Dana Carey and a few of her students.

Meet counselor Dana Carey, Del. behavioral pro of the year

Jarek Rutz Education, Headlines

Dana Carey and a few of her students.

Dana Carey and a few of her students.

Lake Forest School District’s Dana Carey, Delaware’s behavioral health professional of the year, almost turned down the job for which she won the state award. 

“Once I started teaching, I loved it so much, I actually passed up on a couple opportunities to take a school counseling job,” Carey said. “Even though that was my passion and what I really wanted to do, I’m one of those people where if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”

A counselor at Lake Forest North Elementary School, Carey has been an educator for 20 years. 

She graduated from the University of Delaware with a bachelor’s in  psychology with a minor in disability studies. She later received a master’s from UD in education for school counseling. 

Her first job was teaching special education classes in the Seaford School District at Blades Elementary

Part of her hesitation to leave teaching is she loved helping students with special needs and seeing their growth throughout the year. 

RELATED: Lake Forest’s Dana Carey named behavioral health pro 2023

After teaching special education at Blades from 2005 to 2011, she did accept a counseling position there Blades before moving to Lake Forest North in 2016.

School behavioral specialists are typically psychologists, counselors, social workers or nurses. 

They assist teachers by working one-on-one with students who might be disruptive, students who are disengaged due to something like ADHD, or any other behavioral interferences to a child’s learning. 

The pandemic has created challenges for more students, she said, especially with social skills, anxiety and separation angst away from their families. 

“I also think technology plays a huge part,” she said. “When I was a teacher, my students just loved gathering around for story reading. They were engaged and listening. Now we’re competing with all this technology, and they’re used to their developing brains being stimulated 24/7.”

This has made it harder for students to have the stamina for learning, she said.

All students go through worries, anxiety and other mental health struggles, she said, but it becomes an issue when it starts impeding on their ability to learn.

Mental health is just as important as physical health, she said. Just like someone would go to the emergency room for a broken bone, students struggling emotionally need to get the help they need to function in a healthy way. 

Dana Carey and her family after accepting the award at a ceremony in Dover last Thursday.

Dana Carey and her family after accepting the award at a ceremony in Dover last Thursday.

“I offer about four to six individual sessions, and then if a student is still struggling after my help and my service, the families and I have a conversation and then I do an outside community referral,” she said.

If a student needs ongoing therapy, Carey will connect them with someone outside of the school system.

One change in Delaware schools that would be beneficial, she said, is creating jobs for therapists within the school district. 

In a typical day, Carey starts her day with car rider duty, which she says plays two essential roles: helping the school function and stay organized as students enter, and getting a sense of what students might be struggling at the start of the day.

“I play an observer,” she said, “I notice if students are absent, if students who normally ride the bus are car riders which means they missed the bus, or maybe they had a hectic morning and I just check in with them and make sure everything’s good.”

She pays attention to whether students are smiling and waving and seem to have a positive attitude as their day starts and tries to spot students who seem to have had a rough morning.

Next up is a round of check-ins where she chats with dozens of students about how their nights were, their expectations for the day and any help they need, among other things. 

Carey goes to each classroom once or twice a month and teaches 30-minute social emotional learning classes a month where she talks about subjects like the role of a counselor, kindness, anti-bullying, conflict resolution, goal setting, mindfulness, career and personal safety. 

“I tell them there’s four things,” she said. “I’m here for them when they need me, I’m a safe adult that they can talk to, I care about them, and I am like a talking friend if they just need someone to talk to.”

She applauds the state and the legislature for having more of a focus on mental health supports, both financially and with manpower, over the past few years, but said she still would like to see more.

Some of the recent additions, she said, is a student interventionist and a family interventionist position in her school

“They are still needs, and we are still very, very busy,” she said.  “It would be really helpful if we had mental health, like therapists or counselors, in our building, so that the student could actually get the service in the building versus having to have their parents take them to an appointment somewhere else.” 

Carey prides herself on having a glass-half-full mentality. 

“I always try to have a very positive outlook and focus on everything that we can do and everything that we do, and not focus on what’s lacking,” she said. “There is always a need, and if I focused on everything that I couldn’t do, or what we lack as educators, that’s a really easy way to get burnt out,  and I don’t want to do that, so I always focus on our successes.”

One of the biggest successes in education, she said, is how the state’s educators rallied, made things work and got education up and restarted so quickly during a pandemic.

“That was nothing anyone has experienced or had to work through in our lifetime,” she said. 

While there were problems with virtual learning, such as lower test scores, Carey said another success was how educators were still able to connect with students and help them with the difficulty of the pandemic years through a computer screen. 

When Carey isn’t helping students, she loves spending time with her husband B.J. and her three children: Emma, Mason and Luke.

All three of them are 13 or under, and Carey loves Lake Forest so much that she’s choiced all her children into the district. The family lives in the Caesar Rodney School District. 

The family loves to go camping, especially with their chocolate lab Casey. 

The crew also enjoys going on boat rides, and all three children are active athletes, making Carey the ultimate sports mom, spending a lot of her time outside of school at practices or games.

Carey said she’s very proud to be a part of the district and loves the Spartan pride throughout the community. 

On top of the recognition , she receives a $10,000 award –  $5,000 to pocket and $5,000 for the educational benefit of their students.

“I feel so privileged to be able to be the school counselor at Lake Forest North,” she said, “and my main goal is for my students to know that they are loved and cared for and that they always have a safe adult in me as their school counselor.”

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