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Teenage boy sitting in hallway. (Tetra Images | Getty Images)

Teenage boy sitting in hallway. (Tetra Images | Getty Images)

After a mother’s suicide, this Colorado school psychologist helped give her son a reason to live

In our new “How I Help” series, we feature school counselors, social workers, and psychologists across Colorado who have been recognized for their work. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Rachel Toplis, a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in Colorado Springs, once met extensively with a high school boy devastated by his mother’s suicide. During the following year, he struggled academically and got mixed up with the wrong crowd.

Eventually, he confided that he’d considered suicide himself, but hadn’t gone through with it because of the work they’d done together and the bond they shared. To Toplis, it was a poignant reminder that all kids need someone in their corner.

Toplis, who was named the 2017 School Psychologist of the Year by the Colorado Society of School Psychologists, talked to Chalkbeat about her weekly sessions with the teenager, why she looks at bad behavior as a skill deficit, and how parents should praise their kids.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Why did you become a school psychologist?
I completed my Ph.D. at the University of East London in England. A colleague of mine at the time was training to become an educational psychologist. I loved the process she went through of gathering a body of evidence, deciphering, interpreting, and understanding a child in order to explain individual differences and figure out how to support the child. After I immigrated to the U.S., I retrained as a school psychologist.

Rachel Toplis is a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in the Academy school district.

Rachel Toplis is a school psychologist at Chinook Trails Elementary in the Academy school district.

courtesy of Rachel Toplis

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
I am very proud of my work as brain injury specialist for our school district. I am particularly proud of a training program we developed for middle and high students on concussion prevention and management. Using a grant from the Colorado MindSource Brain Injury Program we developed a complete package of PowerPoint presentations and instructor manuals for teachers to use in their classrooms.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
I am particularly interested in brain development and processing, so I tend to lean towards interventions that have a basis in brain development. I am particularly excited about strategies and curriculum that support executive functioning, such as “The Zones of Regulation” and “Smart but Scattered.”

However, one “tool” I could not live without is my team. Each of us views a child through a different lens, and when all of that information comes together, we have the best understanding of how to support the child.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school where you work?
I can’t think of any misconceptions, but there are some things that should be reiterated. If you have ever tried to change a habit or behavior, you know how hard it is and how long it takes. For the students I work with, maladaptive behaviors have not developed overnight and will not generally go away overnight. Teams have to be committed, consistent, and follow through with fidelity. I believe that children are not “bad.” I prefer to interpret challenging behavior as a skill deficit waiting to be discovered so the skill can be directly taught.
You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
Set expectations and be consistent. Be aware of the line between supporting and encouraging your child, and unrealistic expectations that result in pressure and anxiety. Praise your child for the grit and determination they show in reaching a goal, rather than praising them for being “smart” once a task is completed.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
I worked with a high school student whose mother had committed suicide a year earlier. We met weekly as part of his special education services, but he also knew he could stop by my office for a cup of tea if he needed to. In the beginning, he was angry and pushed away anyone who wanted to get close to him. He got involved with peers who were not a good influence on him. Over time, his grades began to reflect the difficulty he was having. We began working with the “WhyTry” curriculum and he was able to see how his group of peers was pulling him back down.

When the anniversary of his mother’s death arrived, he had a very hard time. He let me know he had considered suicide, but he had not carried it out because of the relationship we had, and things we had talked about and practiced. I was extremely grateful that I had been able to build a relationship with this student. This situation reminded me how important it is for everyone to have at least one person who is in her or his corner.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Often the hardest part of my job is sharing assessment results with parents as part of the process for establishing students’ special education plans. My teams and I are very cognizant to talk about strengths and how to use them to support a student. Unfortunately, in order to determine what a child needs educationally, we have to attempt to figure out what their skill levels are. Therefore, these meeting tend to be where families hear, yet again, all the things their child cannot currently do. It is still a tough conversation to have.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
The Colorado Department of Education supports a biannual conference for parents of students with disabilities call the Parents Encouraging Parents conference, or PEP. It was extremely eye-opening as a professional to have unfettered access to conversations from parents about the process of creating special education plans and their experience as parents of students with disabilities. It renewed my appreciation and understanding of their struggles, concerns, fears, guilt, hopes, and, sometimes, their misconceptions about the process for Individualized Education Programs. I would strongly recommend anyone in the field of education to attend this conference once in their career.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
I know exercise, fun activities, and spending time with my family reduce stress. This is something I constantly work on.