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What is SAP and How Can They Help?

Now more than ever children need support. As always our team is on the lookout for resources and programs that have the potential to positively impact the lives of the families we serve. That is why we partnered with the Pennsylvania Network For Student Assistance Services (PNSAS) to explore what the Student Assistance Program (SAP) has to offer families.

Hear directly from PNSAS and one of our Family Support Partners about how SAP may be a good option for your family.

In order to get families the best information about how Student Assistance Program (SAP) could help their child, we spoke directly with Dr. Perri Rosen from the PA Network for Student Assistance Services (PNSAS), as well as other PNSAS staff, and with parents across the state involved with their school's SAP team.

The SAP team is a group of trained professionals from the school and local community agencies that offer assistance to children needing supports for a variety of reasons. Different school staff members like administrators, counselors, and teachers may be part of the SAP team at your child’s school. Many of the SAP team members volunteer for the team and they deeply care about supporting children. The goal is to help remove any barriers to learning that your child can be experiencing. The concern the child is having doesn’t have to be a major issue (huge deal), and on the flip side, there is no issue too big either, other than a crisis situation. It is helpful to have a referral early on.

Parents can refer their own child to SAP and don’t need to wait for the school. If the school starts the process, you may get a phone call, email, or letter depending on the school to discuss the concerns raised. The school will share what SAP is, the reasons for their concerns about your child, and ask your permission for your child to receive SAP services. You as the parent have every right to say yes or no and ask questions. The SAP team will gather information from you and your child’s teachers in a confidential manner to better understand the concerns.

Dr. Rosen and staff explained that SAP is not just a one-time meeting that your child has with the teachers on their school's team. Someone from the SAP team will stay in contact with you throughout the process and you are always welcome to contact them if you have questions or concerns. In our conversation, one point that they wanted to make VERY clear was that you, the parent, are a vital part of the SAP team and the process as a whole.

SAP supports could include educational support groups, homework logs, check-in, mentors, and lunch buddy, etc. In addition to in-school supports, sometimes formal supports may also be offered. These include agency (mental health, drug, and alcohol, or behavioral health) screening and/or assessment, which provides recommendations to parents if further services may be needed. Your permission would be required for these services. Again, you have every right to say yes or no.

A classroom with rows of empty desks

It can feel scary or overwhelming to get a call or letter from the school about your child. Please keep in mind the people on the SAP team are there to help your child and be a support to you. The SAP team keeps all information confidential. Our advice is to ask questions! Ask who is on the team, and reach out to them. Your involvement is appreciated and your input is vital to the process. You are the expert on your child and your voice is needed.

In order to get our families the best information about how SAP could help their child we not only spoke directly with PNSAS but also with parents across the state who have children who have worked with their school's SAP team. The parents we spoke with come from urban, suburban, and rural communities, and have children of a variety of ages and challenges. We asked these parents to share with us their SAP experiences and any advice they have for a parent who is newly starting out with their SAP team, or is thinking about making a referral for their child (again, YES; parents CAN refer their own child - you do not need to wait for the school to do so). These parents know first hand what worked, what didn't work, and what they wish they knew at the beginning. Below are some anecdotes, and advice from parents we spoke with.

Due to space limitations, we have selected the parts of our conversations that help to best portray the overall SAP experiences each family shared. To protect the identity of the parents we spoke with names and defining features have been changed.

parent and child looking at camera

Jen Smith:

"We just got involved with SAP within the last year in 8th grade. My daughter has been receiving other services since Kindergarten. We were not offered SAP as a resource until now. She was referred to SAP because another student was creating chaos in the classroom. This caused her to have panic attacks.

After she was referred, our SAP team was helpful with addressing the challenges we had getting her to go to school and offered her support in more ways than one. For instance, when she got upset she was able to go to a SAP member for help calming down. Someone in our family was diagnosed with cancer and my daughter was very scared to lose them and they supported her through that.

One thing I want all SAP teams to know and understand is that there are a lot of students who would benefit from this degree of help, and getting connected early would be so beneficial. It was hard to get her to school at all for a very long time. I think she should have been referred to SAP a long time ago."

teenage child smiling

Amanda Brown:

"I received a referral from a counselor at the high school who wasn't his regular counselor or anyone we knew. There was some confusion about 'who are you and why are you calling me?' but I was excited about the potential support and thought “Sure! I can use all of the help I can get.” They told me the nature of the referral which I thought was not a big deal compared to the other challenges that my son was going through. Someone overheard him talking about pot in the hallway and in my mind I was hoping they saw other concerns and wanted to support him with everything he was going through.

I vaguely remember it all happened pretty quickly within a day or two they had a plan of how to bring him in to talk with him. I felt like it was kind of like an intervention. He has had other disciplinary stuff and he felt like he was in trouble so he was very defensive. A kid walking into a room of grownups isn’t a great model. He didn't do a whole lot of participating, they asked if he wanted an assessment he said yes because he has never refused them.

There were 4 or 5 people around the table including me, 2 guidance counselors, my son, and someone from the SAP team. They took him right away and did a long assessment with him. At the first meeting, I said heck yeah I need all the help I can get; educationally, medically, and psychiatrically. Drug and alcohol was new to hear about, but it had never been an issue before and still isn't. None of his challenges were news to any adult in the building who knew him. When I talked to Jessica she recommended outpatient drug and alcohol therapy. He was like I don’t need that. I asked if this was the end of the process and it was - they really just focused on getting a drug and alcohol assessment."

young child looking at laptop

Tammy Jones:

"I contacted them because my son was struggling with reading. I wanted to see if we could get a 504 or IEP because he was also diagnosed with ADHD.

They were really quick, as soon as I requested one we had a meeting set up that week. It has been great. My presence was for sure respected in the meetings. Before he was not able to sound out words and he knew what they sounded like but putting those together he struggled big time. Now he is reading things to me I never thought that I would see yet. Over COVID his support teacher still reached out and worked with him and everything."

These are just the stories of three of the parents we spoke with but they help to paint the picture that SAP services can transform a child's life at school, but each school's team is very different. Smith is not the only parent we spoke to who attributed SAP to the reason her child is still in school. We spoke with Michelle Davis, a grandmother who is raising her grandchildren who said that without SAP she does not think her granddaughter would have made it through high school.

Davis and Smith had vastly different experiences than Brown, and that is the trend we noticed. When SAP works it quite literally can change you and your child's life, but that is not everyone's experience. We know that the absolute last thing you need are more people to email but we do think you should consider reaching out to your child's SAP team if they need support in school and if your child has been referred to SAP we encourage you to not panic. Breathe, it's a good thing that someone at school is realizing that your child may need help and they are doing something about it.

A young blond girl in a purple shirt with a backpack being followed by a grandmother type woman. The little girl has a worried expression on her face.

If you are planning on or considering working with your child's school SAP team we did ask the parents we spoke with to share any advice they had for parents just starting out. Like PNSAS themselves had mentioned; these parents encourage you to share your voice and make your presence known in these meetings. Smith said; "Don't be shy. Be open about the issues happening at home and ask how SAP can help both in school and at home."

"It is really important that you see the SAP team as your allies. If you don’t feel like they are your allies it's just not going to work. Even if you don’t like what they are saying, don't lose your temper, don’t become angry. Sit down and make a bulleted list and calm down before going and speaking with them. It’s much more effective. Most of team members have children too, some of them get it. Keep everyone in the loop and don't assume everyone has the same info. Overcommunicate and document everything, medication, behaviors, events in your home. You have to face it. You are going to live in a fishbowl. People will be looking at your life, if you have privacy issues this will be challenging for you. The more open you are the more effective the help will be."

Are you concerned about your child's mental health but not sure where to turn?

Are you a parent who's overwhelmed trying to help your child who has been diagnosed with a mental health challenge or you're concerned that they may struggle with one?

Are you tired of the red tape you get as you just try to get your child the help they need?

At the Parent Alliance we get it. We've been there and we are here to support you. Join the FREE community of parents just like you here.


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