Normalizing Mental Health: Starting the Conversation in Kindergarten

May 11, 2022

by Kelly McCandless

A conversation with Kristin Colloton, LCSW, School Counselor at St. Francis for Kindergarten – 4th Grade, and private therapist through Kristin Colloton Counseling

Emotions, behavioral health, and increasing diversity among how students learn and cope means mental health is more important than ever. The last two years have added a layer of complexity to childhood mental health, and schools are looked at as a safe place to start important and necessary conversations.

To learn more about what is being seen in our schools as we emerge from the pandemic, I spoke with Kristin Colloton, LCSW and school counselor for St. Francis’ kindergarten through fourth grade students. Kristin is dedicated to normalizing mental health, making it a key part of the curriculum. “We talk about anxiety and sadness, and I encourage all kiddos to come see the counselor for their feelings when they need help which decreases the stigma around counseling,” she explains. She begins each weekly lesson by asking the students to identify what they are feeling, where they feel it in their body, and why they feel that way. Through this exercise, “they are learning not only how to identify what they feel but how to express it,” she says. She hopes that by starting early, and letting these kids know counseling is helpful, it will lead them to reach out in middle and high school for the help they need.

The impact of the pandemic means more students as well as parents and staff need emotional support. In addition to connecting those in need with numerous resources, Kristin provides guidance for staff on things like self-care, interventions for students in the classroom and referrals for outside counseling. “Our staff are trained in trauma focused teaching for the classrooms, classroom management techniques, and low stimulus classrooms,” Kristin tells me. She also provides parenting books, guidance for caregivers and guardians on how to support children with anxiety, how to address sleep issues, and even connects with medical and mental health providers to ensure continuity of care both inside and outside the school. 

Despite the difficulty of what she faces, Kristin is quick to note how blessed she feels to be a therapist working with kids at St. Francis. “I run therapy groups for kiddos from kinder to fourth grade on things like anxiety, self-worth, social skills, and divorce,” she notes. “These kids know what their amygdala is in kindergarten and are learning the tools to regulate their feelings through evidence-based practice like basic cognitive behavioral therapy and understanding how our thoughts control our feelings.” She proudly shares that they installed sensory paths for each grade K-4 for the kids to come outside the classroom to regulate when they need to. 

The goal is to set the teachers and students up for success. “We have calm down kits in each classroom to help kids regulate, we have social skills training with the Social Thinking curriculum to aid our students in social skills deficits, and I run groups for kids going through divorce and grief,” Kristin continues. “We have had many students lose a loved one during the pandemic, and last year when RiverStone wasn’t running their grief group for these littles, I started my own. We made memory boxes, shared memories about our loved ones, and sent biodegradable balloons to them in heaven.” 

More than anything else, Kristin is doing all she can to normalize mental health. By making it a regular part of their education, she ensures students feel and discuss their emotions and know that it’s ok to invest in themselves. 

Kristin runs Kristin Colloton Counseling, PLLC. She is an LCSW, trained in EMDR and ERP therapy. You can reach her practice by calling 406-272-9982.

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