As the wheels on the bus go round and round, bus drivers watch students grow up day after day and year after year. They are the first faces students see to begin the school day and the last when it ends.
Because of that, their job goes way beyond navigating the school route. “We’re not just bus drivers,” said Donna Tipton, one of 40 drivers on the crew at Byron Center Public Schools.
While teachers and coaches change along with grade levels, many students see the same face behind the wheel of the big yellow bus for years, and that connection can be an opportunity to make a positive difference in students’ lives, drivers explained.
They catch the bits and pieces of conversations students often don’t realize they’re tuned into. They notice anything awry in neighborhoods; they converse with students about their lives; and they notice when a typically smiley kid boards with a frown.
“I like to stay with the same run,” said Byron Center driver Sue Bultema. “You get to know the kids from year to year. It’s important they know you know who they are and that they’re not just another kid getting on the bus.”
Seventh-grade West Middle School student Vanessa Camargo said Tipton makes an effort to know every student on the bus by name.
“She’s awesome. When I leave she says ‘bye,’ when I come,’ she say’s ‘hi’,” Vanessa said.
Over the years, bonds form, and bus drivers become a part of students’ lives. Birthday treats are shared, graduation party invites are made. The drivers work make sure their buses are where students feel safe, a constant in their lives.
“I like to be that positive, happy face on the bus, the person they know they can talk to,” Bultema said.
Trained to Respond to Distress
Because of their pivotal role, Doug Gallup, Byron Center district services coordinator, said he wanted their 40 full-time drivers to have an action plan in place for when a student seems emotionally distressed.
Last year, their drivers were the first in Kent County to become certified in Mental Health First Aid through the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. The training was funded by a grant from Network 180, a Grand Rapids-based mental health agency. Since then, Grandville Public Schools drivers have also been trained. The Byron Center drivers also participate in “be nice,” the foundation’s anti-bullying initiative.
“Bus drivers see these kids every day, sometimes from kindergarten to graduation, so they know their families, siblings, socio-economic situation,” Gallup said. “They are sometimes the only constant in a student’s life at school.”
When something seems off with a student who may seem depressed, angry, anxious or showing other signs of distress, drivers implement ALGEE, a five-step plan, which stands for:
- Assess for risk of suicide or harm;
- Listen non-judgmentally;
- Give reassurance and information;
- Encourage appropriate professional help;
- Encourage self-help and other support strategies
“A bus driver can notice if a student is experiencing mean behavior or stressors on the bus ride, and can either speak to the young person themselves, or encourage appropriate help by making other adults aware,” said Christy Buck, executive director for the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan. “A young person’s emotional health is a puzzle. All adults that have communication/contact with a young person, especially those adults they see each and every day, have a responsibility to communicate what they notice about the young person and put the puzzle together.
“Before all of this, they need the crucial knowledge of what thoughts, actions and behaviors could be warning signs.”
The bus is a different setting than school, where students may show behaviors teachers might not notice or realize is outside the norm. Tipton and Bultema, the Byron Center drivers, said they both have faced situations where they needed to react. For Tipton, a young boy kept saying, “I hate my life, I hate my life,” prompting her to contact his parents. Surprised, the parents talked with the child and learned his brother had been picking on him.
Bultema contacted a principal when a student was bullying others on the bus. He faced challenges at home and was slowly getting out of control. Staff intervened to address the problem.
Bultema said it’s obvious when a student’s mental health is suffering. She’s seen them stop responding to greetings or turn their heads away to a cheerful hello.
“You can get an idea about what’s going on with them,” she said, and being that first responder leads staff and administrators stepping in. “It’s got to be teamwork between everyone involved.”
The National Council for Behavioral Health brought Mental Health First Aid to the U.S. in 2008. In its pilot year, the program was introduced in nearly 20 states and more than 40 communities nationwide.
Mental Health First Aid originated in 2001 in Australia under the direction of founders Betty Kitchener and Tony Jorm. To date, it has been replicated in 20 other countries including Hong Kong, Scotland, England, Canada, Finland and Singapore.