just a support to help them know what to do with what they’re seeing in a classroom.”
Trauma, Petro stressed, varies widely from child to child, since seemingly similar events may strike children in vastly different ways. But Petro also noted that adversity for children, in many forms, appears to be growing.
“The amount of difficult experiences that our children are having has certainly increased,” she said. Those experiences might include, she said, “community violence, peer victimization, or things going on in the home life.”
The reasons behind the upticks in adversity may be tough to determine, she said.
“But our community has certainly seen an influx of really tough situations for kids,” she said, adding that the balance of dealing with trauma and handling instruction is “no easy feat” for educators.
Petro sees mental health as well within the province of a school’s mission, and she imagined a conversation with someone who may harbor a different vision.
“I would invite them to have a conversation about how trauma impacts learning,” she said. “It’s really hard to pay attention to math and science when (your) world is upside down. And so we can't get to the learning-education piece if we don't handle the crisis.”