Natalie Fikac is an educator with over 23 years of experience. Her educational experience began as an elementary school teacher, reading interventionist and dyslexia specialist, Professional School Counselor at both the elementary and secondary level, campus administrator and district level administrator. In her previous educational experience, she served as the Director of Guidance & Counseling in Spring Branch ISD where she supported 85 Professional School Counselors, the district CYS crisis team and advocated on behalf of the 35,000 students of SBISD. She has also served as an adjunct professor at Lamar University where she taught and lead aspiring administrators. She is passionate about growing leaders, instilling self-care in those that she supports and educating and advocating on behalf of students and families in the areas of mental health, behavioral health and social-emotional needs.
We talk with Natalie about the importance of the tier one supports for the mental and behavioral health, and she gives some steps that schools can take to be more intentional in the area of tier one supports.
“...a lot of times the teachers, the coaches, the janitor and the cafeteria personnel are the first line for making sure that are students are safe and they have what they need. And we also know that half of our students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of high school. So we, in a school setting, we have an obligation to make sure that we have supports in place for our students."
— Natalie Fikac
- John: Welcome to the Character Strong Podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today we're talking with Natalie Fikac. Natalie's the director of the Center for School for Behavioral Health at Mental Health America of Greater Houston. An educator with over 23 years of experience, she began as an elementary school teacher, reading interventionist and dyslexia specialist. She was a professional school counselor at both the elementary and secondary level, campus administrator, and district level administrator. Previously she served as the Director of Guidance and counseling in Spring Branch ISD, where she supported 85 professional school counselors, the district CYS crisis team, and advocated on behalf of the 35,000 students in the district.
- John: She has also served as an adjunct professor at Lamar University, where she taught and led aspiring administrators. She is passionate about growing leaders, instilling that self-care in those that she supports and educating and advocating on behalf of students and families in the areas of mental health, behavioral health, and social/emotional needs. Are you ready? Let's get characters strong with Natalie Fikac. All right, it is so exciting to have Natalie Fikac on the Character Strong podcast with us today. Natalie, how are you today?
- Natalie: I'm doing great, thanks so much, excited to be here.
- John: Well, I know we were talking a little bit beforehand. It's also like what like 90 plus degrees where you are in Houston and 95% humidity. So it's like you're really choosing your attitude well today
- Natalie: It's pretty hot and gross in the Houston area.
- John: Well I, as listeners heard in your, your bio, you are deep in and many different places in this really important work and I think just to get right to it, we always say keeping our podcast to that shorter, more around 10 minute mark, right? Cut the fluff, get right to the stuff. Well the stuff is really important, that we're going to be talking about today. So I was wondering, could you talk today, could you just start right off around information you have, even research around the importance of tier one support. So we're talking all that foundational work that has happened in schools, but kind of info, research you have right now around the importance of tier one supports for the mental and behavioral health of our students.
- Natalie: Absolutely. So we're really fortunate. I work for Mental Health America as a special division called the Center for School Behavioral Health. And we have our really unique opportunity. One of the things that we've been doing a lot is providing consultation for school districts around Texas, and now we're even branching outside of Texas, really helping schools and school districts and campuses think about how they can better meet the behavioral and mental health needs of their students. And so just to throw out just a few pieces of data that drives our work is that in the state of Texas, one out of every five students, ages 13 to 15 live with a mental health condition. So yeah, that's one out of five students in your classroom who are dealing with a significant concern. The average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention is between eight to 10 years.
- Natalie: So we know as a public, former public educator, a lot of times the teachers, the coaches, the janitor and the cafeteria personnel are the first line for making sure that are students are safe and they have what they need. And we also know that half of our students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of high school. So we, in a school setting, we have an obligation to make sure that we have supports in place for our students. We know that an integrated healthcare approach is the best way to do that, but we also know that that doesn't always happen. There's a lot of schools don't have the capacity to have a full time psychiatrist or a therapist on site. So what we can do is really work through thinking differently about how we support all students. So in my opinion, that's through great tier one interventions. That's having, establishing a culture on your campus that supports all students.
- Natalie: So thinking differently about how we discipline students, how we reward students, being pro-active in our classroom management, having a school-like focus on implementation with fidelity. And we know that that all starts with relationships. To piggyback off of that, some of the works that we've been doing with specific school districts in the Houston area is coming directly from the National Center for School Mental Health and this is a division up in Maryland at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. So I would definitely want to highlight for anyone who has thoughts about really assessing the teams, assessing what's, what's going on on their campus, what tools that there are on their campuses to meet behavioral or mental health needs to really take a look at their website. They have a system called the SHAPE system, s, h, a, p, e, which stands for school health assessment and performance evaluation system.
- Natalie: What I really like about this website is it gives you what you need. It gives you a playbook on how to screen for mental health concerns. It gives you a playbook on how to form a mental health team, but at the root of all that, we know that tier one services and supports are foundational and everyone at Character Strong, I mean you all know that that begins with a positive school climate. Making sure that your teacher and staff are well, they are taking care of themselves. There are positive behaviors and relationships on that campus. Positive discipline practices and awareness of what mental health literacy is, so making sure that everyone on your campus, including the students has the appropriate vocabulary to talk about mental health. And of course social emotional learning, which Character Strong does an amazing job with that, so.
- John: That is wonderful and I'm literally just taking like as fast as I can notes on much of what you just shared and it'll be wonderful to be able to go back and even listen to this. Can you just quickly take me back, two numbers that stood out. So one that I heard, it's in Texas, which my guess is, I mean when you're thinking about teens and your across the board, these are going to line up, right? Whether that's in Texas or beyond, but in Texas it's one in five, right? One in every five was at 13 to 18 years old are dealing with, what was the specific stat?
“There's a lot of schools don't have the capacity to have a full time psychiatrist or a therapist on site. So what we can do is really work through thinking differently about how we support all students. So in my opinion, that's through great tier one interventions. That's having, establishing a culture on your campus that supports all students."
— Natalie Fikac
- Natalie: A mental health condition.
- John: Mental health condition, eight to 10 years that it takes, right? Many times to, was it pickup on that?
- Natalie: So, that's the, yeah, it's the average delay between the onset of a symptom and actually receiving treatment-
- John: That's a long time.
- John: ... or intervention for addressing that. And even by then then a lot of those kiddos are graduating, they're in college, they're in the workforce.
- John: And then the other one was what was the dropout rate again?
- Natalie: Yeah, 50% of students age 14 and older with a mental illness drop out of high school.
- John: So we're talking about-
- Natalie: And we have-
- John: .... I know that there's districts that talk about like, 100% graduation rate, right? Like type of thing. We're going after it because we believe in our kids. Well, I know that this is also a hot topic and if you look at those, just that stats ,that the data disarms, it's like we have to then be paying attention. It's not just an obligation, it's a moral obligation. If we want what's best for our kids to be looking at-
- Natalie: Exactly.
- John: ... this and how we are better supporting them. And yet within all of this, where you talk about like the integrated approach is best, but it's not always happening everywhere. But then that next line is key. And whether you're talking about behavioral interventions, mental health, whatever work we're doing in a more targeted way, would you agree if we don't have a strong tier one, if you don't have a strong foundation, how likely is it to work right when working in that tier two and, or tier three supports for a student?
- Natalie: I think about, I mean everyone knows about the MTSS tier one, RTI, you know, being the foundation. But if you don't have tier one, then you will never have tier two or tier three supports in place. Because, you know, data is important. But I would say having worked in schools for 23 years that I, I've worked in school districts and on campuses in classrooms where these numbers are higher. And so I would say that, you know data's important, but there's probably more students who need supports. And so we have to make sure we have something in place for all students, whether they have a mental health condition or behavioral concern. There needs to be something in place for everyone.
- John: In your experience in all of those years, which you have a wealth of experience, how key is it that we're doing the adult work first?
- Natalie: It is paramount and I can tell you that my experience working in the Houston area, you know, Hurricane Harvey hit almost two years ago and that, that is essential because, and it, it was very evident because we had teachers, we had counselors, we had administrators who lost their home and then they were coming to school to work with students who had also lost their home. So then not only were, were they experiencing trauma from that, but the they were experienced second, experiencing second trauma, from what their students were telling them.
- Natalie: And so that's just one example of how taking care of your people, if you don't take care of your people, they can't take care of their people. And so self care is very, very important. And at the Center for School Behavioral Health, we have developed trainings around self care for staff members that is the train the trainer model where we trained two facilitators per campus, they go back and train their staff and go back and train their students and their parents. Because we know that you can't pour from an empty cup. If you're not well, you cannot pour into others.
- John: So I, I mean just to plant that seed, I would love to do a follow-up podcast with you on just that topic, right? The self-care for our staff members and just kind of plant some of those initial seeds because of how crucial that is for today's to close down today. And I know you're even at a conference right now that you're going to be stepping back into, if I'm a school, I'm listening to this. Yep, absolutely. Right. This is, this is hugely important. I'm seeing it, right?t Let's bring it kind of together with this. What are the first, like if we're not deep into this work right and I'm starting to get more intentional in this area, what are the, the first two or three steps that you would recommend if you had to come back to something even that you've already shared in this combo or just whatever. Let's like narrow that down at the end here with that. What are the first two to three steps?
- Natalie: I think pulling together a group of staff members, a teacher, a para-professional and administrator, a student, even a parent, a custodian to see if they think that there's a tier. Like you really need to get the feel for what people feel. You really need to hear the voice of everyone on that campus to see. As an administrator you may feel like you do have tier one interventions in place, but no one else feels that way. So I think assessment is most important. So assess where you are. Dig a little deeper by talking to individuals that these interventions, that tier one would effect. Again, that's your students, your staff. And then I mean I think start looking into programming that would include tier one intervention such as character strong, the great tier one to have in place. And just so assessment, acknowledgement that there is a need and then finding out how to meet that need and putting it in place.
- John: Love it. Well, one, thank you for the work that you are doing. It is more needed than ever before. And two, I would love to keep this conversation going with you. I know that I think I'm going to be seeing you in the next month while down in the area, but just grateful for you and would you be willing to come on and talk again about self-care at some point for our staff or educators that serve our students every day?
- Natalie: Absolutely. That's one of my passions. I would love to, thank you.
- John: Love it. All right, well appreciate it, Natalie. Have a great rest of your day and look forward to talking to you soon.
- Natalie: Thank you John.
- John: Thank you for listening to the Character Strong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more back here strong and how we are supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening, make it a great day.
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