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Groups Help Students Get through Tough Times

Besides math, science and English, young students also can learn not to worry at Thornapple Kellogg schools.

With group names like Banana Splits and Hakuna Matata: Don’t Worry, Be Happy, Counselor Mary Holwerda works with students in groups to help ease their fears and anxieties.

Despite the light-hearted titles, what the groups deal with is serious. Banana Splits is a small group for those going through their parents’ divorce or separation; Hakuna Matata – Don’t Worry Be Happy is a group that teaches students how to deal with stress and anxiety; and Linky is a girls’ friendship group that helps deal with the drama they sometimes have. Holwerda also leads a holiday memories group for dealing with grief.

Students today are worrying about “some pretty scary things, like being abandoned, how they’ll get food, how rent will be paid, not having friends, death, accidents and family,” Holwerda said.

Ten percent of children have “excessive fears and worries — phobias, separation anxiety, panic attacks, social anxiety, or obsessive-compulsive disorder”— that can hold them back and keep them from fully enjoying childhood, according to “Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents,” a book Holwerda recommends for families struggling with these issues.
The youngest students she works with are kindergarteners and first-graders. Their issues range from being very shy and socially awkward to being bossy and not willing to share.Mary Holwerda shows the worry stones she tells students to rub their worries into

How it Works

Small group counseling is a good way for children to develop self-confidence, become more aware of others’ views and experiences and better understand how to deal with life problems, Holwerda said.

“It’s very powerful to have their peers there and know they’re not in this alone,” she said.

Parents in the three elementary schools and the middle school at Thornapple Kellogg Public Schools are asked at the beginning of the school year if they would be interested in having their child attend one of the groups. Holwerda meets once a week with these students at each of the elementary schools and twice a week at the middle school.

teachers seeking a group for a student and those asking for help themselves, fill out small, green slips of paper asking to talk to Holwerda. Her work day starts by looking through the requests, and the thickness of the pile makes it clear that worries and fears are part of young students’ lives.

“Children want to change,” said Holwerda of those seeking out solutions to their anxiety and other problems. “They want your help.”

The groups have a few rules.  The most important one is that everything talked about is confidential, Holwerda said. At the meetings, students each have a turn to speak or can “pass” if they choose.

“At first they are a little apprehensive,” Holwerda said. “Later they say, ‘I’m excited. I’m glad I’m here.'”

The largest group is the Linky Friendship Group, which is a drop-in group for girls at lunch time. It’s held in the conference room outside the cafeteria. Besides talking about feelings, the group watches video clips, plays games and makes crafts. Students have become friends as a result of the group, Holwerda said. “That’s the power of it,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘I thought I was the only one.'”

Some of the tools she uses to get students to open up include a rubber ball, Playdough and worry stones. “You press your worries into the stone,” she explained.

Holwerda, a former accountant, has been in her position 12 years. She lets the students know she’s divorced and has three children. They are surprised, usually, but glad she knows what they’re going through. “I know how my own kids feel,” she said.

Two book suggestions from Mary Holwerda:
• “What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety” is one of a series of what-to do guides by Dawn Huebner and Bonnie Matthews. The interactive self-help book is designed for 6- to 12-year-olds and parents.
• “Helping Your Anxious Child: A Step-by-Step Guide for Parents” by Ronald Rapee, Ann Wignall, Susan Spence and Heidi Lyneham

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Linda Odette
Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio or email Linda.


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