Supporting healthy relationships as ‘the root of all learning’

Student wellness adviser working to destigmatize conversation around mental health

Vickie Swanson talks to a student while leading her 'lunch bunch' group for Caledonia Elementary School

In Vickie Swanson’s view, mental health is inseparable from classroom learning.

“I am a true believer that the root of all learning starts with relationships, and we are supporting both our staff and students in building safe and healthy relationships,” Swanson said. As Caledonia’s student wellness adviser, she works to strengthen those relationships across the school district. 

Vickie Swanson has been with Caledonia schools for two years

Swanson has taken on the work full time this year, in what was previously a part-time elementary school counselor position that the district decided would be more successful on a larger scale. The position, housed at the high school, builds on Caledonia’s overall goal to support mental health across the district, Swanson said.

“My main focus is school mental health,” she said. “My main goal is interconnecting the support framework K-12.”

Swanson works with school counselors and student support staff to develop classroom-specific lessons and activities that promote positive mental health practices. She also serves as the district’s McKinney Vento and Foster Care liaison to advocate for homeless students.

Under her lead, the student support team has implemented several measures. They include appointing students to serve as mental health leaders in middle and elementary schools; services for parents to receive counseling; and a partnership with Alliance Counseling for additional counseling staff in secondary buildings.

“This is not only my work, but rather, the efforts of the whole student support team,” Swanson said. “I just have the opportunity to help lead that team.”

Vickie Swanson looks over academic and attendance records with Janel Switzer, director of curriculum for Caledonia schools

A Passion for Public Education

Swanson came to Caledonia in 2018 for a Title I grant-funded position to support family engagement, a post which quickly evolved into an elementary support specialist and support coach. She is excited to get back in the public school system after working in private education.

“I really missed that public school atmosphere,” she said. “I wanted to be back in a school system with more diversity at all levels.”

Swanson, who has a master’s degree in counseling from Western Michigan University, said her passion for public education stems from her own high school experiences. 

“I had a very instrumental group of teachers during my high school career,” she said. “I think that is one of the reasons I found my way back to public education. I knew I wanted to be a part of that team as well.”

When Swanson joined the Caledonia team, the district was moving forward in plans to prioritize and update community mental health practices. Building on school initiatives and programs such as be nice, the district wanted to build a strong team to support students.

The current team includes:

  • four elementary student support specialists;
  • two middle school counselors;
  • four high school counselors;
  • three social workers;
  • a director of special programs;
  • a family engagement coordinator. 

Since most of Swanson’s job involves working to create programming for classroom use, she relies heavily on the willingness of the teaching staff, she said.

“My work is really worthless if our teachers don’t help deliver the programming. Everyone has been phenomenal — that’s why we are seeing success.”

Hearing that members of the Caledonia community are sensing change is one of the biggest compliments she can receive, Swanson said.

“People that have been in Caledonia much longer than I have have told me that this is one of the first times they have seen this type of empowerment for mental health,” she said. “Hearing that is everything that you could ask for, so rewarding.”

Vickie Swanson, far right, meets with her team to go over building data

‘A Daunting Task’

An integral aspect of her work has been the district-wide development of an Integrated Systems Framework, which blends the disciplinary approach of Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports with social-emotional learning components.

The framework requires the student support team to create lessons that are taught in collaboration between school counselors and classroom teachers. This practice has been fully implemented in grades K-8 and the district has plans to work on further development in 9-12. Currently, K-8 students receive lessons at least twice per month from their teachers, and 9-12 students are receiving lessons delivered by school counselors.

Implementing this framework on such a large scale was a daunting task, one that Swanson has put her all into, said Caledonia Elementary Principal Joshua Traughber.

“Mrs. Swanson has been tireless in her work to support the needs of students, parents, and staff members,” Traughber said. “(She) has led through the challenges, taught staff members new concepts, and has served as a point person for an upcoming parent workshop focusing on student well-being. She is deeply valued.”

Looking ahead, Swanson isn’t sure exactly what her position will look like, but she’s excited by the progress she has seen.

“We’re trying to destigmatize mental health so that we can talk about it, so that we can call it by name,” Swanson said. “It doesn’t have to be something we’re embarrassed about.”

She deeply appreciates the support she and her team have received, as part of the district’s mission to educate “the whole child and whole community.”

“Working in Caledonia has been very empowering in terms of allowing myself, and my team, to move forward,” she said. “Having that kind of support and encouragement is invaluable. Across the nation, there is a need for a stronger focus on mental health. Caledonia is taking that step and I am proud to be a part of that.”

Swanson and her team of counselors (from left): Deana Houghton, Andrea Hilaski, Swanson, Katherine Dorband and Kurtis Hoffman
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Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit. Read Hannah's full bio or email Hannah.

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