Shawn Mays admits that starting an entirely new program from scratch can be a little intimidating.
And with security and safety at the forefront of discussions these days, the success of a new Brenham school district program which Mays is heading is even more critical.
Mays is coordinator of social and emotional support for the district, a program which will do exactly what the title says.
How that will be done is still a work in progress.
“We’re still putting all the pieces together, and we’ve started building up the program,” Mays said only a few days after the 2018-19 school year had started. “We’re making a plan for it. We have an overall picture.”
In essence, she said, the program will provide mental health services for students, with plans to make parents and the community partners in that as well.
Mays called it “meeting the needs socially and emotionally of the students — because those aspects all factor into their mental health.”
That will cover a wide range of issues, including self-harm, thoughts of suicide, dealing with grief and bullying.
“Whatever is out there, I’ll be here,” said Mays.
Even elementary school students can face emotional issues such as coping with the grief of a parent or a sibling who dies or parents who divorce.
“They’re not sure how to deal with it,” Mays said. “It comes out in school in some ways. It can affect their learning.”
The new program is an effort by the district to be “proactive” in dealing with school security, which Superintendent Walter Jackson has stressed time and time again as being one of the paramount responsibilities of a district.
“Physical” measures like metal detectors can enhance safety, and Mays said the social and emotional aspect of the new program “is a proactive approach of dealing with the root of the problem.”
“Why are people doing this (school shootings)? We’ll never be able to fix it, but providing that support is helpful,” she said. “Why now? I wish I had a definite answer on why this is going on.
“There are a lot of contributing factors, a lot of literature and research out there. Social media, technology, parenting are a huge piece of it. Parents are working more, parents are absent a lot more, parents can’t parent the way they used to.
“There are a lot of different reasons. Kids socially and emotionally don’t know how to deal with things. They haven’t been taught. They don’t have an outlet to go through.”
Mays said she hopes to be that outlet.
“We can evaluate the severity (of a problem), talk to them, find out what’s going on,” she said. “’Where are you at, how serious is this? Do we need to get you some help right now? Where is some of this coming from. Just talk to me.’
“The next step is to keep them safe. Once they’re safe, they would come back and then we would start figuring out why. Let’s provide that support, (try to find out) where are these feelings coming from?”
There is no magical technique, no one-size-fits all approach to helping a student deal with social or emotional problems, Mays stressed.
“Sometimes just having that one on one, saying, ‘I’m here for you.’ We can teach them coping skills ... what do you need to do in this situation? What can we help you with to move forward if it happens again?”
Mays said she expects there will be a “learning curve” in which she gets to know students and they get to know her.
“Some don’t open up and just pour their heart out, who are you, why am I talking to you,” she said. “So it does take time. You have to build up that rapport with them for a few sessions and say, ‘I can be there for you.’
“And once they realize, ‘Okay, I can talk to you. You’re not going to tell so and so. I feel safe.’
“Kids do open up fairly easily. I don’t anticipate it taking too long. There are already counselors in the schools, they have teachers, they know there are people who will support them.”
The process will probably involve using counselors to “funnel” students with social problems to Mays.
“The counselors will say, ‘Hey, I have this student. They have these issues,’” she said.
Invisible students and bullying
Educators sometimes talk about the “invisible student” — a student who Mays said just doesn’t seem to fit in and has low self-esteem or self-confidence.
“They hide under the radar, whether they want to or not,” she said. “They feel like nobody sees them.”
Working with those kinds of students would involve helping them build up their self-esteem and “showing them that they matter too,” said Mays.
“We don’t know what it’s like at home. Do they have any place at home which they feel is safe and secure?,” she said.
The district at some point this year will ask every student to respond to a bullying survey in an attempt to determine how much of a problem that is.
“A very short, anonymous survey just to see what the atmosphere is like,” said Mays. “Just to have an awareness, so we know how to meet the kids where they’re at. Is it a problem, isn’t it a problem?”
Mays, a Navasota native, attributes her career choice to a lifelong interest in how the human brain functions.
She received an undergraduate degree in psychology from Baylor University and a master’s degree in clinical and mental health counseling from the University of Mary Hardin Baylor.
“Growing up, I liked to listen to people. It was always easier to listen than to talk,” said Mays. “I like the brain. I like learning about the brain. It fascinates me.
“Once I got into it (psychology), it was like ‘what else can I do with this?’”
After graduation, Mays worked as a counselor for the non-profit Twin Cities Mission and Catholic Charities of Central Texas, both based in Bryan. She also operates a private practice in College Station.
This isn’t her first venture into schools — she provided counseling services through the non-profits to students — but it is the first time she has been employed by a district.
It was something she had been looking into when Brenham ISD’s new position was created.
“I’d been looking into how to get into a school district,” said Mays. “Growing up, I had a great aunt who was my mentor. She always said, ‘Whatever you do, you should always do something to get your teaching certification.’ I thought, ‘Eh, I don’t think so. But as I got older, I thought maybe she was right about that.
“This is a perfect fit for me. I firmly believe it was where I was supposed to be at the right time.”
Her family life includes four children: Isabella, 17; Chandler, 15; Dominik, 14; and Layton, 3.
She juggles her career with being a mother, getting strong support from husband Roger, who works in the transportation department at the Navasota school district.
They live in Navasota, in a home built by Mays’ grandparents. Her parents live “right across the street,” she said.
Career-wise, she is where she wants to be.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I feel like it’s important.”