How The O-School Innovates Mental Health Education

To meet the mental health and academic needs of bright, inquisitive students, the O-School is innovating in whole-child support.

As mental health challenges become a new reality for families, there exists a heightened need for supportive services. Unfortunately, the blend of academics and mental health services for children remains largely fragmented. “Parents are often the quarterbacks, shuttling their children from school to therapists and communicating among everyone. In an age when mental health is at the forefront, that’s wildly inefficient,” says Diana Kon, Ed.D., Executive Director at The Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School) in Chicago.

Parents of bright children with emotional challenges or autism don’t have to sacrifice therapeutic care or a rich academic experience because the O-School provides a holistic approach that nurtures inquisitive students while meeting their emotional needs.

With more than 100 years of history, the O-School has remained a leader in its field through ongoing innovation. “Yet for us, being innovative today isn’t necessarily high tech. Instead, we work together to build solid relationships, and then we use these relationships to support growth and change,” Kon explains. Throughout, on-site psychological support keeps students where they need to be, “in school, socializing and having a more ambitious academic experience.”

At the O-School, everyone is a part of a student’s clinical team. “Our innovation is a 21st-century edition of the therapeutic milieu, which includes parents and psychiatrists and therapists and teachers — even those who run our kitchen and answer the front door,” Kon says. “Everyone understands the impact that a personal greeting or even a warm meal can have on a student’s day. We bring everyone together so that each student can engage more fully in the program.”

Innovative expansion

While the Therapeutic Day School remains at its heart, the O-School is expanding to better meet the needs of Chicago’s families. To address diagnosis gaps, the O-School is opening a diagnostic and evaluation clinic so students, even those not at the O-School, can obtain a comprehensive diagnosis in order to access necessary interventions. “The clinic aims to be pivotal in removing any potential barriers to access that students and families may encounter,” Kon says.

This summer, the O-School is piloting Camp O, a small summer camp program for children ages 8-14 who need a little extra support. “Not all children easily experience joy at summer camp, and at Camp O we want campers to come in and make a friend. Building friendships and belonging to a group can be life-changing,” Kon says.

For students who have completed high school credits but aren’t quite ready to launch into their next step, The O-School’s Transition Learning Center (TLC) provides time and space for students to build skills for college or career. “In the last two years, students have experienced a high level of disruption, but we believe in their potential to achieve their post-high school goals, whether college, trades or work,” Kon explains. “TLC gives them a platform from which they can successfully launch.”

From diagnosis to the joys of summer camp to comprehensive therapeutic day programming, the O-School provides a full continuum-of-care for children requiring mental health supports and those on the spectrum. “Our student body is accepting of each other and, as a student community, is highly compassionate,” Kon says. “They are courageous young people who have all the capacity not just to catch up, but to lead.”

Learn more about the O-School at oschool.org.

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