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KU Wichita and Haysville schools team up to tackle ADHD

The BREATHE program is a partnership of KU School of Medicine-Wichita and the Haysville school district, with current and former college students serving as counselors.

Children run in a grassy field
A group of Haysville students play soccer after school as part of the Building Relationships and Targeting Healthy Emotions (BREATHE) program.

When a young Haysville student lost a game or other contest, the child often cried, threw a fit or simply quit. But the student’s behavior improved noticeably by the end of a 12-week after-school program designed to help elementary school students learn social skills and control their behavior.

Julia McKenzie, a lead counselor in the Building Relationships and Targeting Healthy Emotions (BREATHE) program, said it’s based on giving youngsters positive alternatives rather than telling them “not to do something.” As added motivation, points are awarded for good behavior that can be redeemed for prizes.

“We always made sure not to tell (the student) ‘don’t cry’ or ‘don’t scream,’ but, ‘I need you to participate in the game,’ and remind them you can’t earn any points if you’re not participating,’” McKenzie said.

BREATHE is a partnership of KU School of Medicine-Wichita and the Haysville school district, with current and former college students such as McKenzie serving as counselors. The young girl counseled by McKenzie was one of 17 students in grades K-5 who took part last fall. A second session with a different group of students began Jan. 10.

The program takes place two days a week — for 1½ hours Tuesday and 2½ hours Wednesday. It attempts to teach kids social skills such as cooperating and sharing within the context of sports and recreational activities like kickball and soccer.

Nicole Klaus, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and faculty member at KU Wichita, said the program “looks a bit like a soccer practice” but there’s more going on.

“The core intervention that we’re doing is a behavioral intervention using a point system,” she said. “From the time they get out of the car, our counselors are implementing a very intensive reward system. We have one counselor for every two to three youths, who are given points for a variety of positive behaviors.”

The points can be redeemed for toys, gift cards and other prizes. Some can be earned within a day or two while others require several weeks. “It’s an opportunity to learn delayed gratification as well,” Klaus said.

The students can also lose points for misbehaving.

Parents are required to attend one-hour sessions each Wednesday to learn about therapeutic interventions they can use with their children.

Most of the participating children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, a condition affecting about 5% of all school-age children, Klaus said.

“Those kids are at higher risk for academic underachievement, behavior problems in the classroom, social difficulties and impaired relationships within the family,” she said.

“A lot of these kids are in trouble a lot, which impacts their self-esteem.”

BREATHE is adapted from a more intensive summer program that Klaus said has been offered and studied for years. Although that program typically runs four to five days a week, Klaus said, she’s hopeful that shorter model can be effective as well.

“We’re collecting data as we go to see how it compares,” Klaus said. “Anecdotally, the families and children have had very positive things to say. The kids seem to be enjoying it.”

Comments from parents who were sent a survey following the fall session included:

“BREATHE helped teach me how to parent my child with ADHD better. I truly liked the reports from the counselors as it's helpful to know how his day went. I know my son enjoyed it so much as well!”

“It helped my daughter learn how to behave better when on a team which has helped her behavior in class.”

“We loved being part of a program where our child’s behavior was expected and worked on. We have been able to talk about emotions and feelings using terms from the program. Thank you very much for all the time and effort given to our child and family.”

KU Wichita launched the program in Haysville because it already operates a school-based clinic there. Families applied after seeing a flyer about it or in some cases were recommended by school counselors or clinic staff. Klaus, who is the lead psychologist for the Haysville clinic, wrote the grant application that obtained funding for BREATHE from the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Most of the cost is for personnel. In addition to 10 college-age counselors, there’s a doctoral-level psychologist on site at all times.

Klaus said it’s counselors like McKenzie, who graduated from Wichita State University with a psychology degree in December, who “really make the program work. They’re the ones implementing that point system with the energy and enthusiasm that keeps the kids engaged and builds their self-esteem.”

Linda Long, who is the support/homeless services coordinator for Haysville schools, said the district and families served by BREATHE are “incredibly fortunate.”

“A program like this would be thousands of dollars (for parents) to have to pay for their children. It’s 12 weeks of great activities, lots of parent training. It’s been a huge thing for the parents and the kids in our district.”

KU School of Medicine-Wichita