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Focusing on kids’ social and emotional health

OTD student starts mentorship program at Wingate Elementary

A big reason Rose Wuertz chose to enroll in Wingate’s Doctor of Occupational Therapy (OTD) program was its emphasis on service to the community. She caught the volunteering bug as an undergrad, and she wanted to keep it up during her postgraduate studies.

“Coming to a school that had roots in the community and was focused on servant leadership," Wuertz says, "I came in seeing an opportunity to start some programming like this."

The “this” she started was the Wingate Mentorship Program, which sends OTD students to Wingate Elementary School (WES) once a month to work with fifth-graders on their social and emotional well-being.

The best thing about it? She did it simply because she wanted to. In their last semester, OTD students do a capstone project, which is generally service-oriented. For her capstone, Wuertz, a second-year OTD student, plans to combine her love of dance with therapy for cancer patients. But with Wingate Mentorship, she simply wanted to give back.

And Wingate University is a great place to fulfill that desire.

Wingate OTD students work with elementary school kids

“That’s one of the things that is great about our program: We have an emphasis on service,” says Dr. Melissa Sweetman, director of Wingate’s OTD program. “The amazing things our students are doing are not mandatory but are outside of class, student ideas.”

Wuertz came to Wingate with a germ of an idea about doing occupational therapy in schools and started working on the project last spring, soon after being named chair of the servant-leadership committee of Wingate’s chapter of the Student Occupational Therapy Association. She contacted Wingate Elementary, a five-minute walk from the University, and it just so happened that social and emotional health was an area of focus at WES this school year. With questions about students’ emotional and mental state after a year of learning remotely, the timing was perfect.

“Especially during the past few years, where we as a nation and globally have had so much uncertainty, the need for community is stronger than ever,” says Andrea Maxwell, a Union County Public Schools occupational therapist whose home school is Wingate Elementary.

In the program, OTD students work with WES students who don’t get school-sponsored occupational therapy but have particular issues to address: Maybe they act out in class occasionally or they’re behind on their social development as they get ready to enter middle school.

Wuertz and six of her colleagues break the students up into groups and lead them in fun activities that promote whole-body listening skills and respect for others; provide tips for avoiding bullying situations and altercations; teach good communication and regulation of emotions; and much more.

It took a couple of sessions before the fifth-graders were comfortable with their mentors, but they now look forward to the sessions, which often involve learning-based games, such as charades.

“I’ll be totally honest: Sometimes we’re like, ‘Wow! Yes, they learned something,’” Wuertz says. “And other times we’re like, ‘Whew! That was a bit of a challenge. I don’t know if we were super-effective.’ But overall, we have seen that they are more receptive to us coming. I know they’re excited, and recently they’ve been less rambunctious right when they get to us and are quicker to pay attention and to separate into groups and follow instructions.”

“Students often respond to other students, especially those that have gone through school but are still young and ‘relevant enough’ to understand the challenges they face,” Maxwell says. “The students are very engaged. Several times, I have had the fifth-graders involved approach me in the halls asking when the college students are coming back. A few students have asked if they could come more than once a month.”

Strategies for improvement

For the uninitiated, occupational therapy deals with any task, or “occupation,” that people do on a regular basis: cooking, driving, working, even sleeping.

“It can be as small as brushing your teeth,” Wuertz says. “All those things that are self-care activities. All the way up through your work responsibilities, your school responsibilities, your ability to engage in social participation and leisure activities. Handwriting falls into it.”

If something is keeping you from accomplishing one of these occupations, your well-being, quality of life and even livelihood could suffer.

In the fifth-graders’ case, their habits and behaviors fall under the domain of OT because often they keep the students and their peers from learning effectively. If a student’s body language doesn’t say, “I’m ready to learn,” it can be a distraction for the whole class.

“We’ve worked on whole-body listening and nonverbal communication and what that communicates to people,” Wuertz says. “In class, if I’m slumped over, what is my body communicating to my teacher, even though I am sort of still listening?”

In the last couple of sessions of the semester, the group is working on strategies for preventing or dealing with bullying and cyberbullying. Walking away, Wuertz tells them, is also standing up for yourself.

The program also gives the OTD students a chance to put into practice their own strategies for dealing with suboptimal situations.

“In a way, we were kind of seeing this program as a service-learning opportunity, because we really do get to practice things we learn in class, directly related to pediatrics, but also how to adapt to working with people in this situation,” Wuertz says. “Like, we have a game plan, but we’re also leaving room for the leaders to adjust the session for their small group, depending on how it’s going, and spend more time in the areas that their particular kids are having a struggle with.”

A growing program?

Wuertz majored in dance and minored in biology at UNC Charlotte. She’d danced since she was young and thought she might want to continue it as a career, but as she got deeper into her major she had second thoughts. She realized that, as much joy as she got dancing for an audience, living on her own in New York, far away from her family, was too big of a tradeoff.

As she was reconsidering her career path, Wuertz got involved in more volunteer activities, working with hippotherapy (horse-based therapy) at a ranch in Concord, Dance for Parkinson’s in Charlotte, and BarreBelle, where children from underrepresented demographics are encouraged to get into dance.

She found the therapy activities rewarding. Wuertz had always had therapy in mind as a potential career, and her love of dance helped convince her that occupational therapy was the best route for her to pursue.

“In my mind, dance is that occupation that is so important to me,” she says. “It not only keeps me healthy but also is my stress reliever and clears my mind and gives me confidence in other areas of my life. I was like, I want to help people with whatever task or goal or activity or occupation it is that gives them that fulfillment that dance did for me.”

Wingate’s size and location (her hometown of Asheville is three hours away) made the University a no-brainer. Oh, and of course, there was the service aspect.

As she was talking with Maxwell and with Dr. Reeti Douglas, the professor helping her set up the mentorship program, Wuertz wondered how much commitment she would get from her fellow OTD students. As it turns out, she has had little trouble recruiting enough colleagues to join her each month. Like Wuertz, many Wingate OTD students came here because the service aspect was attractive. (During One Day, One Dog, the OTD program is spearheading a project to assemble 500 packets of crafts for patients at Hemby Children’s Hospital.)

“The program would totally not be possible without every single one of the volunteers,” she says. “Also, it’s a big ask to be like, ‘Hey. I’d like for you to be committed for the entire semester, if not the entire year.’”

Wuertz will go on two semesters of rotation starting this summer and then do her capstone next spring, so she’s handing the mentorship program over to this year’s crop of first-year OTD students. With other schools already calling Maxwell to see about starting something similar for their students, Wuertz sees the program only getting stronger.

“Depending on who takes over from the next group and how much commitment they feel their students can provide, it definitely has the potential to expand,” she says. “I would love for it to grow.”

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