Tips for Back to School Success

It’s that time again. The start of the school year can bring excitement, as well as fear and anxiety. Back-to-school time can be exceptionally difficult for the 20 percent of children who suffer from mental health challenges. The ability to sit still, get organized, adapt to a new schedule can be overwhelming for children with anxiety and other mental health disorders. So how can parents make the transition to school as easy as possible? We asked Alexander Youth Network’s new Vice President of Clinical Services Dr. Kamilah McKissick for some tips.

Dr. McKissick
Dr. Kamilah McKissick, Vice President of Clinical Services at Alexander Youth Network

What can I do as a parent to start my kid off on the right foot this school year?

Set a schedule. The sooner the whole family, especially children and adolescents, get back on a regular schedule for school the easier it is for kids to adjust to the school routine.

How can I support my child who is going to a new school?

This is a great time to have a conversation with your child to see how they are feeling. Are they worried or scared about anything? If they are worried about who they will sit with at lunch, it can be really helpful to “role play” or talk through it with them. They might feel silly, you might too! But this practice can help them feel confident in that situation. Don’t forget to ask them what they are excited about. This is a great time to identify the positives with them to build on – in fact they might be delighted to be leaving one group of kids behind and having a fresh start at a new school, on a new team, or other activity. Also, plan something special for the first day or week. Take this time to process with them about how the day or week went.

What is the most important thing I can do if my child seems really anxious or depressed?

Don’t minimize their feelings. Hear their concerns – really listen and validate what they are saying. Normalize their feelings and then get a game plan together for them to be able to deal with their feelings. Sometimes, it helps a child to be able to voice their fears, realize their feelings are normal, and then get a game plan together to deal with it.

When should I seek help for my child?

If you see changes in your child’s normal behavior – sleeping, eating, change in friends, change in grades, an increase in irritability, withdrawing from their normal activities (i.e. sports, friends, etc.), then it is time to consult with your pediatrician. It is always important for parents to monitor their children’s internet usage. Your pediatrician will likely refer you to a therapist. Therapists help children and families talk through their feelings and problems and develop positive ways to express themselves. Sometimes, they will suggest a referral to a psychiatrist who uses medicine to help manage the symptoms related to mental health issues.

About Dr. Kamilah McKissick

This year, Alexander Youth Network welcomed Dr. Kamilah McKissick as its new Vice President of Clinical Services. Dr. McKissick brings a wealth of experience working with children and families to the organization. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She completed her Masters and Doctorate degrees at Loyola University. Dr. McKissick has had a vast array of clinical and leadership experiences in multiple settings, including hospitals, schools, psychiatric facilities, day treatment programs, outpatient programs, community mental health centers and departments of juvenile justice. She looks forward to bringing her lifelong passion to give children with mental health issues a voice in the treatment process. She is a strong advocate for the health care system to place equal focus on mental and physical health.

Volunteer Spotlight: Carole and Larry Nicholson

Carole and Larry Nicholson
Carole and Larry Nicholson, Pet Therapy Volunteers at Alexander Youth Network

Meet Alexander volunteers Carole and Larry Nicholson. They moved to Charlotte from Tennessee and have been living here for 20 years. Carole, now a retired community volunteer, used to work in advertising and marketing and Larry works in the bank security industry. They have two boys and three grandchildren ages 9, 7 and 1 month old. They enjoy doing the pet therapy program at Alexander, which provides special therapeutic visits to kids who would benefit from interaction with a well-trained, loving pet.

How did you get involved with pet therapy at Alexander Youth Network?

We have always have had dogs at home and have been doing pet therapy for 15 years. We started out doing pet therapy at nursing homes, and shortly after we met Cindi Leckey who told us about Alexander Youth Network. After we got two puppies, we trained them to become therapy dogs. We currently visit the kids in the Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) on the fourth Saturday of each month. We also visit the kids in the Day Treatment program once a month. The kids love the dogs – when they see the dogs on the playground, they yell and run towards them.  If the dog is sick, they get worried. They know what the dogs like and dislike. The kids even have nicknames for our dogs Bailey and Daisy – they call them Vanilla and Chocolate.

What has surprised you most about volunteering in pet therapy?

It’s wonderful to see how loving the kids are towards the pets. I especially love to see how excited they are when the dogs arrive to campus. As a volunteer at other organizations you don’t always get quick feedback, but as Alexander volunteers we get immediate positive feedback from the kids – it makes us want to visit Alexander and help more.

Any inspiring stories to share?

I remember a memorable story. It happened 7 years ago during a Saturday visit. We were visiting with the kids, and I saw a sad little girl sitting in the corner. I walked over with my dog Daisy, and Daisy went to the little girl and gave her a kiss. The little girl stopped crying and I saw her smiling. She later told the staff: “Daisy came to make me feel better.”

What do you wish other people knew about Alexander?

I am impressed by Alexander’s staff and how they interact with the children. They give equal attention and care to each child. The staff members in Day Treatment are especially patient. I was also surprised to see that there are so many opportunities to volunteer. I had no idea that there was so much available we can do with the kids.

What do you do when you aren’t working or volunteering?

We provide pet therapy at assisted living communities and an Alzheimer day care. We also bring the dogs to a local CMS school to assist as tail wagging tutors. The third graders love reading to the dogs and it gives them the confidence to learn English, especially since a lot of them are ESL (English as a Second Language) students.

Interested in volunteer opportunities? We have a variety of ways for you to help our children. Visit our website and fill out the volunteer interest form.

Speedway Children’s Charities Grant Helps Occupational Therapy Program

Alexander Youth Network


Thank you to Speedway Children’s Charities for providing a $17,930 grant to Alexander Youth Network’s Occupational Therapy program. The funding will help provide the tools to create a calming and healing environment for the kids, including floors, lighting, storage and furniture. In addition, the funds will allow the purchase of necessary activities and supplies, including publications, deep-pressure rolling pins, self-calming cards, squeeze balls, finger paints, pencil grips, small trampolines and more. These tools help to treat the children and provide the resources necessary to meet each child’s sensory needs. “With appropriate intervention these kids will be more settled in their environment and their bodies, allowing them to make better human connections, moving them toward strengthening their skills in the other most complex areas of the brain, the relational and cognitive areas,” said Sarah Cummings, Education Manager. “We are very grateful for this grant and to be able to provide a state of the art environment for our kids to receive Occupational Therapy services. The funds really help us meet the intense and specific needs of each child, as well as help our staff do what they all love doing, to go above and beyond for the kids.”

New Dance Therapy Program in PRTF


Children in Alexander’s Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF) are discovering the joy and the benefits of dance therapy. Introduced in April 2016, the dance therapy program involves the therapeutic use of movement to access creativity and emotions and promotes emotional, mental, physical and social health.

There are many benefits to dance therapy. It is a form of self-expression. In addition, there are physical benefits as it relates to it being a cardio workout. Dance therapy can create a modality of expressive art that can make the difference between resistance and relationship in the therapy setting by creating a non-threatening group. Moreover, it helps to improve social interactions among clients and clients and staff, as well as encourage discipline.

The dance therapy program is facilitated by Ms. Bahtyah Benyahmeen, a behavioral health counselor and a former dance teacher. During dance classes, she is joined by a PRTF staff member and together they work with the children on difference genres of dance, including Hip Hop, Ballet and line dances. Kids in PRTF enjoy putting together performances and are planning to do two performances a year.

Volunteer Spotlight: Pressly Williams

Pressly Williams, Alexander Volunteer

Meet Alexander volunteer Pressly Williams. Pressly is 25 years old and grew up a couple of miles from Alexander. After college, she joined the family business (Renfrow Hardware). She also operates and manages a small farm in downtown Matthews called Renfrow Farms which sells fruits, vegetables, flowers and honey. She has been married to her husband for two years and is actively involved in their church. Pressly has been a dinner buddy for the past three months and enjoys doing all kinds of activities with her buddy.

What surprised you most about volunteering as a dinner buddy?

I was surprised to see just how much these kids crave adult interaction, constancy in relationship, and individualized attention. It’s been super fun to get to know and spend one-on-one time with an 11 year old. Despite our many differences, we have developed a true friendship throughout the past several months!

Any funny or inspiring stories to share about your dinner buddy?

My dinner buddy and I just have so much fun together!  My buddy and I play basketball together for a full hour almost every single week. She practically inhales her food every time I come so that we can get to the gym as quickly as possible.

What do you wish other people knew about Alexander?

I wish everyone knew just how heartbreaking it is to sit in the cafeteria at dinnertime, simply observing all of these precious children eating and talking. I watch them and am brought back to my own childhood days eating lunch at school, lighthearted and carefree. And yet these precious children, who are so young and beautiful, have experienced neglect and abuse that I cannot fathom, carrying burdens that I cannot conceive. And yet I know and see that we are in fact much more alike than we are different. We all want to be loved, cherished and valued.

Yet there is hope! The staff at Alexander are doing all that is in their power to help these children cope with their troubles, learn to control their behaviors, heal from the trauma that has so deeply wounded them, and understand their worth and value in this world. The staff are truly changing lives with their deliberate care for these kids. We volunteers are privileged to come alongside them and be part of these precious children’s lives for this season!

What do you do when you aren’t working or volunteering?

I enjoy spending time with my husband, family and friends. I am a fanatic about growing flowers and love that it gets to be part of my job! I also love to read and listen to podcasts.

Interested in volunteer opportunities? We have a variety of ways for you to help our children. Visit our website and fill out the volunteer interest form.

It’s Back to School Time

Heading back to school can be a time of great excitement for kids and parents. Getting new school supplies, wearing a new outfit or pair of shoes is fun. But along with all the excitement, there is often a great deal of stress.

When kids head back to school, they have to manage meeting new teachers and classmates, adjusting to classroom expectations, and learning new information. In fact, school is often the most challenging part of a child’s day because it requires all their skills…social, self-regulation, and thinking skills to be successful. Children who struggle more than most with one or more of these skills can find school a pretty tough place.

What can you do to help make the transition back to school as smooth as possible? Here are some tips from Alexander’s Clinical Director.

  1. Leave as little as possible to the unknown. If your child is anxious or negative about the start of school, plan a few trips to school before the first day. Ask for a quick, private introduction to the new teacher, volunteer to get classrooms ready, or check out some of the topics to be covered during the year.  The more exposure your child has to their teacher and classroom before school starts, the less anxious they are likely to be.
  1. Take it one step at a time. The first few weeks of school are really about getting back into the routine, so focus on sleep and wake times, getting out the door on time, and remembering to pack needed items for school. Keeping the same routine everyday will make this easier to master. At the end of the first week assess what worked and what didn’t. Maybe your child needs to wake up a few minutes earlier to get ready for school or to put all her things by the front door in the evening. Maybe keeping a school survival box in your car or at the front door is what you need. Fill your survival box with granola bars, lunch money, sharpened pencils, an extra set of gym clothes or whatever it is that your child seems to forget on a regular basis. Once the morning routine is going smoothly, take on another task such as the homework routine.  Follow the same process, make a plan, try it out for a week or so, assess whether or not your plan needs tweaking.
  1. Be realistic. We place more and more demands on our young people every year. At times, it seems we have forgotten what we can reasonably expect from children at each stage of development. If your child’s work load or a particular assignment seems way beyond what he can manage, help him to set his own goals. Maybe together you decide to complete 4 parts of a 5 part project and accept the lower grade this time.
  1. Know your child. Every child learns differently and needs different things to be successful at school. Some kids study best in the middle of all the family action, while others need a quiet space. Some kids need a break before starting homework, while others need to get it finished right away. There are lots of ways to be successful at schoolwork, give your child a chance to try different things in order to figure out what is best for her.
  1. Call in the troops. If your child is really struggling with the start of the new school year, let someone at school know quickly. Ask for a meeting with your child’s new teacher or the school counselor. Letting school staff know that your child is struggling and what you think might help, can prevent months of stress.

Volunteer Spotlight: Cynthia Peace, Ebenezer Baptist Church

During National Volunteer Week (April 10 – 16), Alexander Youth Network featured Ebenezer Baptist Church on its Facebook page, highlighting the church’s visit to our Charlotte campus during Easter and doing an Easter egg hunt with kids in our Psychiatric Residential Treatment Facility (PRTF). We met with Ebenezer Baptist Church group leader Cynthia Peace and learned about her involvement with Alexander.

Cynthia first learned about Alexander through her niece Kendel and began volunteering last year. When she heard about Alexander’s need for volunteers during Easter this year, she got excited about meeting the kids and interacting with them. “It was rewarding to see how the kids helped each other find eggs. We saw kids take some of what they had found and share with others. Alexander has everything on site that a child will need to get them the help they need to get back on track and in school,” Cynthia said. Ebenezer Baptist Church volunteers couldn’t stop raving about their experience at Alexander. “Each person one that volunteered for the Easter egg hunt plans to return. One of our volunteers would like her son, a Psychology major, to volunteer at Alexander while he is home this summer,” she said.

Volunteering at Alexander was one of the most fulfilling times I’ve had this year. To see how spending a few hours doing an Easter egg hunt makes so many kids smile made me happy. It was truly an Easter blessing for each of us.

Cynthia currently works at Winston-Salem State University as Associate Director of Financial Aid. She lives in Charlotte and commutes to Winston-Salem each day. She enjoys spending time with her twins (who are away at college) and her daughter who is based in Greensboro. In her free time, she loves cooking their favorite foods whenever they visit home.